Remembering our past...
“All journeys are born of death.” The eyes of the Wise One glistened as he spoke. “Let me tell you a story. Each word in its place; none forgotten. The order is sacred, exactly as I once heard it. You would do well to heed its wisdom, young warrior.”
A great drama played out behind the old man’s eyelids so plainly the warrior could almost behold it. The campfire flickered in his eyes, which no longer focused on the young warrior but were lost recalling the words to the story. The warrior took a stone that fit snugly into his palm and sharpened his blade. When matters of life and duty became too much, threatening to drag him under the sea billows of life, he kept his head down and focused on what he knew he did best.
“Deep within the jungle,” the Wise One began, “a lion stretched out, ready to die. For this once proud and dangerous beast was now old and useless. Winter had settled into his bones, and now he starved, too weak, for he had forgotten how to hunt. On occasion, the fires of desire rekindled themselves in his raging soul; the memory of who he once was drove him to reclaim his power and lost glory. But those days became fewer and fewer.
“The lion dreamt, wanting to be feared as an outcast god. To have his name ring out with terror and respect, to be remembered as strong, he planned to threaten a village. Harnessing what strength he had left, he prowled about the village. Feeding on its elderly and infirm, enough of his former glory returned for him to truly terrorize the village. They sought to appease him by providing him tribute. A woman.
“Her husband had long departed, to parts unknown, presumed never to return, leaving her behind as a widow, along with a whelp. The lion took her as his bride. The laws of nature dictated that the lion kill the whelp, for it was not his own blood. To raise another’s progeny only invited a threat to his own line. However, the lion took pity on the mewling whelp, sparing him since he was no threat.
“However, the mercy was lost on him, and the whelp grew up nursing only hate. Hate drove him. He hated his true father, cursed every drop within him that belonged to that man. But, with his own father absent, he focused his hate on the lion. Every day he dreamt of being strong enough to slay it. Little did he realize that by dreaming, he was truly fulfilling his purpose, for a dreamer was who he was. For, the way of blood was not his true path. He was born with the sign and raised to fulfill his role as Umlando. His true path was the way, the duty, of stories.
“Still, hatred still burned within his bosom.
“The lion stalked his nights and haunted his dreams. The whelp, threatening to become a man, sensed that his time had come. The final trial of the Umlando was to face the enemy within, to slay that which distracted him from the stories of the tribe. The trial began with the ceremony of purification: meditation without food, chewing on the Ibogo root until the visions came. However, he had no need of visions. He knew who he had to slay. He crept into the forest to find his foe. Armed only with a knife, he snuck up on the slumbering lion until he was inches from its mouth. Its foul exhalations warmed his face. He drew his blade and slit its throat.
“The lion reared up in its death gasp, choking on its blood before it collapsed. Its muscles began to shrivel like spoiled fruit on a rotted vine. It lost its fur and its haunches straightened, becoming arms and legs. The form shrank before him until it was that of his father. At that moment he realized that he was now a man without a tribe.”
The warrior stabbed his blade into the ground. With a frown he said, “Your tales become heavy-handed, Wise One. Why waste my time with this children’s tale?”
The campfire danced in the night, casting the Wise One in steep shadows that distorted his face.
“Because death is your birthright. Death is your gift. Only through the shedding of blood will you find peace.” The old man’s voice crackled, dry as kindling and grave as midnight. He leaned toward the young warrior. “All journeys are born of death.”
“This sounds like a curse. Am I a poet? Am I king? Am I warrior? A war wages in me between what I wish to be, what I am told to be, and what I am. And all you offer me are empty rituals of stories.” The young warrior retrieved his blade, inspected it, and wiped it clean. He sheathed it within his kaross before the flames drew his attention again. To no one in particular he whispered, “I will seek my own way. If death gets in the way, so be it.”
“Give me your hand.” The Wise One held out his hands. Wrinkles filigreed his calloused palm.
The warrior grasped the old man’s hands, his own seeming pale and sickly compared to them—but the Wise One only clasped his left one. He flipped the warrior’s hand to reveal the black mark on his palm.
“A mark. So?”
“I have not always walked among your people,” the Wise One said. “I was born in Nok, the land of magicians and artisans. Yet I knew my fate lay in a distant land. This is no mere mark. It is a choice. The mark of an Umlando.”
“Umlando? Then why have you never told me this until now, Wise One? Always it was a ‘birthmark,’ another sign of my weakness.”
“The Umlando. Theirs is a sacred duty, but few know this tradition or caste. We have no scrolls, only the power of our minds. You have a good mind, a fine memory, and could be of the holy ones, a keeper of tribal History and Memory. To tell these things to an outsider would be to become a traitor to your people, to fall under a High Curse. Do you understand me? My time is almost done and you wish to go... live your life your way. I have one last story that’s fitting for you to hear.”
There is a grief we carry from knowing everything we love we will lose.
The skies started to churn, and lightning struck a nearby tree, blistering it where it stood. The furious river frothed before Dinga Cisse as he attempted to gather his bearings. He strapped the package to his back. He had come too far only to allow Gerard to drift down the river. His friend’s enemies had left him tied up on the raft, for the river to judge his fate.
As Dinga waded in, the package on his back shifted, threatening to slip loose in the thrashing current. Caught up in the river’s undertow, Dinga almost lost his burden. Spied through the spray around him, the waterway opened wider, drifting further away from the sight of land. Rain fell, though its fury was lost against the spew of the river.
A stain marked Dinga’s soul, weighing him down more than the roiling waters. The water couldn’t wash it away. Paddling furiously, he caught up to the raft. The waves tossed his friend Gerard’s bound frame about along the battered wooden deck.
Stirred from silent vigil, crocodiles slid into the waters.
Dinga hoisted himself onto the raft, cutting loose Gerard’s bindings. The water darkened with circling shadows.
An enormous crocodile flung itself onto the end of the raft, nearly capsizing it. Dinga almost stumbled into the crocodile’s gaping mouth. Keeping its snapping maw out of reach, he wedged his legs against its neck, pinning the crocodile to stop its progress. Its massive jaw thrashed about, smashing a section of the raft like so much kindling, sending Gerard splashing into the current. Dinga buried one of his knives into the side of the crocodile and used his last bit of solid footing on the sinking raft to launch himself onto the huge crocodile’s back. The creature widened its mouth in a terrible yawn, writhing to snap its jaws at him. Dinga plunged the other sharp blade into its eye socket.
He dove from the snarling creature. Bobbing in the water, he struggled to keep the package in place on his back. Waves washed over him. The water stripped the burden from his back like a lithe-fingered pickpocket.
Dinga cried out, stretching after the barely floating package. He caught sight of the still unconscious Gerard.
Dinga swam after the pack.
Like a flung spear, the wounded crocodile darted toward him. Dinga shifted just enough to avoid the initial attack, but the thickly scaled hide of its flank ground against him. The force of the impact rattled Dinga to his core, jostling all the broken pieces that formed him, each loose shard cutting him in a new way.
“Come on, defective warrior,” he thought, “be of use to someone.”
Never did he even consider asking his god for aid. He knew his pleas would fall on deaf ears. He dove lower in the water. Securing the straps of his pack in each hand, he drew its cord across the crocodile’s throat and pulled taut. He drove his knee into its back until it slumped, its movements stilled. Unconscious or dead, he didn’t care. His lungs burned, and he released the crocodile’s huge body. He swam toward the surface, each kick weaker than the last. The moonlight silvered the surface of the water above him, a bright light he gave into and drifted toward.
Entering the light, he broke the water’s surface. Gerard, sputtering for breath with each stroke, was paddling toward the shore. Dinga fastened his pack tighter. Its great weight pressed on his chest, making it hard to breathe. A dense space filled his lungs and clotted his heart—both comfortable and familiar, almost reassuring—which he held onto like he didn’t know what he would do without it. The swirling eddies tried to sweep him down the channel. Mud sucked at his feet. He staggered through the waves and collapsed on the shoreline next to Gerard.
“Are you ever going to speak of what brings you to stray so far from your people?” Dinga wheezed out as nonchalantly as he could, arms outstretched on the sand.
“Fortune favors you.” Gerard rolled onto his side, not quite ready to chance drawing up on his knees. The gold hue of the sand only made his ruddy complexion all the more pale. Already his neck and face reddened with impending sunburn. His flat, broad-brimmed petasos hung along his back with the desperation of a sailor clinging to his sinking ship. His purple chlamys, more like a wet black curtain around him. “You head out on a journey and a capable, stout companion stumbles across you. You should be thanking your god—or is it gods, I can never tell with you people—not asking silly questions.”
“Nyame no more favors me than he does his actual followers. Where we journey in remembrance of Lalyani, gods fear to cast their eyes.” At the thought of his god and his journey, Dinga grew still. He had set out to prove himself once he reached fifteen summers, years of dedicated service, and for what? Suffering and isolating silence. “Besides, your people won’t miss such a stout, capable companion?”
“The fact that my people have missed me so far is entirely the point,” Gerard said in a hollow, almost defeated, voice. He wrung out his chlamys. “Thus I accompany you on your errand. Will there will still be great peril?”
“And your enemies expect your demise?”
“Yes.” Dinga turned away from him.
“Good. I need the relaxation.” Gerard grinned, craning about waiting for his friend to join his merriment, but his self-amusement proved far from contagious. “Why press the matter of my motivations? Surely two are better than one, no matter the journey.”
At the thought of how much of the journey lay ahead of them, the pack seemed too much to bear. But the weight reassured him. He’d forgotten what that, what anything, felt like.
The meat roasted on a makeshift spit above the flames, away from Gerard’s chlamys drying near the fire. The smell of it caused Dinga’s stomach to grumble. Tired and stiff-necked, worn down by unattended sorrows and the rage that came with it, a deep ache filled his sinews. The heat of the campfire failed to thaw the chill in his bones. He didn’t realize how cold he was until the flame’s warmth settled around him.
Hypervigilant, Dinga returned his gaze to the perimeter of shadows, his warrior’s senses slowly attuning themselves to the unfamiliar country. The thorn bushes and nettles had little consequence except to slow the approach of intruders. The golden grasslands stretched out before them like another world entirely. Dinga was too used to the dense groves of tree cover and thick foliage he had called home for so long. Their new path, to the place he knew they must find, veered upward along a craggy hillside and the waning copses of trees that oversaw the valley, toward the mountain. At least that was what his heart told him, if Lalyani’s stories were to be believed; though he didn’t know how much to trust it. All he had to go on was faith.
“We’re lost.” Gerard must have tired of the long silence which settled between them.
“Just admit that we’re lost.”
“We’re not.” Dinga jammed a stick into the flames to stir them. “We are where we are supposed to be.”
“Now you sound like the philosophers littering my home.”
“That’s how Lalyani described the Path to me.”
“Is ‘the Path’ the route or the destination? You sound confused on the matter.”
“All I understand is that she wanted me to make this journey. Needed me to make it. In service to her... gods.”
“What of your own god? Won’t he be jealous?” Gerard spat before returning his attentions to the cooking meat. “It is a ‘he’, right? I’m never certain of gender assignments of deities.”
“I... want to believe.” Dinga grew quiet while he considered the accidental truth of what he said. His whole life, he considered himself little more than a leaf on the current of the Niger River, tossed and carried by forces more powerful than him, clinging to the certainty that he was destined for something. His voice, little more than a whisper lost in the crackle of the flames. “I seek the face of my Father. I no longer know who I am.”
Gerard gazed at the flames, allowing Dinga a measure of privacy. “I could carry the pack for a while.”
“No. I have to carry it alone.”
“No, you don’t.” The steel of urgency stopped short of pleading. “We can share its burden.”
“Then I don’t know how.”
“Tell me the story of the pack.”
“Some stories are too hard to tell.”
Exhausted, Gerard settled into his bedding. “Then tell me a story of your village.”
Dinga fit a sharpening stone into the palm of his hand and began to whet the blade of his panga. The words came to him like a recalled memory.
“Just outside the kraals stood great earthen mounds. No one knows who built them; only that they were considered sacred. Some claimed they were the burial plots of fallen orisha. As such, the villagers attended them with great reverence, guarding them the villagers’ duty. Every evening at sunset, the villagers left the mounds as they went about the business of dinner preparation. A young boy always found his way to the foot of the furthest mound, sheltered by forest overgrowth in his private alcove where he could play uninterrupted.
“One day a young girl approached him. Her sun-touched hair, a frizzled mess. Dirt smudged her face. Her feet tougher than leather, she wore no shoes. Stopping short as if not wanting to interrupt, she waited off to the side. The boy froze his play, like a zebra aware of being under the scrutiny of a lion. When the boy glanced up, he recognized something achingly familiar in her face that he could not place.
“‘Hello,’ she said.
“‘Hello.’ His hands furrowed the mud.
“‘Do you know who I am?’
“‘Don’t you know?’ He angled his head sideways, confused by her.
“‘Boy!’ From a clearing, his father watched them. His face blanched as if in fear, anger morphing his expression darkening like an approaching storm cloud.
“At the sound of his voice, the girl scrambled into the foliage, no longer lion but rabbit.
“The boy sat there, mud up to his elbows, still confused.
“His father searched the trees like a hunter and approached slowly. ‘You are to never see or speak to that girl again.’
“‘Did I do something wrong?’
“‘Did you hear me?’ His father’s voice, a terrible thunder.
“‘Yes, father.’ The boy lowered his gaze, thoroughly scolded.
“‘Good, then the matter is settled.’ For his father was also the mansa of the village, his word respected as law.
“Ever since the first appearance of the girl, things changed within the boy’s house. His mother withdrew; became more distant, like a ghost wandering the village. Barely eating or speaking. Having heard the griot’s stories of the ogbanje, the boy knew it had to be the girl’s fault. The elders often spoke of ogbanje—“children who come and go”—evil spirits that would haunt a family, bringing misfortune. Some said the ogbanje would deliberately die and come back again, simply to cause a family more grief. Concerned, the boy screwed up the courage to approach his father.
“‘Father.’ He knelt before him. ‘Forgive me for disturbing you.’
“‘What troubles you?’
“‘The girl. I believe her to be ogbanje. I know the tales but not what I should do, and I did not know who else to tell.’
“‘You were wise to bring your concern to me.’ His father patted the seat next to him for the boy to join him. ‘I have dealt with the... ogbanje. Banished it to another village. In time, its curse shall be lifted. One day you will be a mansa of your people. You must be an example to them. Let nothing or no one tarnish your reputation, for your honor is all you have.’”
Dinga’s words faded into darkness, which suffused the camp. Gerard had fallen asleep. Dinga kept watch, comforted by his friend’s gentle snores. A discomfiting emptiness gnawed at him, one he’d arranged his entire life to avoid. Running from the hollowness of guilt, avoidance had become a way of life. He needed to reconnect with his forgotten lineage.
And keep a promise.
There is a grief we carry from losing someone (or something) we love.
Gerard’s distant voice below warned that these cliffs were too sheer to be climbed, but Dinga continued his ascent. The bundle shifted on his back as he drew himself up, its uneven weight nearly dislodging his precarious grip. Each hand grappled for purchase. Each foothold insecure, and he pressed himself to find another before it gave way. Exhaustion took its toll on them, but a sense of mission fueled them. His muscles burned but if he kept moving, if he kept busy, he wouldn’t have to deal with the pain.
When he reached an upper ridge, he stopped to rest. A few minutes later, Gerard’s pale forearm slapped onto the ledge. Dinga hoisted his friend the rest of the way up. Slipping the pack from his shoulder, Dinga allowed his muscles the freedom to unclench, conserving their strength for the final climb of the cliff face. Though he didn’t know what he would find, he knew their journey was nearing its end. One way or another. The pair huffed together in silence.
Dinga chanced a peek over the edge. Wisps of clouds lolled over the tree tops below them. It was as if they had left the world behind them, separated from all that was familiar. Gerard passed him a waterskin, and he drank sparingly before returning it. Fumbling through his own pack, Gerard’s eyes filled with the frustration a traveler belatedly remembering all the things he forgot to bring. The silence thickened between them, intruding on them, whispering in the language of sorrow. Gerard could not take its trespass for long.
“This journey is madness.”
“And yet, here you are.” Dinga’s head rested on his arms, propped up by his raised knees.
“By your side.” Gerard fished about in his pack. “And I bet you don’t even appreciate it.”
“This madness might have many symptoms. Maybe lack of giving thanks is one.”
“I’m serious.” A now unfamiliar note filled Gerard’s voice signaling his solemnity. “This is a quest for death. You have already stopped living, and it’s like you won’t be satisfied until your body follows your spirit.”
“I made a promise to deliver this. So I will go there, no matter the price, because I need a place to take my...” Dinga didn’t know what word he reached for to describe what he felt. Like trying to push through a wall of stone, refusing to be moved, unable to touch it. Afraid that were he fully immersed in it, he would never return. Yet if he didn’t go to where he needed, he also might never return.
“You can’t convince me she would have wanted this. Your loss is real, I understand that. But you have built a shelter in your grief. I’m sorry. I’m probably the only person left who might have the right to say that to you.” Gerard took another swig from the waterskin before burying it back in his pack. He no longer met Dinga’s eyes. “I loved her, too.”
Without another word, Dinga reached for a solid crag overhead and lifted himself up. From his vantage point, the summit of the cliff remained hidden. He concentrated only on the climb, ignoring its strange disorientation. A terrible inversion of the heart, a steep descent into dark places. A sheer drop into his own emptiness. His muscles ached to the point of numbness. Unable to feel, floating in a well without words, all he knew was that he had to stay present in his pain. Exposed on the mountain face, unable to hide. Not giving into the panic, feeling overwhelmed, helpless, alone, the jumble of emotions churning within him as he climbed. Left with nothing but the spirits of his ancestors and the ghosts of his memories, he had to keep moving...
...as he wandered the Land of Tribes. Ever since he had made up his mind to prove himself to his Father Nyame, his journeys had brought him to the north in search of a legend only whispered about. The lost city of Wagadu. Someone dogged his trail, that much he knew. Though they maintained their distance, his well-honed hunter’s instinct alerted him that someone was following him.
The city of Utica was a port along the north coast. When he reached it, he wandered the streets, confused for a beggar. He made friends quickly: of the men who attempted to rob him, two remained on their feet; one might regain the sight of their left eye given time; and the last told him of the place where scoundrels met. Dinga knew that was where he would find the information he needed.
Dinga slipped into the tavern the robber had told him of, the Empty Kraal, retreating to a seat toward the rear where he could both observe all exits and the patrons. Weak flickering lamplight barely illuminated the room. In the corner, a musician tamped the wooden keys of a balafon, accompanied by a troupe pounding the soft canvas of djembe drums. Dinga ordered a meal and waited.
Within the hour, Gerard stumbled in. Dinga had run across Gerard on several occasions. Gerard always seemed to cross his path whenever a bounty marked his head back in his homeland. Few of Gerard’s nation ventured deep into the Land of Tribes. But he visited often of late, lingering, Dinga knew, until he believed his kinsmen had forgotten about his latest transgressions. The trail he followed usually led to the intersection of reward and opportunity and to unscrupulous dealings.
Even with the simple drape of his chiton cloaked by his thick woolen chlamys, Gerard’s peculiar gait announced him. His gray-tinged beard framed by a tangled black mane of magnificent hair bards might sing about for generations. His locks fallen across his forehead, he carried himself somewhere between an already-tipsy philosopher lost on his way to the local school and, with mighty limbs forged from a life of hard labor, an ex-soldier ever braced for a fight. He couldn’t have been the one trailing Dinga because he didn’t bother to ferret the tavern’s shadows for him. Instead, he sidled up to the bar and loudly ordered drinks. Before long, he was singing songs and regaling the gathered thieves with tales of a golden city.
Then she strode in. Lalyani.
It had been years since Dinga had seen her last, but there she stood there as if only a day had passed. With her gazelle-pelt skirt, cowrie and copper necklaces, iron and ebony bracelets, and thin plaits, she joined Gerard, silencing him. Dinga continued to eat, studying them all the while. Once finished, allowing them time to be lulled into their intense conversation, he approached them.
“’Oh wanderer, lost in the Valley of Life, remember that nothing is ever what it seems to be, and seeing is not always believing,’“ Gerard recited upon noticing him.
“Is he with you?” Dinga asked Lalyani.
“Do I strike you as someone who travels by song?” A mildly annoyed sneer stretched across Lalyani’s face.
“The road is a long and lonely life. Company is not always a bad thing.” Dinga glared at the nearest patron, who was obviously eavesdropping as much as he could. The man vacated his seat, allowing Dinga to sit.
“Are you offering?” Lalyani leaned back but didn’t fold her arms in front of her. His presence intrigued her. The moment between them, charged; before settling into something comfortable and familiar, like finding a piece of himself he didn’t realize was missing.
“Do I strike you as someone who travels with drunken bards?” Dinga jabbed a thumb in Gerard’s direction.
“As I said, he’s not with me.”
“I’m sitting right here.” Gerard feigned protest, more as an excuse to gesture for another drink.
“I’ve heard tell of a mighty warrior in search of a lost city.” Dinga nodded for another drink. The barmaid winked at him and brought him lotus juice in a tall cup. Slipping her a few extra coins for her discretion, he would keep his head clear.
“What sort of warrior?” Lalyani asked.
“Mighty. Brash. Feared.”
“A woman?” she asked.
“The finer details of the story were lost in the telling.” Dinga smiled, not something he did often, but Lalyani always had a way of drawing that out of him.
“Look, Din...,” Gerard interjected. “Mind if I call you ‘Din’?”
“Only if you don’t want me to answer you.” Dinga suspected that Gerard exaggerated much of his ignorance to lull those he encountered into underestimating him
“Well, we’re in the middle of a business conversation.” Gerard gestured toward Lalyani. “Of the one-to-one, client services variety.”
“The topic of which may align with my own interests.” Dinga took a long swig of his lotus juice. “If it reassures you, I have no interest in any bounty, only in reaching the city itself.”
“No interest in any bounty?” Gerard drank before muttering to himself. “No interest in the truth apparently.”
Ignoring him, Dinga turned to Lalyani. “Tell me more of your city.”
“There is a city out there, governed by a race of gods.” Lalyani’s eyes grew distant, lost recalling the telling of a dream. “Where the best, brightest, and bravest dwell. A city of wonders. I’ve heard tell of giant towers, contraptions allowing people to fly, weapons undreamt of, and medicine to cure any disease.”
Dinga considered her story. At first blush it sounded like the fabled city of Nok; the celestial version, not the terrestrial one his people called home. To hear the griots tell the tales, many of the ancient cities were earthbound incarnations of ones named in the heavenly realms. He wanted the city to be Wagadu, the prophecied lost city some whispered he was fated to rule. It was told that Wagadu had disappeared for seven years, then was found again, only to vanish for another seven-hundred forty years.
“I know what you’re thinking.” Gerard tracked his eyes. “If the great war drum, Tabele, is beaten, it will be found again.”
Lalyani passed a glance from Dinga to Gerard and back, with the uncertain stare of someone who knew they held only a piece of the story. She continued, her voice tentative. “Devils tied the city fast to the sky.”
“Gold or no gold,” Gerard said, “it sounds like a fool’s errand.”
“Then we should take a fool,” Dinga said.
“I’m still right here.” Gerard raised his mug in a toast toward them. “But this humble fool has a great thirst. Barmaid!”
“We have many ears surround us.” Dinga leaned in. “Someone has been trailing me all day.”
Gerard rubbed his chin. “I may have the beginnings of a cunning plan.”
“That perhaps I should go outside to draw them out to see who is so intent on divining my destination?”
“That does sound remarkably close to my idea,” Gerard said. “Do you want me to come with you?”
“No,” Dinga and Lalyani said in unison.
Dinga snuck out the back entrance, down a dark corridor. With space at a premium, the port city’s buildings pressed close together, barely allowing room for people to pass. Little light fell into the alley. Still, he didn’t have to wait long for a scurry of movement as four men stepped out of the shadows, looking to surround him. Each clutched what Dinga took as a pehla stick: long, wildebeest-tail switches. However, the reedy sticks began to glow, their dull green charge throwing a stolid gleam onto the men’s faces. Their armor was equally strange, with vests of gold scales and a fringed collar mimicking the hide of a lion.
The first man punched Dinga in the belly, robbing the wind from him and sending him sprawling back into the dust. The beaming pehla sticks whistled like frayed bamboo rods, the sting sending lightning flashes of pain along Dinga’s backside as if directly stabbing his brain. He opened his mouth to cry out, only for a guard’s hands to grapple him as they wrestled along the ground.
“That didn’t take long.” Lalyani stepped into the alleyway.
“Dinga has a way of causing things to escalate.” Gerard drew a short sword from within the folds of his chlamys. He glanced back at Lalyani. “Aren’t you joining in?”
“By the code of where I come from, fighting should only be done among equals. With spear or sword. If someone from an upper caste has to fight someone from lower caste, it shows contempt for them.”
“Yes,” Gerard waded toward the men, “I’m going to need you to show some contempt.”
“Be aware,” Lalyani brought her spear to bear with a smile, “When elephants fight, it’s the grass that gets trampled.”
She dove into the men with the lithe grace of a dancer.
Renewed at the sight of his comrades, Dinga threw the warrior astride him off, and the men’s next attacks struck only the air. The pehla sticks sang, their reedy call filling Dinga’s ears like a swarm of bees. He could no longer distinguish between the pounded rhythms of the drums inside and his own pulse slamming at his temples.
Ducking, he avoided the blows. Gerard swept the legs of the one behind him, only to be grabbed by the neck and slammed into the wall by another. His sword clattered to the ground. He sprang back up, his hands stiffened like pangas of flesh, and chopped the first man in the sides of his neck, sending him sprawling. Lalyani kicked one in the chest, the force of the blow leaving him doubled over. She whirred her staff, catching one in the jaw so hard several of his teeth rattled to the ground like dice. Still conscious, his body opted to collapse anyway.
Dinga side-stepped the punch he knew was coming and grasped the last man’s wrist to flip him over his shoulder. He leapt toward the man, cuffing him with his panga hilt. The blow staggered the man back into the arms of his companions. Re-thinking their strategy, they retreated down the length of the alley and around the corner. Though only a heartbeat behind them, by the time Dinga, Lalyani, and Gerard rounded the corner, the men had disappeared.
So, their first quest together had begun...
...though the sun slipped behind the mountain, leaving only a cold wind scoring his and Gerard’s backs. The air grew thin. There was no room to take in its beauty nor the vista below them. Dinga fixed his attention on his next handhold, concentrating on the long slope running along the crestline. His fingers inched along the ledge above him, for any sturdy projection. Though still lean, he missed the youth he had once been. Or at least the lesser weight he had once carried.
Not for the first time, Dinga began to doubt his quest.
The night stretched into an aching territory of shadows. The silence and solitude, away from the noise of the demands of his village, away from the noise of the press for time, allowed him a moment. Being alone, the sense of loss overwhelmed him, beginning to undo him as if the jutting crags beneath his feet had been uprooted. Sculpted by the silence, he became more completely who he was. Grief seeped under his skin like rainfall on arid soil.
Dinga crawled over the summit. His arms hung numb at each side, his legs unsteady with each step, uncertain that he even was walking. The weight on his back pressed him. Tentatively, he moved across the plateau. The night sky hid the starlights, as if veiled behind a great curtain. The singular darkness swathed him, cold and unforgiving. He strained his eyes for any break in the seamless night. The world all shadows and whispers, lost in the gravid darkness, he was barely able to see where he was. He knew to trust the darkness to take him where he needed to go. His legs buckled and he collapsed. He reached out for something solid but only found the ground. A grim silhouette staggered toward him, and Gerard crumpled exhausted next to him. Too tired to do much more than lie there, Gerard turned to him.
“Tell me a story of your village,” Gerard squeezed out between gulps of air.
“Your tricks to get me talking won’t help you.”
“You love the sound of your own voice. Besides, you can’t help yourself—you can’t resist the pull of stories. It’s in your blood. Your very nature. So, again, I ask you to continue the story of your village.”
Dinga took a slow breath, his mind drifting to a faraway corner of his heart until he found the loose strand to further spin his tale.
One day the boy, now a young man, settled into his camp for the night. He had just set off from his village. His father, the mansa, was dying. He knew one day he would be a mansa, but not today and not soon. For it was said ‘Four times Wagadu stood there in all her splendor. Four times she turned her face. Four times Wagadu changed her name. Four times she disappeared and was lost.’ He had much to learn and more to prove until then.
Thinly muscled, burned dark by the sun, the left half of his body was a maze of tattoos, lines broken by dots. A small nose ring matched his brass armlet. The handle of a panga blade jutted from his belted loincloth. Knowing that he was no longer alone, he reached for his spear.
A young woman emerged from the surrounding shadows. His wide eyes took in her beauty. Slender bodied, long-limbed, tall and proud, her head held high. A spear slung through her kaross, she raised her arms to signal that she was no threat. A broad girdle of bronze beads could not hide that she was heavy with child. There was something hauntingly familiar about her face.
“Do you remember me?” Slow and deliberate, she entered the light of the campfire and sat down across from him.
“I could not forget.” Unable to bear her face, the young man’s focus drifted back to the flames. “I once believed you to be ogbanje.”
“Ogbanje?” She threw her head back in laughter. A wild, inviting thing. “My mother was never named. My people are the Mo-Ito now.”
“I know of them.” For the Mo-Ito were a mixed-race people who accepted any who wandered into their community as long as they followed the Path. “You speak Mande well.”
“I speak many languages. Where do you travel to?”
“In search of Jenne-jeno. Perhaps. I have not made up my mind.”
“The fabled jeweled city?”
“So men claim.” The young man stirred the kindling in the flames. “If you are no ogbanje, then who are you? Why does my family suffer as if a plague has struck whenever you are around?”
“For that you would have to ask your father. Our father.”
She let the words hang in the air between them and sink in. The young man studied her face. As if knowing his intent, she leaned into the light of the campfire. The amber light of the flames lit her face, distorting it with eerie shadows. Slowly he began to see it. Despite her near-sable complexion compared to his more russet one, the ghosts of his ancestors played along her face. The arch of her eyebrows. The familiar flare of her nostrils. The strangely angular shape of her jaw. And she had her father’s—their father’s—eyes.
“Did he... make you leave?” The words caught in his throat. He recalled his father’s words: “I have dealt with the... ogbanje.”
“Once I was old enough to ask questions. I spent a lot of time around my elders in their weaving circles. Elder women love their gossip, especially when they think no one else of consequence is around. And children are rarely considered of consequence, though they have great consequence.” She shifted about her weight.
“And you sought me out. Why?” A deep pang radiated in his heart, paining him. The young man no longer knew what to do with his hands.
“We were meant to be free. Free of our pasts. Free to live. I wanted you to know the man your father is. And perhaps... me.”
“Are you with child?”
“That’s never a polite thing to ask a woman.” She smiled, but it was cold and, despite the lightness of her tone, without humor. “I repeat my mother’s transgressions. I fell in love with someone I could not have. Whose first love was to duty and tribe.”
“And their wife?” The young man regretted the directness, the perceived harshness, of his words as they stumbled out of his mouth. He had no intent to shame, though his words had the impact of hurled stones.
She lowered her head, choosing to fix her eyes to the flames.
The boy, learning to be a man, walked over to her. He sat down next to her and set his hands on hers. “We are more than the transgressions of our parents. You should not travel alone. If you would have my company, I would like to see Mo-Ito before I head to the jeweled city.”
“I... would like the company.” She smiled, her slow grin filled with inviting humor.
Exhausted, Dinga rolled onto his back. He swore he spied a shift among the shadows in the night sky. It bobbed along like a black ball in a sea of ink. The moon slid out from behind the cover of clouds, its light catching the occasional glint as it slowly came into view. Through the brooding silhouette of crags, a domed cityscape drifted through the sky into view.
They’d found it.
There is a grief we carry from betraying creation, the very world around us.
Dinga visored his hand above his eyes as if that might help him discern the shadows better. The city within the globe bobbed above them, shifting in and out of view as if not quite in focus, lost in the swirl of night stuff. A shimmer haloed it like a heat mirage about its edges, as if other planes intersected along any particular line of sight.
“How does it stay up there?” Gerard froze in study of it, his voice stopping short of awe.
“There must be a support of some kind. Something connecting it to or suspending it above these crags that we can’t see.”
Gerard arched his head toward him. “You know, it’s all right to say you don’t know.”
Hitching his pack higher on his back, Dinga headed toward the exposed rock formation. “Come on. We have to get closer.”
“Can you see a way in?” Gerard called after him, already speeding up to a near trot to keep up.
Dinga pointed to a cleft along the wall of rock. “There. A doorway.”
“That’s barely a hole,” Gerard said. “And I don’t see a set of stairs leading up there.”
“It’s our way in.” Dinga couldn’t explain the tug in his bones, the way his spirit drew him along with a deep confidence that his steps were true. As he climbed through the aperture, the darkness welled about like a living thing. He forced himself forward, each step an act of faith that his feet would find ground when they landed. The floor gave with each step, as if he walked along a sprawling bog. His mind filled with the image of treading along an intestine. They descended down the dark tunnel. Dinga ran his hand along the wall to steady himself only to be met by a strange, fetid mildew slicking the sides of the cavern, accompanied by a cloying stench that ached his belly with queasiness. Their footfalls broke the sacred silence, each step sending them further and further from the world they knew.
Dinga tried not to think of where he came from. Abandoning his family, his kraal, everything that rooted him in the world, to carve his own way. No matter what the Wise One prophecied, he would find his own destiny on his terms. Alone. That was what it meant to be a man, his father had taught him. To seize the world by the throat and force your will upon it. That was what made true leaders, and Dinga was born to lead.
Yet he had never felt so lost.
Lost in the dark, his body moved as if on strings, imitating the motions of walking. With no point fixed in the distance, movement became illusion. Time and space meant nothing; simply a new ether to pass through.
A plop echoed in the distance. Dinga hesitated, listening for further sounds. The tunnel grew warm; a stream of liquid splattered their faces from some unseen pool.
“You bring me to the most excellent of places.” Gerard spat to clear his mouth. The cavern magnified his voice, his words echoing into the darkness.
“I only promised you a memorable experience,” Dinga said. “Full of peril.”
“I won’t soon be forgetting this. Especially the smell.” Gerard’s hand snapped forward to grab Dinga’s arm to halt him. He sniffed with intent, the way he did whenever someone presented a new wineskin. “Dinga, this place has an awful familiarity about it.”
“I have seen nothing like it before.”
“Because you restrict your travels to the Land of Tribes. But I have seen something akin to this before.”
Dinga rotated in place, noting the detailed architecture of the system. An intelligence was present in its design. “It is like we’re in an undercity of mazes.”
“Because we are. Like aqueducts, though I haven’t seen its like so advanced.”
“What are you saying?”
“We are surrounded by the shit of the gods,” Gerard said.
Ignoring him, Dinga squinted at a pinprick of light down the corridor. “What’s that up ahead?”
“Perhaps it signals the end of our quest.”
Dinga shifted the weight he carried. They had traveled for so long in the senseless dark, he’d almost forgotten it was there. He nudged it again to make sure it was real. And still present. He scrambled toward the light. A window of clear material, sturdy and hard, sealed an observation portal. They pressed themselves to it to get a better view.
From their vantage point, they floated above the great city, overlooking an elaborate array of towers of burnished glass and white marble. Tile roofs bathed in the sun’s light, its rays washed along the building tops, illuminating the tiles such that they sparkled like diamonds scattered across the sky. He wondered how human hands could have constructed it, save by sorcery. When he scanned the edges of the sphere, a massive forest spread out, an expanse of undulating green. A thin veiling mist lowered over the tree tops. The mighty river. The canyon of crags, which, from their positioning, he guessed hid armaments of some sort. He felt as if he stood on the edge of the world. Somehow the cares of the world far below them became... less.
“How do we get... down? Up?” Gerard asked. “Truly, this place makes no sense.”
“I need a moment to think.” Dinga rubbed his temple to ward off the threatening headache.
“I may have the beginnings of a cunning plan,” Gerard said.
Those words never failed to send a chill down to Dinga’s nether regions. “Dare I ask?”
“The easiest way in is to let them bring us in...”
“No.” Dinga already regretted opening the door to his lunacy.
“...as prisoners,” Gerard finished.
“No part of that half-thought even qualifies as a sound idea, much less a plan.”
“But it’s the best we can muster.” Gerard shrugged.
“No, I agree with your friend,” a female voice chimed in. “As stratagems go, that option seems more a consequence than an actual intention.”
The men whirled around. A statuesque woman blocked their lone exit. Dinga hadn’t heard her approach, and even now, it was as if his keen senses couldn’t quite settle onto her. He reached for the hilt of his panga, but something in her eye gave him pause.
A wan light glowed about her, though Dinga could not divine its source. Her maroon and black vestments, a series of small plates woven like a scaled kaftan, reminded him of the uniforms of the assailants who had ambushed them years ago in Utica. Along the bronze complexion of her left arm wound a tattoo of a scaled serpent. Her long black hair, drawn back in gold plaits.
“Who are you?” Dinga asked.
“With you being the strangers to our land, I would think that proper manners would dictate that you introduce yourselves and your intent first.” The woman retained a practiced nonchalance, but her relaxed bearing belied a battle-ready stance.
“I am Gerard, scion of Sparta,” he announced as he stepped forward. Dinga recognized his positioning. Gerard moved to flank her, splitting her awareness between the two of them.
“And you?” Unfazed, her attentions not the least bit divided, her eyes shifted to Dinga, as though still assessing their level of potential threats.
“Dinga. Of the clan Cisse.” His fingertips itched, regretting that the only weapon he brought with him was his panga. Though his instinct didn’t sense her radiating a death spirit. And the way she carried herself, with her defiant tone and stance, reminded his heart of Lalyani.
“I am Luci’Kobe.” She bowed slightly, her appraising gaze never leaving them.
“You’re beautiful.” Incorrigible, Gerard sweetened the tenor of his voice to something approaching charming. “You, my dear, could be a princess.”
“Why would I aim my dreams so low?” Luci’Kobe demurred, her tone playing to his poor flirtation but never taking her eyes from Dinga. “Why does your gaze linger so?”
“You remind me of someone.” Dinga returned his attentions to the window. “I can’t believe we’re at the Dreaming City.”
“You have no idea where you are. Dreams are about truth, sometimes deeper truths unknown to us.” Approaching slowly yet intently, she took his chin and turned his face side to side, inspecting him. “You have a fascinating mind. Dark and beautiful, like a many-roomed house with most of the doors locked. What business brings you skulking about the bowels of our city?”
“What strange anatomy you must have for your bowels to hover above the rest of the body,” Gerard said.
“A promise.” Lingering at her comforting touch, Dinga hesitated before he drew away.
“A vague answer,” she said.
“Trust me, the specifics wouldn’t make the explanation any easier,” Gerard huffed.
“You love the sound of your own voice, don’t you?” Luci’Kobe cut her eyes toward him.
“I do. I really do.” Gerard bowed slightly. The flourish of his hand appeared to reflexively signal for a drink.
“My sister wished me to travel here...” Dinga’s words trailed off. He searched for something true to offer. “In hopes that I might find peace enough for both of us.”
“All who find us were meant to make the journey.” Withdrawing a few steps, she paused and gestured for them. “Come along. Let’s see how well your plan works.”
“Plan?” Dinga asked.
“The one involving you being my prisoners.”
“No offense.” Gerard planted his hands to his sides, refusing to move. Within the folds of his chlamys, he reached for his short sword. “But you’re alone and expect us to just dance into your prison cells on your word.”
“Oh.” Her lips upturned, cold and mischievous. “Our kind is never alone.”
Dinga held his hand up to halt Gerard. The shadows about them shifted. Much like when he had first spied the suspended city, when he fixed his gaze on the darkness directly, the shadows shifted. A spiraling curtain of night slithered with purpose, like a living weapon. Luci’Kobe flicked her wrist in their direction. Two globules of the shadow stuff flew out, lashing itself about each of their wrists. The remaining shadow glided across the surface of the ground before forming as a cloak about her.
“This way, gentlemen.” She curled her finger towards her.
Luci’Kobe escorted them to a strange conveyance, much like a hovering cart. She closed her eyes as if in concentration, and the vehicle seemed to respond to her thoughts and veered toward the heart of the Dreaming City.
The jutting towers of the city were a magnificent vision. Dinga had seen nothing of its like in all of his travels. Around the outer edges of the city, the high-walled channels of the undercity girdled it. Domed roofs and fretted archways embossed each building. Heavy gold-laced gates guarded the narrow streets paved with marble, which funneled into slimmer alleys, like the veins on the hands of an old woman. They passed an open-air marketplace. Colorful floating disks rotated above each stall, like fans circulating the air doubling as umbrellas for canopies. The morning sun sent a cascade of colors along the array of spires. The shape of two birds, like sentient air, circled overhead.
Noting Dinga’s interest, Luci’Kobe said, “Part of our surveillance and security system.”
“What strange science is this?” Gerard asked.
“Science is a diluted form of magic,” she said. “To your kind, sorcery is something to be learned. Mastered. Written down in scrolls and passed down, each iteration weaker than the last until one day they are just fanciful scribblings. For us, sorcery is something to intuit. To feel, like the blood pulsing through your veins.”
“It’s beautiful,” Dinga struggled to voice.
Gerard leaned over. “I have a new cunning plan: we steal the birds.”
“Is theft your true mission?” Luci’Kobi asked.
“No,” Dinga wanted to shove him out of the speeding vehicle’s window. “I spoke true. My friend simply believes he has jokes.”
“Mine is a singular humor. An acquired taste, not always for the faint of heart,” Gerard concurred.
“Much like many diseases.” Luci’Kobe’s words snapped but without bite. “Do not worry: we’ve dealt with the occasional court fool before.”
“What is this place?” Dinga pressed his face closer to the vehicle’s window.
“This is Wagadu.”
“Wagadu?” The words trailed from his lips. He recalled the words of the Wise One of his kraal. “Four times Wagadu stood there in all her splendor. Four times she turned her face.” But this bauble gleamed, so unlike the...
...ruins the trio encountered at the end of their journey. Dinga squatted over a pile of crumbling stones. Weeds grew between the shattered cobbles. Toppled columns laid across what had once been grand plazas and spacious streets. The picturesque ruins, now the ghost of a city.
“Wagadu was the last city ruled by the gods,” Lalyani said.
“The gods have let things go to seed.” Gerard kicked over the remains of a collapsed wall, perhaps hoping to reveal a hidden room full of treasure.
“What do you think it means?” Dinga asked.
“That once there was a city,” Lalyani said. “Perhaps this was just a small place where chiefs gathered to discuss the business of the tribes. And one day the city fell, and in so doing, became a legend spread by the whispers of greedy drunkards in the back of taverns.”
“Hey!” Gerard said.
“Do you really believe that?” Dinga recalled the men who attacked them, with their strange weapons and attire.
“Not really. It would be easier to believe that Wagadu never existed. I know in my bones the true city, the Dreaming City, exists somewhere. And I will find it. My bones will reside there and my spirit will know peace.” Lalyani knelt to sift through the dirt. “Do you not burn to learn more of our ancestors?”
“Should I?” Dinga asked. “They have done little but disappoint me so far.”
“To learn more of your past, where you came from, is to know yourself better.” Standing up, Lalyani took his hand. “Remember what you once told me. ‘We are more than the transgressions of our parents.’ Look around and see the dream of what could be. We will one day rebuild this.”
“We?” Dinga said.
“I carry Wagadu in my heart. Promise me that one day I will rest there. Some believe that other than Olodumare, the orishas were actually rulers of ancient city-kingdoms. Or great heroes who were deified after their deaths. One, even one such as yourself, can become one of the orishas.”
“There is a process?” Dinga asked.
“Known to a few.”
Dinga shook his head as if to clear it of foolish notions. “We are too young to plan for our deaths.” He had long reconciled that his was the path of blood and violence, a story which could only end one way. However, the thought of such a fate for his sister unsettled the core of his spirit.
Interrupting his course of thoughts, Lalyani took his chin and turned his face to hers. “A warrior has to accept the beauty and terror of life. Death always stalks us, and we never elude it for long. When death finds you, make sure it finds you alive.”
Then Lalyani propped her hand on her hip in that defiant way of hers, as if saying...
“...you will wait here for Orunmila to summon you.”
Luci’Kobe stepped out of the vehicle. Before them was a building whose structure was reminiscent of a tree. Constructed of triangle-shaped sections, the curving facets of the wall gave the building the illusion of movement. With a shimmer and a sigh, the wall’s essence shifted, its very components blinking out until an opening formed. When they stepped through the door, the latticed canopy shaded a courtyard. Hanging gardens lined the interior, and pipes for an internal irrigation system served as interior walls. At the center of the courtyard, a structure sifted water, creating a waterfall.
“Orunmila?” Dinga held up his bound wrists.
Lalyani waved in their direction, and the black bands shifted, became globules, and rejoined the material forming her cape.
“Orunmila, one of the primordial irunmole, an orisha who had a hand in creation. He is the orisha of wisdom, knowledge, and divination.” Luci’Kobe opened the door with her approach, as if she were the key to an unseen lock.
“I haven’t come to see any orisha,” Dinga said. “Only perform my task and lay down my burden.”
“Whether you realize it or not, it is he you have come to see.”
“She did say wisdom, knowledge, and divination,” Gerard said. “He probably knew you were coming.”
“Ours is a living culture,” she continued. “Stories and traditions and rituals, sacred instruction of what it means to be human. We are a net of connections and come together to tend to our sorrows. You live in the shadow, denying who you are, what you feel. Do you not think we share your pain? Your anguish cries out to us. Once a strand has been ripped from us, we have to adjust to become whole again. We have no choice but to respond.”
Dinga sucked his teeth. “Nyame, the Father I have known and followed all my life, has abandoned me and turned silent. Yet your solution is to offer me more gods?”
“Nyame? That one is lost to us. That name is not spoken here.”
“Tell me then, to whom should I pray?”
“You’ve lost your ability to wonder and be awed. Learn how to ask a god for rain, and you will always have influence,” Luci’Kobe said. “We need others in times of need and loss and suffering. Only an idiot does it alone. You believe the lie of individuality.”
“Don’t blame me,” Gerard said. “I’m Greek. It’s what we do.”
“Though I am agoze, an initiate of Oya, I was born a diviner,” Luci’Kobe said. “My mother was a Great Mother. What some among your people might call an aje. A witch. When I was five, she was killed by a member of the Tigari, a witch hunter cult.” Luci’Kobe closed her eyes and laid her palm over Dinga’s heart. “You endure life, an endless existence of routine. You feed your shadow self, giving it life until it rattles through every part of who you are. An accumulation of wounds and sorrows, trapped in a ritual of grief, unable to move, much less move on. You limp through life believing that you’ve dealt with your pain. Instead, you are walking with death.”
“So, I shall never be king?” Dinga sneered. So-called Wise Ones, or even Wise Ones-in-training, exhausted him with the need to prophesy who he should or would be.
“Grief breaks us and can take us from the path we were called to. But we can also be remade in times of sorrow. All we have to do is the work to become whole again.” She opened her eyes. “Your path remains yours. You choose how to move forward.”
“Me next, do me next.” Gerard raised his arms about. “I want to know my fortune.”
Luci’Kobe stared him up and down as if he were small. “Your plan is a rousing success.”
She strode through an exit. The door closed behind her, leaving a wall without any trace of a seam.
“You introduce me to the most interesting people.” Gerard slid down against the back wall.
With a mix of longing and regret, Dinga stared at the door. He stretched out along the floor, the gentle susurrus of the waterfall behind him calming him.
“What is it, my friend?” Settling into his corner, Gerard crossed his legs.
“Today would have been the anniversary of my sister’s birth. I can’t help but feel... incomplete. A missing puzzle piece. I daydream about what the young woman Lalyani would have been.”
“Tell me this is all worth it.” Met with silence, Gerard sighed. “Tell me another? story of your village.”
Dinga closed his eyes to stem his welling tears. He continued his story.
The young man and the woman who was his sister each went their own way, for each had a respective destiny they were meant to follow. But on occasion, their paths crossed and they shared an adventure together. In time, their father learned that they knew one another. Whatever his thoughts, he took them to his grave, for he never spoke to the boy within the young man again.
Then one day sickness came to the young woman. The Wasting. A series of bulging masses within her that seemed to eat away at her from the inside. Though they traveled to all the known healers, the Wasting proved resistant to all of their therapies, medicines, and sorceries. The young man tended to her, remaining by her side when physicians attempted to remove the unnatural growths through excision and cauterization. He recalled how he had once been captured by his enemies and tortured for information; their treatment was less cruel than the ministrations of the physicians.
The young woman, exhausted and not wishing to live out her days in a vain search for a cure, asked him that they should retire to a small kraal. Bargaining with her body, though resting in bed, everything became a blur of horrible pain. Stripped of her dignity, constantly shifting her position in vain attempts to get comfortable, she found only postures of lesser anguish. He propped her up at meal times and fed her soup broth. Bathing her, dressing her lesions as best he could, spreading a poultice upon them to numb the pain, the boy within the man tended to her. By evening, he told her tales from his youth, of his adventures, and of his dreams.
The boy within the man hid his anger. He silently raged at the Wasting, how it reduced her; lamented the time lost between them. He quietly cursed his father for separating them for so long, and the time they would never have together.
The day came when she knew she neared drawing her last breath. The vital, strong woman was a faded dream. Left behind was only a withered crone, gaunt to the bone, whose every breath was a rasping wheeze. A combination of her pain, or the healing potions brewed for her once the Wasting took root in her. Screaming about the old withered woman visible in her cup, she stopped recognizing her own reflection. Often, she’d fling the cup across the room, and the young man left her side to pick up the pieces. When he returned to her bedside, he crawled into bed alongside her and wrapped his arms around her.
“‘I will keep you safe from her,’ he whispered in a reassuring tone, stroking her thinning hair. The conversation pained him. He was in a habit of rushing to end their conversations when they turned to her death. Or to not have to hear the quaver in her voice. The confusion. The fear. This stranger before him. But she turned to him. Lucidity filled her eyes again. Her hand struggled to reach his face and stroke his beard, since he had not shaved since they had entered the village.
“Promise me.” She ran her fingers through his premature gray strands, her recurring silent lament that she’d never have gray of her own.
“Anything,” he said.
“Take me to the home of my gods.”
“The orisha?” he asked.
“Yes. Find the Dreaming City, that they would welcome me home. And promise me you won’t go alone. That’s the only way I might truly find rest.”
Dinga rolled over and allowed his soft sobs carry him off to slumber.
There is a grief we carry from the things we didn’t even realize we’d lost.
Dinga sprawled out on the marble floor, unable to get comfortable, unable to rest, yet not wanting to move. His was the view of the enslaved: from the dirt floor of the waiting pen. Part of him angry at the inhabitants of the Dreaming City. From all of the magic he had seen them demonstrate, at any point they could have come down from their precious mountaintop and saved Lalyani. They chose to keep their medicine to themselves, locked away in their lofty sky bauble.
Sweat trickled down his back, and he trembled like an infant beset by fever. He feared attempting to stand, knowing his legs would threaten to buckle beneath him. Lalyani’s face tormented him. He longed to feel the ghost of her touch, running her fingers across his thinly haired scalp to tease him. Rolling over, he was unwilling to find Gerard in the dark. Rather, he was content to spend his nights on the floor, staring at the distant wall, replaying his failures from the past. Every injustice on an endless loop of trauma, while he lay impotent to do anything about them.
“What are we going to do?” Gerard’s footfalls echoed back and forth behind him. “We can’t stay here forever.”
“You may be comfortable in prisons, no matter how gilded the cage, but I am not.”
We were meant to be free. Dinga knew she would not want him to remain in this place. Willing strength to his heavy limbs, he began to stir. “What can we do against their magic?”
“I may have the beginnings of a cunning plan. Their magic may be powerful, but...” Examining the strange patterns along the wall, searching for any opening, Gerard fished within the folds of his chlamys to reveal the hilt of his short sword. “They are human enough. They may bleed easily enough.”
“No,” Dinga said.
“No what?” Gerard stopped moving.
“No. We will not harm her.”
“Look, Din, I don’t know—I won’t pretend to know—what you’re feeling. But she is not Lalyani.”
“Her spirit is true. She won’t allow anything to harm us. She will see us through on our journey.”
“How do you know?”
“I don’t. I just do.”
Heavy clomps along the marble floor slowly drew their attention. Not knowing where in the wall the door might appear, Gerard backed to the center of the room. Behind them, the opposite wall dissolved into an entrance. Luci’Kobe’s black cape undulated in an unfelt breeze, like a living thing stretching after having woken from a nap.
With a military formality to her carriage, she walked with a stiffness she wore uncomfortably. Behind her marched three uniformed guards with gold mail vests and fur-lined collars. Their charged pehla sticks were drawn but remained at their sides. Behind them strode a man with the slow, determined stride of an elephant. His arms thicker than a grown python and legs like tree trunks; his sable skin nearly as black as a shadow in the wan light. A wispy white beard dangled from his chin, reminiscent of a boy’s first attempt to grow out whiskers. Black silk robes swathed him, and red pants that stopped just below his knees flashed out with each step. A necklace, the beads of which also alternated between red and black, dangled from his neck, and a maroon kerchief wrapped his head. He chomped on a large, though unlit, cigar. His left hand twirled three silver coins.
“My lord Eshu, these are the spies we captured.” Luci’Kobe stepped away from the prisoners, not meeting their eyes.
“Spies? Who dares infiltrate the Dreaming City?” Eshu flicked the coins between his meaty fingers. His heavy-lidded gaze landed on Gerard.
“Oh. I thought your question rhetorical,” the Greek said. “You know, since we aren’t spies. You can’t spy on something you never realized was there.”
“And who might you be, slick-tongued one?”
“I am Gerard, scion of Sparta.” He bowed with a flourish, his hands reaching into the folds of his chlamys. His eyes locked onto Dinga’s, awaiting his nod. At least Dinga hoped that he was waiting. His friend was impetuous under his best temperament. Desperate and trapped, Gerard might be prone to lash out at the slightest provocation or perceived opening.
“And you?” Eshu focused his studious gaze on Dinga.
“Dinga. Of the clan Cisse.” His eyes flitted from Gerard—who lowered his stance, ready to charge—to Luci’Kobe—who angled away from him, her cape trailing along the ground—to Eshu, whose gaze remained steady and unhurried.
“Cisse, eh? We’ll see about that.” Eshu swished his cigar from one side of his mouth to the other. “You and your compatriot now have a choice to make. Do so.”
With the barest movement, Dinga patted the air. Gerard made the face of a child dissatisfied with his gift but stood up in a relaxed posture. Dinga stepped toward Eshu. “I don’t know where I am. Or where I’m supposed to go. I only know that I am to be here.”
Eshu smiled, almost satisfied. “Take them to the temple. Let us introduce him to his history.”
With that, Eshu turned on his heel, trailed by the three guards. As soon as the wall reformed behind him, all the tension left Luci’Kobe’s body.
“Spies?” With mild amusement, Dinga side-eyed her.
“You prefer ‘exiles lost on their pilgrimage to a dream’?” she asked.
“Exiles is a bit harsh,” Gerard said.
“’Outcasts’ any better?” She stepped toward the wall.
“Who was he?” Dinga hesitated at the area where the exit had appeared.
“Eshu is a powerful orisha. He is the keeper of ashe and the messenger with the power to make things happen. He opens the way to the path. You have to be careful though, because he’s also a trickster. It’s how he helps people see the fault in making the wrong choices.” Her gaze lingered on Gerard. “Your friend could have ended your journey here.”
“How do you mean ‘end’?” Gerard glanced at Dinga, who held a knowing silence.
“The way all stories ultimately end.”
The Dreaming City reminded Dinga of his home kraal, with the homes larger and nearly stacked upon one another. Elders and young alike occupied each structure. From what he could see, upwards of ten city residents lived in each residence. Each groupings of homes circled a courtyard. Tables lined the outer edges of it as people came together to share a meal. In a pantomime familiar to him, an elder told stories while children played.
The floating cart stopped before a structure which looked like a bauble set in a cup, the way an expertly cut jewel fit into a ring. Spires radiated out from it, recalling the image of a rising sun. Dinga had no way to measure its size. One moment it had seemed to gleam in the distance, they next they were upon it. It resembled hand tools, tapered and pointed, rising from the earth.
The three of them exited the cart. Golden steps led up to an archway. The air around the courtyard grew heavy, too thick to breath comfortably. The weight like gravity itself tugged at him. A pressure built deep within his lungs, a near burning as if he were running out of breath. The moment had an intensity. A solemn thrum, an invisible energy filled him with a surge of power.
“What is this place?” Dinga asked.
“The temple of Orunmila,” Luci’Kobe said. “It straddles the threshold between this world and the next. A living shrine, a dwelling place of the sacred.”
“Like an unanswered prayer, like so much of the response from the gods to the strife in life.” The pack weighed against Dinga with a renewed pressure, as if needing to remind him of its presence.
“Have you ever asked yourself who you are without your pain?” Luci’Kobe slowed as she neared the courtyard. “Once you’ve finished your errand, what will you do next?”
“I don’t know if I’m ready.” Dinga shifted the pack, unsure if he was even willing to let it go. “How do we know we are at the right place?”
“The heart will know.” Luci’Kobe closed her eyes, a reverential pause. “It is here that you will fulfill your promise.”
A moment settled between them, respecting her silence for a few heartbeats.
“You said you were an agoze, to be an initiate of Oya?” Dinga’s voice raised as if he were asking a question.
“I am a child of Oya’s, orisha of storms, life, death, and rebirth.” Luci’Kobe opened her eyes. “The orisha may have one name in one place and another elsewhere. They rule the sky city but have allowed others to live here. Those they’ve found worthy. They can be proud, insouciant, and cruel.”
“Like every god I’ve ever known.”
“Like the essence of humanity when you get down to it.” Her words were thick with an air of defensiveness. “The... lesser orisha have more limited, specialized gifts. Health, fertility, good crops, protection from enemies. Down to being barely distinguishable from humans. In fact, some were humans, warriors and kings who distinguished themselves in life and have found power among the ancestral dead.”
“I have no use for gods I have never heard of.”
“That does not mean that they have no use for you. Just because they are a story you have not heard before does not mean they are not real to many. Three orisha form the Primodial Irunmole. They were present before time began, when there was nothing except the vast region of outer space and the earth was shapeless beneath the sky, an endless stretch of water. The domains of the orishas were then carved out. The supreme orisha, Olodumare—also called Olorun—ruled the sky. Orunmila—also called Ifa—was given the power to bend time to his will and read the future. His was the gift of deep understanding, of plumbing the secrets of existence since he was the only orisha present at the moment of creation other than Olodumare. There was the mysterious orisha, Obatala—King of the White Cloth—spirit of ethics, morality, purity, humility, and peace and shaper of human bodies. Considered the father of all orisha, it is they whom Olodumare trusted as if they were his own.”
“You can say many things about the Greek pantheon,” Gerard said, as if needing to remind them of his presence, “but at least they understood that there was more than one letter in the alphabet to name their gods after.”
“You know little of the magic to manipulate the elements and even less about the orisha to know to show the proper respect,” Luci’Kobe said. “There are four-hundred plus one orisha.”
“Where does Eshu fit into things?” Dinga asked.
“He is one of the powerful orisha, bound by nothing. He represents uncertainty, randomness, or chaos. Neither good, nor evil, he was born of chaos and chance and accident. His very nature and portent is that of unpredictability. Language is his gift, for he is Olodumare’s linguist. Whenever Eshu appears, there is a flaw in the sequence of events, a disruption of divine intention. With his presence, things become unclear.” Luci’Kobe touched her forehead as if struck by a headache at the very thought of him.
“All stories pass through him,” Dinga mused to himself.
“Yes. The second-oldest story begins with she who ruled down below.” Luci’Kobe inhaled slowly, almost as if preparing to unload a painful memory. Or a secret not hers to share.
“Olokun ruled over the deepest of waters and the expanse called the wild marshes, a grey area, where no life dwelt. Not animal, not plant. This was the balance of creation: Olodumare ruled the sky above, Olokun the waters below. Anything that fell to the bottom of the waters remained intact, never to be seen again except by her, and she became the mother of secrets. Other than her, the orishas lived in the sky, acknowledging Olodumare as the owner of everything, the highest authority in all matters.
One day, Obalata pondered Olokun’s domain and lamented that it was bereft of life. That, in their judgment, her kingdom was one of grey monotony; a melancholy bleakness. So, they went to Olodumare and petitioned that there should be solid land so that fields could grow and hills and valleys give shape to it, and that orishas and other living things could live there. Olodumare agreed but knew such creation to be an ambitious enterprise, and he asked who would do such a thing. Obalata volunteered.
Obalata went to the house of Orunmila, since he understood the secret ways of existence. Obalata laid out their dilemma, not knowing how to begin the work. So Orunmila brought out his divining tray. He cast sixteen palm nuts and, from the way they fell, read their meaning. He cast and re-cast until he was sure of what existence spoke to him. Orunmila told them to take sacred symbols: a snail shell full of sand, a white hen, a black cat, and a palm nut. But they were to descend to the watery wastes to conduct their ceremony.
“‘But how will I get there?’ Obalata asked.
“‘You are to descend the golden chord.’
“When the preparations had been made, Obalata lowered the chain they had forged and began their descent. They passed from the realm of light through the region of greyness, with only the whooshing like waves to mark his passage. And after a time, they reached their destination. They poured out their sand and dropped the hen upon it. The hen scattered the sand in all directions, where it dried and became land that extended in all directions. The place where Obalata first set foot, they called Ife.”
“That story means nothing to me. I feel... empty.” Dinga could not explain the strange gnawing in his soul, like a gaping hunger. As if even the space once occupied by Nyame now stood vacant.
“Your heart knows.” She clicked her teeth with frustrated impatience. “Or it could, if it wasn’t so blocked.”
“The physicians and phylacteries of my homeland are some of the finest in the lands.” Gerard shifted as if the comment had been aimed at him. “If Dinga had heeded my counsel, we’d each be in a maiden’s lap finding solace right now.”
“That is what I meant. You rush to numb your pain. You embrace your capacity for distraction, as both amnesia and anesthetic, hoping to forget rather than plunge headlong into your pain in order to get through to the other side. We can be shaped by life.”
“Can life shape us with the challenge of wealth?” Gerard protested. “The gods seem to overly delight in our trials of hardship.”
“Orphan—” Luci’Kobi’s shoulders straightened in resolve as she turned to him—“you are a little snail seeking refuge behind the fronds of the banana tree.”
“I get the feeling that I am not welcome.”
“The sacred rituals of sorrow are not for you. Your kind plunder and keep for themselves.”
“Rude.” Gerard hesitated, before taking a step backward. His hands withdrew into his chlamys. “Is this... where my story ends?”
“That depends. All of your cunning plans seem to fall back to one base course of action.” Luci’Kobe lips curled upward. “Can you be trusted in the market to find yourself a meal?”
First glancing at Dinga, Gerard shrugged. “I mean, I’m sad too, but I could eat.”
While Gerard wandered toward the floating saucers marking the marketplace, Luci’Kobe and Dinga crossed the court. He had the distinct impression that ghosts danced with a delicate grace throughout the yard. He and Luci’Kobe climbed up the flight of steep steps until they stood before an ornate arch. A red shaft of light shot out. Dinga jumped back, but Luci’Kobe stood her ground. The beam ran down and then up her before turning to Dinga. It ran along his flesh without so much as the faintest tickle. An entrance appeared for them.
“What if it had not found us worthy?” Dinga asked.
“Then your quest would have ended.” Her voice turned dark and serious, her visage stoic. Unable to hold the sternness for long, her face collapsed into a smile. “And we’d have joined your friend for lunch.”
Golden censers floated along the corridor, producing perfumed clouds. Mosaics of ruby, emerald, and onyx inlaid with gold leaf lined the many-hued walls. Dinga knew it was for the best that Gerard had not accompanied them. His avaricious instincts would not have resisted the casks of gems, golden coins, and silver ingots scattered in the rooms, and he’d have attempted to wander from them with pockets so full, his waddle alone would have given him away.
A winding stairwell led to a long cold, narrow corridor, steeped in shadows like a tunnel to nowhere. The air, thick with the smell of bayberry and myrrh. Panels lit up alongside them as they passed, heatless torchlights illuminating their path. Neither said a word. The silence took on a meditative quality, holy, brooding, and deepening, alive with intelligence as if its spirit had just snapped awake. They traveled deep within the structure, further inward than the layout from the outside had suggested was possible. The city’s magic built structures that bent space to their will, Dinga surmised.
Eventually the hallway opened up into a cavernous room; passed between two floating bowls at the entrance filled with water. Luci’Kobe dipped her fingers into the water and marked her forehead. Dinga mirrored her actions before he entered the room.
About the room were ten statues, three of which were off to themselves, not quite set apart but closer together. Before them was a dais. One of the three statues shimmered, as if blinking in and out of existence, and then a young man stood in place of that statues. About him a gold light shimmered. He walked toward the center dais, stopping short of it. Swathes of cloth, the green silk interwoven with the strips of yellow cotton, wrapped about him. An elekes of alternating green and yellow beads, around his neck. His gold bracelet matched the headdress suspended above him. The crowning mask had ornate images of animals, crescent moons, and a sun carved into it. His eyes brimmed with wildness. Dinga had seen those eyes many times. The distant stare of someone lost in the throes of bloodlust.
Moving to an unseen drummer, the young man danced. A gentle chant, somehow harmonizing with himself. He stared off with a sway to the rhythms, like a reed caught in a breeze. Finding his freedom, he began to step, a half-march, his stomps coinciding with heavy palms banging against canvas. He bowed and straightened, bowed and straightened to the music until his feet found themselves. Twirling, he spun, circling the dais until suddenly the music stopped. He stretched out his arms, his fingers grasping at the sky. As if his entire body attempted to open itself up.
“Through this, the deep magic of myal, he can speak to Orunmila face-to-face and through him, Orunmila may speak,” Luci’Kobe answered Dinga’s unasked question.
“Possession?” He had heard of the gods and some spirits taking over a person’s body.
“Nothing so crude. Orunmila does not come down, so we have to go up. It’s about being in relationship. To connect with him on another plane of existence. We pray for him to reveal himself to us. That the encounter changes us and orients us to who he is.”
“I don’t understand. Are they you?” Dinga asked. “Are they with you?”
“They are with me. I have to let them in. An aspect of them, because how could a mortal hope to contain the immortal. That is where I end, and we begin. All are we. As our consciousness expands, so will our understanding of them.”
“The gods have a strange way of talking.” Dinga kept his eyes on the still-swaying young man.
The mask lowered into place, covering the young man’s features from his forehead to his nose. “Orunmila” withdrew a carved horn. Carrying the horn to the dais, he set it down between two halves of guiro. His heavy lips parted. The words uttered did not match their movement though Dinga understood them all the same.
“Step forward. We know who you are, Dinga of the clan Cisse,” Orunmila said.
“Then you know why I’m here.”
“We do, but do you?”
Dinga paused, sensing a trap in the words. “I only come to fulfill a promise.”
“You travel all this way, risking life and limb, not to mention the fate of your friend simply to... run an errand?” Orunmila strode across the elevated stage the dais sat upon. With a grand flaunt, his cloth wraps draping behind him, he descended down the steps.
Dinga flushed hot, like a child caught in a lie. “I... am on a journey.”
“Good. An admission, that’s a start. What do you hope to find on your journey?”
“Answers won’t bring you what you want,” Orunmila said.
“I should be the judge of that.”
Another statue flickered in the dim light of its recess. In its place, Eshu stepped forward. Orunmila glanced at Eshu. The pair conversed without words, the way only siblings could. Eshu nodded. With that he withdrew into the shadow of his alcove until the statue reappeared.
“You have reached a crossroads in your journey,” Orunmila continued. “We share a similar pain, you and I. My brother informs me that you have come here because of a story. Thus, I am moved to speak with you.”
With a gesture, a sphere, like a ball of water, formed above the dais.
“Look where your sorrow has taken you. Your grief moves you through the underworld. It is your duty to mourn, to live in the ashes of their loss. The soul fragments, its bits stolen, broken, or fled from.”
His eyes filled with an emotion Dinga couldn’t quite read. A dulled pain, perhaps. Orunmila’s face tightened, a hint of anger rose in his voice. The sphere rose and split, becoming four smaller balls.
“Our rituals create a vessel for our grief, join the hearts of the suffering, for suffering is what unites us in life. Here, we belong. Here we find wholeness.” Orunmila clasped his hands together and the globes melded back into one complete sphere. “We have much to teach here, but few have the ears to learn.”
“I can learn. I can understand.” Dinga hated the odd note of desperation in his tone.
“Indeed? Let us see what you have learned.”
Orunmila outstretched his arms. The room darkened. Light leapt from the dais, forming images flaring to life all around him. Most of the scenes were memories, though some of the depicted quests were unfamiliar to him. So much violence in his stories. The jeweled-city of Jenne-Jeno. The evil wizard Naiteru-kop. The black-hooded raiders of Sjilmasa. The otherworldly bats with star-shaped heads. So much betrayal. Ifriquia. His father. Anasa the Wise One. So much shame. The last image lingered—him in his childhood alcove. With Lalyani.
“Indeed, you have learned,” Orunmila kept his voice low, tinged with compassion. “How to fight. How to kill. How to temper a blade.”
“It is easy for you to judge from your heavenly realm, from this Dreaming City. What do you know of the hardships of life? Of death? You are so far removed from your people, I am surprised you can even hear their pleas.”
Luci’Kobe gasped. Lowering her head, she retreated to the nearby shadows as if unable, or unwilling, to witness any more.
“Who are you to question the orisha or our ways?” Orunmila rose, his feet no longer touching the ground. He floated toward Dinga with unwavering intent. “You have no knowledge of who we are. Or what we experience.”
“You tell me then.” Dinga refused to back down. “I wish to know you.”
Orunmila hovered before him, eyes narrowed to grim slits.
The silence burgeoned between them, a gulf neither knew how to navigate.
“You asked me what I have learned,” Dinga began. “I have learned that sometimes it is easier to tell a story about ourselves in order to voice our pain into the world. You talk to me of your precious ways and rituals. That we have a story in common. Tell me a story of your city.”
The orisha cocked his head in consideration. Several long heartbeats passed in silence. With the boom of a distant thunderstorm, Orunmila’s voice emanated from all around the room at once.
There once was a boy who only sought to please his father. His father was an important man. He was a Creator, a builder of dreams and ideas and people. So numerous and fabulous were his creations that his name passed the lips of all the people in the world as the Father of All.
But to the boy, he was simply his father.
One day the boy crafted a bowl. The boy labored hard, fashioning it with his bare hands. He thought about the ornate designs he would etch into it. All of the things which pleased his father. A single bracelet. A horsetail switch. A cane. A bell. He labored for many days until the bowl was exactly as he imagined. For the truest mark of an artist was to bring into being what they had imagined.
That evening the boy knelt at his father’s feet and presented him with the bowl. “Father, I follow in your footsteps, born with your spirit to create.”
His father inspected the boy’s handiwork. “Its color does not please me.”
With that, he set the bowl aside.
Ashamed, the boy fled his father’s presence. A rift occurred between them, like a piece of fabric worn bare. The boy wandered about the land studying his father’s handiwork. An hour passed. A day. A week. Yet no one came looking for him. He made his way throughout all which had been created, learning all of its secrets. Still, no one came for him. With each month, each year, that passed, the rift only grew larger, a seam splitting at its threads. Consumed by the memory of presenting his father the bowl, playing the moment over and over in his mind, he finally realized that it was not his shame to bear but his father’s, alone.
So, the son returned. When the father spied him, he nodded as if only a moment had elapsed. His father never realized a gulf now separated them, much less how to breach it. And the son never mentioned his absence, his travels, or the lessons he learned. All the secrets and mysteries of existence would be his to keep.
Orunmila opened his eyes. The room brightened. “You came here to receive answers? Come, follow me and see if you are ready for them.”
There is grief we carry from the sorrow experienced by our ancestors.
The décor of the pavilion was a lush mixture of color and textures. Divans scattered throughout the chamber, jumped upon by children in gilt-braided skirts. Other children poured libations into chalices carved from a single emerald. A golden-silled window opened onto a balcony overlooking the Dreaming City. Orunmila led them to the rear of a second pavilion. He paused, steeling himself with a breath before the wall dissolved before them.
A bed chamber, white walls surrounded a bed covered in white linens. They framed a figure near-buried within them, his dark skin ashy with a terrible pallor. Their slender frame sat up as best they could, drawing tight their silken jupons.
Obatala, the Sky Father. Father of all the orisha.
Dinga blinked hard. Obatala looked exactly like his father from his youth, with echoes of his grandfather. The room filled with the smell of Obatala’s thick musk. Their large, expressionless countenance still had an aristocratic air about it. His Father’s face.
No one resented the arrogance that swaddled Obatala. That was the expected manner and bearing of the orisha. Every calculated posture, even a casual finger waggle, had the deliberate of a dramatic embellishment.
“Do not be disconcerted,” Luci’Kobe said. “Each person sees them different.”
Their hands, oddly small, reached for the chalice beside them.
Orunmila walked towards them.
Obatala’s attendants, a pair of children who fanned them, challenged him as if he had demonstrated some violation of protocol. The tone of Orunmila’s voice, the brazenness of his manner, perhaps the way he clenched his hands, caused them to reconsider. He dismissed the duo with a glance.
The white sheets rose and fell. Rose and fell. Rose and fell.
“I am one for tradition.” Orunmila bowed low and long, an exaggerated gesture, which had the subtle whiff of insult to it.
Luci’Kobe stood behind Dinga, both nervous and tense.
“Better than one who forgets. Especially his place.” Obatala’s eyes widened, registering a feigned shock and no light of recognition. “There’s a fine line between forgetfulness and contempt.”
The courtly life was not for Dinga. He found the sheer gamesmanship of it all, their inane trivialities, wearisome and irritating, like a film of sand caught in his loincloth. Gerard took to it like flies to a corpse.
“Illness strips so much,” Luci’Kobe whispered. “Who Obatala was. Their friends. Their family. The steady toll of loss. Illness is a winnowing of who we are. Until we arrive at the core within the husk, knowing the fragility of flesh. When Orunmila learned of his father’s impending death, something shifted within him and softened between them. Despite his brazenness, he now attends to his father with the care of a doting nurse.”
“He’s dying?” Dinga leaned closer to her as Orunmila appraoched his father, like a planet entering the orbit of the sun, not wanting to get too close. “He’s an orisha. Eternal.”
“How can the eternal, the infinite, manifest on the physical plane?” Orunmila said without turning to them. “There are mysteries and profundities known only to Olodumare. Even from me.”
The white sheets rose and fell. Rose and fell. Rose and fell.
“My father, the father I knew, had a way of putting others around them at ease. Sometimes with inappropriate humor. Sometimes with a wistful smile. Or playful flirtation. When they were about their work, however, they were a serious person. They fought for life, their children. For them, every day of life was a victory.” Orunmila’s hand circled a spot near his father’s bedside. A chair rose from the ground like so much sand assembling a seat. “They were a tough person. A hard person. In constant pain without telling anyone. Another secret hidden from me. Yet all things come to an end. Sometimes the fight itself takes too much out of you. Their herbs and medicines sustain him, but that is not enough to call it life. Not worth the extra weeks or months. Can you understand that?”
Dinga nodded in respectful silence.
“Baba Arugbo.” Orunmila leaned low and whispered into his father’s ear.
“I’m here,” Obatala said. “Who are you?”
“Sometimes he recognizes me, sometimes he doesn’t. He lived his life until he couldn’t remember how to live anymore.” Orunmila raised his father’s hand to his face. “I am your son.”
“Yes,” Obatala’s eyes cleared and focused with the dim light of recognition. “I know you.”
“His dying is telling you something,” Luci’Kobe pled. “You have to be willing to listen.”
Dinga was no longer sure if she was speaking to him or to Orunmila. Or, rather, if she spoke the things to him she dare not say to her orisha.
Dinga spoke anyway. “It tells me that life is meant to be incomplete. There is much unfinished between my father and I, that we waited too long to attend to. Now it... never shall be.”
“Nothing makes sense any longer, losing the pillar around which your world was built,” Orunmila said. “When Olurun created the Universe, I bore witness. It is my burden to know the destiny of everything that exists. It is I whom people call on for healing. So where do I turn when I am in need? Feeding and bathing the dying, yet we do so every day without hesitation; since from the time you are infants, every minute lived is a step closer to death. Life can be cruel. A life of suffering is no life, and death often a relief. That’s why we say only the sky knows who will be saved.”
The white sheets rose and fell. Rose and fell. Rose and fell.
Desiring a better vantage point, Dinga risked a step forward. He interpreted the delicate play of words as similar to combat, with their subtle feints and thrusts. Now the conversation intrigued him and he stood in silent witness. Orunmila asked the questions of fathers and sons. If they had any regrets about how he lived. If they had any doubts about who he became. If they were proud of him. If he was loved. And Obatala, being present for the moment, told of their love for their son, and bandaged the old wounds of the heart because it was always up to the parent to restore the bridge to the child.
“What madness is this?” Dinga asked. His constant, incandescent rage an inchoate thing, without a specific target to focus it on. He welcomed it, as it was better than the overwhelming silence that ruled his mind. Like his entire journey had led to this moment. Somehow all of this felt orchestrated, all staged for his benefit.
“Madness? Orishas stand beyond what you count as rational or irrational.” Luci’Kobe took his hand, her touch cool, calming him like a cool breeze along a desert plain. “You have a very human lens. The world is not an object to be controlled, manipulated, or consumed. The orisha move through it as you should, appreciating its array of beauty. And pain. All of us are open vessels, free and vulnerable to experience all the joys and sorrows of life to their fullest. Craft sorrow into something that will grow the community.”
Dinga was where he was supposed to be. Not an imposter. Blaming himself for Lalyani, from the Wasting to their lost time together, carrying the guilt with absolute conviction. Exposed, his damage revealed. He hated the little boy inside him, for not being man enough to stand up to his father. All of his fears, insecurities, and hurts buried within him. Not wanting to be vulnerable or appear weak. Life was a choice. He didn’t have to stay where he was. He no longer wanted to hide. Lalyani knew him and had loved him. What happened with her was not his shame to carry but his father’s alone. His father’s dishonor.
Orunmila held his father’s hand until Obatala fell back asleep.
“It’s almost time,” Dinga said to no one in particular.
“How do you know?” Luci’Kobe asked.
Dinga peered deep into her eyes, without words, his pain mirroring Orunmila’s terrible knowing. Weeks of sifting Lalyani’s facial expressions to monitor her pain when she wouldn’t hint at complaint.
The white sheets rose and fell. Rose and fell. Rose and fell.
Obatala grew quieter and quieter. Softer and softer. Their breathing became more shallow, a hard, jagged thing. Though their lips moved, they no longer formed words. Limp, no longer responding to anything he did. A strangled rattle clotted the back of their throat.
“Go in peace,” Orunmila whispered.
The white sheets fell.
Orunmila closed his eyes. A solitary tear trailed down his face. He opened his mouth as if to say something profound in his father’s last moments, but no words escaped. A sound rumbled from deep within him. His body spasmed once, gripped by a deep pain, and a distant cry began. A haunting keening came from beyond Orunmila as much as within him. A death wail, all of his grief shuddering out of him in one paralyzing instant. He collapsed to his knees, the wail having exhausted him. His hands searched for purchase along the bed frame, enough to draw himself up. He crawled into the bed alongside his father and wrapped a lifeless arm around himself. No one dared approach.
Something had set fire to Dinga’s soul, a call he responded to. Something raw and ancient and untamed. He wept for the family who had lost their parent, their sibling, and their friend. For Orunmila who was there when they passed, the son who loved them and share his life with them. For the loss he knew all too well.
A firm hand landed on Dinga’s shoulder, ushering him to the side.
Eshu stepped between them and stationed himself at the bed’s side to whisper to his brother. “Come. You cannot stay in this place. The mystery soon comes.”
Eshu held his hand out. Unsteadily, Orunmila took it and rose from the bed. They stepped backward.
A glow haloed his father’s form. Obatala’s body slowly collapsed, folding in on itself. Much like the Dreaming City itself, different planes intersected it, no dimensions of their form making any sense in the space. The body dematerialized much like the city’s walls when creating a door, opening a portal for itself. Whatever formed the physicality of the space the orisha once inhabited collapsed into a sphere the size of a small ball. Then a marble. Then the head of a needle. Eshu produced a small jeweled container, enclosing the area the glowing dot once occupied.
“The golden chord?” Orunmila asked, unable to raise his head.
“We all have our duties.” Eshu placed a meaty hand on his brother’s shoulder before departing in silence.
And Dinga shared their sorrow, from a place that didn’t have words.
When the emptiness swept across the Dreaming City, the community gathered around Orunmila’s temple. The spirits of the unmourned ancestors surrounded it. A hush fell over the streets, with the portent of an impending storm. Luci’Kobe and other attendants congregated at dusk, to witness and provide support. To hold space for their work, as facing emptiness was the key to moving.
Careening around people, Gerard wandered through the crowd like a lost tourist. Dinga strode to intercept him. “You’re drunk,” Dinga said.
“I am.” Gerard’s words slurred.
“On beer.” Gerard held up a near-empty mug.
“Where did you get beer?”
“The gods provide. I let them.” Gerard studied the massing crowd. “What’s this about?”
“A ritual of remembrance.”
“Who died?” Gerard chewed his lip, regretting his brashness. Before he met Dinga’s eyes again, he emptied his mug.
“Obatala. Their orisha.”
“Go on ahead. I don’t do funerals,” Gerard said.
“Yet you have walked beside me this entire time. Lalyani’s journey nears its end. Will you abandon me now?”
Gerard slowly swigged his beer in silence.
The mourners began to set up three shrines and then gathered around them. The handclaps started sporadically before finding their united rhythm. A few women began to sing.
Near the water shrine, Luci’Kobe stepped forward. She brought her arms together, her palms outstretched, and twirled her hands as if grappling with the air. Some of her motions reminded Dinga of the martial practice known as the Forms. He’d never seen them performed as dance. The myal energy built, passing through the dancers like lightning through to the village. The dancers shook, near convulsion; some collapsed. Others knelt, their shoulders heaving as they wept.
Around the fire shrine, some in the city shouted their anger and pain. The passion of their vented energy igniting the flames. Some simply fell prostrate, unable to hold themselves up. The postures of heartache, broken open by grief, to be witnessed and shared as the story of community.
Only then did the orisha appear.
The nine members of their brethren. Silent, unmoving. Reminiscent of the statues in the temple, though not exactly like them, as if each person had caught an aspect of their chosen orisha. Eshu stood behind Orunmila in a protective stance. Luci’Kobe stepped forward.
“We’ve gathered to honor our ancestors. To offer gratitude for the gift of life, appreciation through drums and dance. We leave food out for them. Your pain is not a private thing. It is not yours to bear alone. It belongs to your community. To have the story, the pain, held by many.” Luci’Kobe handed Dinga a bowl. “For you to join in with their grief.”
“But I didn’t know them.”
“You wept for Obatala. And you know grief. You carry a spiritual debt which you cannot repay.”
Dinga reached into the sacred bowl, finding only roots. Luci’Kobe nodded, and he slipped some into his mouth and began to chew. Their bitter flavor stung his tongue. A sudden lightheadedness caught him off guard. The rush swept through his secret places that had never known love. Places without kindness, where he hid his shame. A kaleidoscopic glow illuminating the parts of himself he was convinced no one would love. The places Lalyani knew. She had touched those places too.
“It’s time.” Luci’Kobe took his hand. “Follow me.”
They approached the final shrine, a large bowl surrounded by stones. After her whispered invocation, she picked up a stone and handed it to him. He glared at her quizzically.
“I know it is not your way. You are much more comfortable with a weapon in hand, ready to slash your way through your problems. But sometimes there is no enemy to vent your anger on. Only the pain and grief to deal with. Grief nourishes life. This will connect you to your community, to help call you back to life. Mourn that which has been lost.”
She held the stone out again. When he took it, she gestured toward the scattered rocks.
“Name your sorrow. Keep taking stones until each sorrow is named. When you are done, we will take the stones to the ocean to be scoured clean.”
Dinga lifted the first stone, its heft comfortable in his palm. He named his denial of Lalyani, labeling her ogbanje. With another he named their complicated relationship. With the last, he named their short time together. Wriggling within the pack straps, Dinga glanced toward Gerard. His friend approached to help free him of the pack. Dinga placed his burden at the foot of the shrine and began to unpack it. Within the bag was a thick, sealed clay container. Fishing around inside, he also withdrew a necklace. Gently as he could, Dinga cracked the jar open. Within it were ashes. He scooped out a spoonful and tamped some into the hollow of his necklace and sealed it with wax. A reliquary to carry with him.
“Only a broken heart can know true love.” Luci’Kobe placed her hand on his shoulder. “Grief never ends. It may soften, but it is the reminder of the love you had for her. It keeps her in this world. Don’t forget what must be remembered. You are a living memorial to her, but to do that, you have to live.”
At the edge of the Dreaming City was a grassy field that overlooked the forest below. It reminded Dinga of the alcove from his childhood. He raised his arms, joining his hands together, his palms curved as if cupping a great bowl. Holding up future generations or taking in the world, the moon, all the stars. A figure approached him, her gait hauntingly familiar until her image crystalized into that of Luci’Kobe.
“Your friend, Gerard, awaits you.”
“He can’t wait to depart for home. He hopes for an easier way down than the sheer cliffside.”
“There are ways known to us to make the way less... perilous.”
“I suppose he’s had enough peril for one journey. Time enough has passed that even those he probably angered in his homeland have, if not forgotten, given up on pursuing him.”
“I have something for you.” Luci’Kobe reached behind her and drew a sword. “It is the symbol of Ogun, orisha of war. Also, the patron of hunters and warriors.”
“But I do not serve Ogun. These days I do well to claim Nyame. Or even be claimed by him.”
“All who do Ogun’s work serve him. Gods don’t need your faith to carry out their will.” Laying the sword before him, Luci’Kobe joined him in the grass.
“I wish I shared your faith.”
“The gods are coming back one day.”
“The gods keep a fickle schedule. Do they give any hints as to when that might be?”
“A day. A year. A hundred or a thousand. It’s all but moments to them.” Luci’Kobe stood, reaching her hand down to drag him to his feet. When he rose, she clasped his face between her hands. “You are no longer who you were. It’s alright to shed that outworn skin.”
Dinga embraced her. “Tell Gerard that I will be with him in a bit.”
“Do not tarry too long. I do not know how long our beer stores can withstand his one-man siege.” Luci’Kobe smiled, and it drew one out of him.
When she left, though he stood, Dinga’s feet bothered him. It was his sandals. Lalyani could never abide shoes on her feet, which was why her soles were tougher than leather. He took them off and began to run. He came into the world free, and he would know what it meant to run free, to live in that space, and carry her story within him.
...to protect our future
“All journeys are born of death.” The eyes of Selamault sparkled as she spoke, delighting in the intonation of the ancient words. “Maya, bring down the lighting fifteen percent.”
<Augmented reality sub-routine interface lighting adjusted> said Maya, the AI running all Muungano systems.
The holographic flames dimmed. The young bard picked his chakram and tested the sharpness of its edges.
“You love to tell the ancient stories.” Wachiru bridged his fingers over the heatless flames of the artificial campfire.
“We’ve been telling the stories for hundreds of years. Every word in its place, none forgotten. The order is sacred, exactly as I once heard it. The story telling is the discipline. But when you perform the duty, uphold the sacred trust you were born to, you can’t help but love it.”
“Or be crushed by its weight,” Wachiru said.
“Did you not hear the story?”
“I heard a tale of death and sorrow. I’m not about a grief performance.”
“True, grief was part of it. But it was the lesson of figuring out your path. On your terms. Held safe by community. We have never been called to a safe path. With life, we’re promised a hard one, sometimes filled with adventure and uncertainty. Sometimes its only the path itself that can fill the longings of your heart.”
“I don’t know.”
“Have you become domesticated? Do passions cease to burn within you? Do you want to be safe? Then stay here.” Holding her hands out toward him, the Wise One stood up. “Or get off your ass and come with me. Your people need you to be a leader. Find those of us too savage for delicate sensibilities and refined ways. We are at a crossroads as a people. There is a kingdom of darkness, the old ways we strive against. We are a land torn by fear and in danger of falling back into the darkness that once held us.”
“Becoming the darkness to fight the darkness,” Wachiru said, his voice low and thick with regret. “So many believe we should project only strength, eschewing weakness, perceived or otherwise. From within or without.”
“We want to be subject to the scared whims of a manic leader, especially when by moonlight his inner demons get the better of him. The nature of true power can tolerate, even abide, dissent. Because with true power comes security. The secure are unbothered, even by the fever of ambition. Only the weak hate weakness. And his is the language of thrones and kingdoms. Barons of oppression. We chart a different course. That was the dream.”
“We’re a long way from the idea of Wagadu.”
“But Muungano is the city dreamt.”
The young poet grasped the old woman’s hand. She returned his clasp but overturned his hand to point out the black mark on his palm.
“The mark of Umlando?” he asked, his voice thick with skepticism.
“Or simply a birthmark. You’ve been raised with duty to family and community. A sacred duty. And a burden. But in the end, it is your choice what path to follow.”