Today was Sabbath, but my brother had to take the mare on some excuse that he needed to run to the mines before heading for the temple. This was enough reason for me to miss worship with no compunction. The temple was at the heart of our large village; after a horseless walk in the biting cold, I’d be too weary to mumble a prayer. But missing worship by myself, staying alone in my cabin, my ears would ring until I’d find myself rambling round the room trying to shut one side of my heart to the other.
Even if all the villagers congregated at the temple, there was one person who would guiltlessly remain tethered to her bed—Esohe Okhah. If one needed a tangible rationale to miss the temple, other than the weightless indisposition to stand for a lifetime in a vast rotunda, Esohe could coin out a hundred. Her family’s cabin was only a few walks away. Whiling away the time with her would make the hours whirl out faster.
Outside, the villagers all headed north, families striding together or trotting on horses, some with eyes yet bordered by sleep vestiges. It was still early dawn, the kind with the cleanest air, before the poised harmattan dusts would begin swirling. I meandered between horses, half-hoping no good-natured faithful would offer to transport me. I dodged faces, focused on the flanks of horses.
Close to the Okhahs’, I saw Nata, Esohe’s father, riding his old mule. I quickly dropped my eyes. If I looked straight up, I was sure to find his eyes piercing me—the girl who was luring his daughter away from the divine tenets. (If I too had a father, he would have thought same of Esohe.) Yet, I was relieved knowing I wouldn’t be encountering him at the house and enduring the monologue of how errant today’s youngsters had become.
Esohe was a morning sleeper who had seen the first white clouds fewer times than a cock had crouched to pee. I whistled at her window, loud enough to eclipse the shrill of the larks and penetrate the cedary window. Footsteps loomed from the other side of the cabin. She emerged, holding a chewing stick and cup, dressed in her cottony cloak.
“I thought you said you’d be going to the temple,” she said.
“Mudia had to take the horse.”
Seeing Esohe dressed on a Sabbath morning was rare. But I did not want to make a fuss of it, especially since she was already acting like it was a habit.
“You’re going to worship?”
“It’s been a long time,” she said.
“We’ll ride together then.”
“You can ride her alone.” She gestured at her mare in the shack, whose neck was stretched up toward the teasing leaves of a crooked coconut tree. “I’ll go on foot.”
“You’ll be faster riding alone.” She laced and unlaced her fingers. “It’s already late.”
She started to say something but stopped. She was fumbling for words; it was not hard to see.
“You dressed up to deceive your father,” I said. “You have no intentions of going to the temple.”
The contrived cheer from her face waned out. She knew I could perceive that something was off. We’d done things together for eons.
“I’ll tell you the truth,” she said. “I’ve made plans to visit the sanctum today. Now is the best time, it’s first Sabbath, the sanctum will be empty.”
Visit. That was our codeword, but we visited only at nights.
Before she said it, I had sensed it. Lately, she had been rambling about the sanctum of the Order of Zephyrs; would poke it in the face of an unrelated discussion. I had been waiting for her to build the courage to voice it, only I never expected she’d schedule a visit to the sanctum on a Sabbath. But thinking about it now, no other day than today could be better.
“What if we have the same intentions?” I leaned against the hardwood wall of the cabin.
“I’m going to the sanctum to seek more knowledge of the pantheons. You’re least interested in that.” She began walking toward her horse’s shack. “We could ride together. You’ll dismount at the temple.” She untethered the mare.
I was tempted to burst out, shout at her, hit her on the head and remind her of how she’d be useless without me. Esohe was a deft thief, but without me, she wouldn’t last a heartbeat before being seized by one of the sentries. “I know the inner sanctum of the Zepyrs is adorned with gold. If you dare to steal alone, I guarantee you’ll be seated in the prisons by dusk.”
“I have no intentions of looting!” She was frowning at me. “I never knew the sanctum has gold.”
I decided to return home. I rose without sparing her a look.
After I’d walked a short distance, her voice sprang forth behind me. “Alright, Obehi, please come back, we go together.”
I was still chafed that she could think of venturing without me, and I made sure she saw it on my face.
“You’ve thought about this?” I asked. “What’s your plan? How do we get past the lock?”
She reached into her boot and slipped out a roped key. “I’m a thief.” She smiled. “We enter, grab, and dash out.”
The Order of Zephyrs were our link to the gods. They were the closest to the gods. Stealing from them might have divine consequences.
Esohe must have sensed my thoughts, because she said, “The Order do not care a tad about gold.”
She was the most avid and informed pantheon scholar I knew of; spent most of the night fixed on her papers. If she affirmed that the Order couldn’t care less about gold, robbing them was a reasonable risk. A handful of such pure nuggets could make a person rich enough to say no to an extra penny for the next ten years.
The streets were almost empty, with a few youngsters loitering and some senile faithfuls slowly riding their old horses to the temple. I imagined some of these faithfuls grimacing at us. Esohe didn’t have the best reputation in the village. “Money thief,” some persons have named her, and of course, some of the reputation must be rubbing off on me, but having a marred reputation was better than being a penniless saint hounded by the tax collectors.
I’d known Esohe since before we could walk, from those evenings when children convened in circles at the moonlit square to listen to folktales. She was a story lover, especially those stories related to the pantheons, the Order of Zephyrs, or pilgrimages to the Sahara, but she was also a known irritating pedant; even as a child, she intruded in the storytelling to uncourteously correct any factual flaw in the tale. She had grown to be a savant in matters of the pantheons—which might have made her overfamiliar enough with the gods to breed a little impiety—and would have been a great story weaver, but no parent would allow their child sit near a notoriety like her.
We slowed to a walk when riding past the temple to avoid causing a distraction (doing that would be giving the guards a reason to stop us and ask questions), and we heard the faint mumblings of the faithful villagers. The early sun spilled over the dome of the enormous temple, whose spire glistened softly.
We trotted into the third quarter of the village, so empty and quiet it hummed; clean streets and green air, perfect alleys between uniformly separated buildings: the relics store, cabins inhabited by the households of the sanctum keepers, temple marshals, holy faithfuls who had never missed a prayer in their lifetime. We trotted past the village court, hedged by towering squirrel-nested trees rustling in the gentle breeze. The air became serener as we approached the sanctum, its dome gleaming like varnished porcelain. As we rode nearer, my chest tightened, and I willfully shoved away the fear, but I kept my ears open for the slightest uncharacteristic noise. Esohe, as always, continued riding resolutely, and I comforted myself with some of her boldness.
We stopped, tethered the mare to a nearby palm tree, and scanned around us. When certain no eyes were on us, we circled the sanctum to arrive at its entrance. Esohe fetched the key from her boot and slotted it into the lock, pushed the door open to an unending line of downward-sloping stairs. Any attempt to peer to its end and I might topple over. We climbed down side by side, the air growing damper and dimmer with every step, my legs growing wearier. Faint echoes of our steps began to reverberate from the round walls.
Hung on the walls were stingy lanterns that shed their light on a small sphere, barely illuminating the etched glyphs on the wall. After the stairs was an underlit narrow passageway, with sidewalls lined with alcoves that contained reliquaries. Stealing relics would be unwise, as an attempt to sell them could raise suspicion, and they weren’t even gold. The gold adornments, I supposed, were in the innermost sanctum. I remained expectant as we journeyed the passageway. We might be a hundred feet below the surface.
“Where is the gold?” Esohe asked when we were out of the passageway into a less sweaty space. In the encompassing quiet, I heard faint steps shuffling from behind. I froze. The steps didn’t continue, but it wasn’t a trick of the ears. I waited for a voice, closed my eyes, tried to breathe, waited for the next steps. The quiet lingered and the steps didn’t come. I turned to look.
It was no keeper, no sentry, not anyone I would have guessed in a thousand trials. Standing there was a Zephyr, shrunk like the hind legs of a sickly calf, floury skin clothed with silk, tiny bristly hair on its head. Today was the first Sabbath of the month; all the Zephyrs were supposed to be in the temple. I was engulfed with a different kind of fear. I bowed slightly and was not sure why; reverence or shame.
With tilted head, the Zephyr looked at us giants, its petite eyes barely reaching our waists. Around the creature’s narrow neck, wrists, and ankles were rings of gold that managed to glitter in the dim. Esohe remained still, staring.
When trouble comes, don’t give it a chair. The Zephyr probably had not gotten a good look at us; now was the time to dart out. I reached to touch Esohe’s stiff hands. She, too, was staring, entranced, with head tilted as the Zephyr’s.
“Let’s leave,” I said.
She remained stiff, not seeming ready to flee. I started to walk past but halted at her voice.
“We came hoping to see the sacred relics,” she said to the Zephyr. “And to pray,” she added as an afterthought.
Esohe might be daring enough, but I wasn’t getting hanged with her. “I’m leaving, and you should too.” I strode off, while she remained there.
I paced back through the passageway, gathered my frock at my waist to hurry up the stairs, and when outside, I continued straight ahead, occasionally looking behind, hoping to see Esohe. The worship would be over soon and the villagers would start pouring out of the temple. I continued walking until hooves and footsteps became audible and I was amid a handful of villagers before I turned and headed for my cabin, still hoping to bump into Esohe.
Esohe was a sage friend, I had never thought her otherwise, and though I had never deemed her wisdom infallible, I had also never thought it so lowly. Wisdom was also knowing which way to run when pursued by danger. I prayed she had recovered from her hesitation early enough to have hurried out before the keepers returned.
I didn’t leave the cabin for the remainder of the day, didn’t even head to the drying lake to refill the pails. I lounged on the chair at my porch and studied the face of every passerby, if they bore news of any abominable trespass, the kind so treacherous like a young thief caught in the sanctum on a Sabbath. The haunting ill-defined face of the Zephyr couldn’t leave my mind. The Zephyr was supposed to have been in the temple. Zephyrs were wind lovers, even if the wind shrank them; breathed through their skin so that it became loosened enough that it turned floury. They only came to the surface and gratified their wind lust on first Sabbaths, at the temple. I stayed out on the porch till the orange sun became haloed by its lush shadows, hoping to see Esohe riding toward the cabin.
Before it became too dark to see, Mudia, my brother, trotted home in coal-stained clothes, holding by the tail a dangling rabbit he had found shackled in its cage. Far behind him was Esohe astride her mare, slowly riding.
Mudia, after tethering our horse at the yard, headed for the kitchen, howling that he was unbearably hungry and needed to grill the rabbit immediately.
Esohe had the same mien she bore after every other visit.
After she came inside the cabin, I said, “You could have landed us in trouble. Perhaps you have already.” I tried not to yell at her. “Where have you been?”
“The only thing I landed us in is this.” She upturned her goatskin bag, and gold and silvery utensils, bowls, spoons, cups, fell on the floor with a clatter. “I dug more after you left. I never knew of such gold, we should have raided there long ago.”
I quickly shoved them back into the bag, looking behind to check if Mudia had come into the room. “Where did you find these? How?”
“I located the dining room. It happens our Zephyrs don’t eat with mere earthenware.”
“The Zephyr will report you to the keepers.”
She waved a hand. “Oh, fear not.” She cocked her head. “Aren’t you happy?”
“Don’t worry. This is all on me.”
“Yes, of course. I’m worried about you.”
She chuckled. “That’s charming, but there’s nothing to worry about. The Zephyr won’t talk, nobody will notice, there’s still a lot in there.”
“This has to be buried and never unearthed until it’s clear you’re in no danger.”
I reminded myself of the day’s events, her folly, what could have happened, what could still happen. “It’s best we no more visit together,” I said. “I’ve never been this close to death.”
“Aren’t you curious of what information I got from the Zephyr? We had a long talk.”
Esohe remained with us for dinner. I couldn’t eat much of the bushmeat. Mudia had rushed the grilling and the meat was too sinewy for my teeth. He and Esohe munched most of it, chewing noisily, and for a moment the usual friction between them seemed to have dissolved (my brother had never liked Esohe and was strongly against our friendship). I gulped the most of the palm wine. After the meal, Mudia staggered to the bed and quickly started snoring.
Esohe requested I accompany her home.
We walked alongside, while Esohe held her mare’s rope, leading her. It was already dark and Esohe had begun to ramble some things that made me conclude she was near drunk or sleepy or both. In this possibly drunken state, she was so intent on telling me of what information she learnt from the Zephyr, while my mind drifted to the loot at my cabin, imagining if it was possible for Mudia to awake and stagger to the high shelf where I had placed the bag. Merely seeing the bag could implicate him. Esohe had asked I keep it for the night; she could encounter her ever-suspicious father at home, who might try all means to see what was in the goatskin.
“Where did you find the sanctum’s dining room?” I asked.
“I’ll draw you a map tomorrow.”
After a while, I said, “At least you got gold.”
“I have no use of gold.”
“Yes, just the money in it.”
The streets were thick with flickering fireflies and a bit auburn from the few lambent torches tilted from the walls of stone cottages. Occasionally, we ambled past circles of children playing games that made them lace their ankles against each other’s.
“Give my share to Mudia.”
I stopped walking. “You said?”
“My share, give it to Mudia,” she said, “even if he doesn’t like me.”
“You— Did you hear yourself? I mean you did all of the work.”
“I don’t need it. I was honest when I said I never knew the sanctum had gold. If you’d been listening to me, you’d know I have bigger worries than gold.”
Her words prickled and unsettled me. “What are you saying?”
For a while, she said nothing, her face solemn. She started to talk but stopped, and for a moment I feared it had something to do with the loot.
“I am like those of the Order.”
If she had said this at another moment, I would have indulged her with a feigned laugh. But now, even though she was muttering gibberish, laughing might only worsen things. So I said, “Is that what the Zephyr told you? That you too are a Zephyr?”
“I went to the sanctum hoping to find a panacea that retarded the shrinking or assuaged the wind lust. I’ve known I’m a Zephyr for some years back. But only recently have I noticed my flesh and bones shrink under the gentle yet irresistible air. The Zephyr at the sanctum said I’ve reached the growth peak. I can now only shrink, and I will only last few weeks if I don’t vacate the surface and come dwell in the deep sanctum with them.”
The Zephyrs came from the Sahara, sent by the gods to be an intermediary with us humans. I still expected her to burst into a laugh at her facetious joke of being a Zephyr. “You were birthed here. You have lived amongst us your whole life.”
“Yes, I’m not from the Sahara. Not all possibilities are contained in the parchments. The Zephyrs come from lands far beyond the Sahara, where they are deemed abnormal and cast away. They find us in search of safe harbor.”
There was no glimmer of cheer on her face.
“But you don’t have the gifts of the Zephyrs,” I said. “You can’t foresee the rain, the storm, a good planting season.”
“Obehi, I know the wind. I feel her, her movements. That’s all required to foretell a good planting season.”
We were almost at her cabin. “I don’t know what—”
“You can’t voice this to anyone. Not even Mudia.”
I nodded, still trying to put my head together, still half-expecting her to break into a chortle at how she caught me. “But you were born here.”
She nodded and exhaled loudly. I stopped walking and watched her stride to her cabin, leading her mare, and then I saw her silhouette, atrophied, shriveled, clearly noticeable despite her cloak.
That last image of her stayed with me the whole night. I rushed to her cabin the next morning. Nata, her father, was gratingly whetting his carpenter’s knife at the porch and, on seeing me, did not bother to keep straightened brows to hide his resentment.
“I’ve come to return this.” I showed Esohe’s goatskin. I had buried the gold at my garden before dawn.
When I entered Esohe’s room, she was still in her smock, pooled on her bed like liquid. Her breasts were almost flattened, no stomach bulge, brown skin already turning clayey. Everyone now would conclude her ill.
“Don’t look at me like that,” she said. “I’m neither cold nor sick.” She grinned. “In a different circumstance, you’d be reverencing me. I don’t need the pity.”
“If you really are a Zephyr,” I said, “you have to show yourself to the keepers. You need to move to the sanctum.”
“I can’t. Nobody can know of my shrinking. What I need to do now is leave the house before my father sees me.” She rose and pulled on a tunic that was now twice her size.
“Your father may know what to do.”
“My father is the most devoted faithful. If he knows his daughter is of the Order, he’ll be disoriented. He will panic beyond reason, and in the end he’ll feel obligated to reveal me.”
I sat on the edge of the bed. “What do you intend to do?”
She stared at me for a while. “I do not know.”
“I know of a place that may help, before you decide.”
“There is a forgotten dried-up well beyond the grazing field. It’s not nearly as deep or enclosed as the sanctum, but it can shut out some of the surface wind.”
“It’s a suggestion, that I hope makes you rethink and decide on the sanctum.”
The gentle morning harmattan air had already started streaming through the wide-open windows, every draft a pernicious acid dissolving Esohe’s skin, seeping through all her pores to wear out her bones, the flesh of her insides. She was already unbelievably thin. I imagined each outer layer flaying off.
I marched to the windows and shut them. “You’re going to the sanctum! I’m telling your father!”
She pushed the windows open. “Please let me relish the air.”
“You’re shredding yourself apart.”
She sat on the bedbeside me and leaned against a bedpost. “The sanctum is not a lasting solution. I’ll still fade out, albeit slower, until my last grain becomes one with the wind. Anyways, it is a comely place, houses a lot of writings that could occupy me till my eyes become too small. But have you ever thought of how the village would react on finding out the disreputable Esohe, infamous thief who was never caught in the act, is of the Order.”
She glanced at me.
“I guess right now you’re already thinking the Zephyrs are not that holy after all; it’s all a sham, the worship, the gods. Imagine if everyone harbors such thought. It would only be a little while before they start to worry about the meagre tithe they offer to cater for the Zephyrs. There are not very many places where Zephyrs are accepted. Revealing myself would be disastrous to my kind.”
“You don’t know that. What is certain is at this rate, you won’t last a week.”
She rose. “My father has ridden off. Why don’t we start heading for this well. Before the streets become full. I don’t want to be the spectacle of the village.”
I could barely feel Esohe’s presence beside me while we walked abreast. I tried to avoid faces so no concerned person would enquire if I was helping her to the sickhouse. We traipsed across the area of the field far away from where villagers grazed their horses. After, we continued into the vast uninhabited thickety grove, blades of sere grasses scraping our feet.
The well was not as deep as I had thought, wouldn’t shut out enough of the wind’s breath, and it was speckled with grass tufts on its wall and bottom. We stood at its edge, peering, and I supposed Esohe, too, was thinking of snakes. We wound a rope round a nearby stump and unfurled it into the well. And slowly we descended in.
Stooped at the bottom, uprooting the tufts, Esohe said, “I hope I don’t die of a serpent’s venom before I fade into nothingness.”
“I hope you decide to live in the sanctum before either of those happens.”
Esohe didn’t ask, but I visited her in the well thrice a day, bringing food. She was shrinking at all sides, becoming misshapen, like a weathering termite mound, face receding into a lump, mouth tightening into a tiny pout, hair curling into distinct frills, and I could feel the powder of her skin, as though a mere stare could puff it off. Soon, she couldn’t eat much; could barely finish a scone or cup of gruel and began to prefer only boiled plums.
“Are you just going to let yourself fade out?”
“Same way old people let themselves grow old.”
“If you show yourself now, you can still save some days of your life.”
“At the expense of invalidating the Zephyrs and those that will come after.”
“Your father stopped by my house. He’s worried.”
She had begun to lose her voice. I was seated on the well’s bottom, just beside her, yet her words eluded me. The lemon oil I had sprinkled in the well could scarcely dwarf the underlying stench. But Esohe said she could barely smell a whiff; she was gradually losing that too.
“My father will have to conclude me missing.”
“It won’t be easy for him.”
After a while, she said, “The more I shrink, the more her voice becomes clearer; the wind, no longer a misty bluster.”
“I wish I could hear too.”
“Yes, I wish you could. It’s distinct, beautiful.” She smiled, a little stretch of her pout. “The wind’s thanking you. The departed Zephyrs, they wish there was a way to repay the favor.”
“The air I breathe is enough. Tell the wind that.”
“I think she heard you.”
She asked me to take her to the surface to spend a moment; that even the Zephyrs in the sanctum came outside once a month, on the first Sabbath. She urged, but I tenaciously refused. The Zephyrs were almost a hundred feet below ground and she was scarcely over twenty, still savoring a good portion of the wind’s breath daily.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “Here, I’m your keeper; it’s my duty to make you last as long as possible. A moment on the surface will cost you much. Very soon you’ll have all the air you can get.”
Esohe was never much loved on the surface, so her absence was not felt. Only her father made noise, knocked on doors, questioned every villager walking on the street, beckoned neighbors to join him in a search, and I imagined them weaving out intricate excuses to decline. He continued stopping by my house. People claimed they saw the two of us walking together, he said. Yes, I affirmed, but I left her at the field.
I was Esohe’s only friend; I had to join her father in the search. The two of us scoured the grazing field and beyond until we had to conclude she couldn’t be anywhere near; of course, there was no place to be beyond the field. But whenever he glanced at me, I saw suspicion spread over his face: what in the gods name have you led my daughter into?
I began to carefully watch my path when going to visit Esohe in the well. I visited only once per day, with little food that would last her. I would nestle her to myself to shield her of the scarce yet poisonous air and tell her of the latest happenings in the village, not sure if she could hear. I told her Mudia was worried and sometimes joined her father and me in the vain search. I sang in low tunes to her and moved my body with hers. Some days, I spent the full day with her. The well quickly became dark, the nights were longer, and so we constantly lived under the golden hue of lamplight. I read to her, scoured for all the books I could find, and would read aloud. But in my alone time, I read records on the lives of Zephyrs, searched for what could make them last longer. There was no other way; only the sanctum.
One night, when I was caressing her with olive balm so that the white-brown of her fading skin shone like metal, I brought her close to my ears and said, “No one deserves to spend her last days in a well.”
I pressed her closer to my ears, yearning to hear her speak, but she said nothing.
“I can take you out of this well. I can take you to the Sanctum, I don’t care who sees us. No one would recognize you. I’ll tell the keepers I saw you near the borders.”
I felt her vibrations against my face, her gentle spasms, but I wasn’t sure if that was an approval.
“Everyone should spend her last days with her kind,” I said “in a becalming comfort.”
I pressed her to my face and breathed her in, tried to fill up myself with her, to absorb her aura, render it everlasting.
“Who is your kind?” She spoke, her voice a gentle breath against my cheeks.
I held her closer to my cheeks, and she muttered again: “Who is your kind?”
“One who is like you.”
Later, after a long quiet, I said, “One with whom you share love.”
“Yes,” she muttered.
I continued caressing her floury skin with my balm, watching her sparkle in the dimming light.
“Please take me out of here.”
I stroked her face and for a moment saw flashes of her former features; the subtle contours of her face before the wind had consumed her flesh. When the jar of balm was empty, I tucked her in my cushioned goatskin bag, and together, we climbed out of the well.
On the surface, the night was far gone and tranquil. We rode together on my mare, and I trotted with prudent thuds. It was a long and raucous journey through the grove, but soon after, my clip-clopping became the only sound of the village.
I periodically felt my bag to know if she was still in there, but I never looked into it. After a continuous ride without halting, the thoroughfare leading to my cabin became visible. I rode until I was at my door. The house was empty and humid. Mudia was at the mines.
Esohe was almost half her size since we had left the well and could easily nestle in my hands. I laid her on the bed and swaddled her with my fleecy shawl but felt her resistant spasms. I uncovered her, left her bare, unclothed, and lay beside.
All through the night, I felt her morph against me, into grains, into noiseless air, nothingness. I breathed in and let the rest of her fill the space of the room. I listened for the moans of the escaping winds.
On the next Sabbath, I worshiped in the temple. I went before dawn so that I could stand just before the pedestal of the Zephyrs and have a complete view. The Zephyrs were more alike than I thought, the same shapeless features, many of them having the same heights, and I had to squint to see some of them. I focused on the indistinguishably minute ones all through my worshipping, those who resembled the last phase, who would barely last a day if left on the surface.
When Mudia and I were riding back home, we sighted three men standing by our door. Tax collectors, I feared. As we got nearer to our cabin, the ravenlike judicial signet clipped to the collars of two of the men became visible. The third man was Nata.
The night before, Nata had stopped by and directly asked me: where is my daughter? I couldn’t tell him where Esohe was. I didn’t know, she could be anywhere in the Sahara.
“What are they doing here?” Mudia asked.
The two judicial men strode to us before we could dismount. “Obehi Ehichoya, we have orders from the court to place you in custody.”
They let me dismount. Nata blankly stared at me from a distance. What arrest-worthy evidence could he have given the court, to prove my involvement in his daughter’s disappearance?
“What has she done?” Mudia was screaming. “This is absurd! She has nothing to do with Esohe’s disappearance!” I wished he would stop. Neighbors were already assembling.
The men ignored him and manacled my wrists with cold metal and led me to their carriage beside the house.
The aridness of the harmattan didn’t reach into my cell. Its stone walls were edged with fungus. It was dank at night and fusty during the day but always reeked nauseatingly like old moist hay. There were two other women in the cell, who were older and less interested in conversation than I was. I did not recognize them and deemed them foreign prisoners apprehended in the village.
They didn’t stay long. They were led out four days later, the same day I was informed of my trial. It was scheduled for the first week of the following month. I imagined now that the news of how I was involved in Esohe’s disappearance must have pervaded the village; her only friend, how pitiable.
I spent most of the time mapping out how to defend myself in court, what could her father have said against me. Perhaps he had enough corroborators who claimed to have seen me with Esohe beyond the grazing field, contradicting my claim. If that was all, then I could easily defend myself before the tribunal. But the intuition that there was a greater evidence kept gnawing on me; the court wouldn’t issue an arrest on a fragile foundation. Most nights, I didn’t sleep; I retraced my steps, searched for loopholes.
The seven chiefs were present for my trial, hatted and seated on plush armchairs behind the king’s hand, who had a red left eye. Beside the king’s hand sat his clerk, already holding his quill, and at the door stood the staid custodian. At the left end of the court was seated Esohe’s father, Nata, his face grim as ever, staring straight at the blank wall opposite him. I, surrounded by nothing, stood at the middle of the court, a small distance away from the king’s hand. I was still trying to find a loophole and concoct a matching defense.
After acknowledging the chiefs, the king’s hand looked at me and then lowered his head to the papers on his table. “Obehi Ehichoya, you have been accused with burgling the inner sanctum of the Order of Zephyrs on the first Sabbath of the past month. How do you plea?”
The sanctum. The charge kept resounding in my head. Treason against the gods. I’d be sent to the gallows. I stared at the king’s hand. My legs began failing me.
“How do you plea?” he asked again.
“I do not wish to contend.”
After the spectacle of me at the gallows, Mudia would certainly be sent away from the mines, and he might not find any other work to do. I wished I had told him of the gold buried in the garden; he might have been able to find a buyer at another village where no one would suspect the gold’s origin.
The king’s hand ordered Nata to speak.
Nata rose. “It’s no news of my missing daughter, Esohe. After searching the village with no result, I opted to check inside my house. My daughter is a lover of the pen; she writes everything down on her papers. I ruffled through her papers in hope for a clue, and I happened upon a heartbreaking discovery, which I cannot keep to myself or I would suffer the ire of the gods. In my daughter’s papers, I found the layout and writings of how she intended to steal the key of the sanctum and sneak in on the first Sabbath of the past month. I have handed the papers to the court. Obehi Ehichoya, I know, is my daughter’s closest companion and cohort.”
“Obehi Ehichoya,” the king’s hand said, “several villagers have been consulted, and a few who were not at the temple testified to have seen you riding with Esohe Okhah on the first Sabbath of the previous month. Is this true?”
“To where were you headed?”
“I rode with Esohe to the sanctum, but I left with empty hands, took nothing.”
The custodian strode to the clerk and whispered in his ear and returned to the door. The clerk leaned nearer to the king’s hand and muttered to him; they conferred for a while and turned heads to the door. The king’s hand nodded at the custodian.
The pounding of my head heightened. The chiefs stared at me with gathered eyes as though they wished to impale me with their gaze and spare the hangman of his duty.
Shadows loomed at the door. A jacketed man dark as tar strode in, cradling an open oaken box. The custodian directed him to a chair beside Nata. He held to himself the box, which must of course contain the loot. I had buried the gold deep enough, but it wouldn’t be hard for a determined seeker to find.
The king’s hand ordered the jacketed man to speak.
The man rose and held the box to his chest. “I am thankful for the unplanned reception. I am a keeper of the sanctum”—only now did I notice the moon-shaped signet on his collar. “I am here to speak for one of the Order, who is here with me.” He dug into his box and gently brought out what could have been a shapeless bough wrapped in wool, but though mostly immobile, it could manage few noticeable jerks. It was a Zephyr, looking so holy. I instantly peered at it, searching for familiar features, anything to match my last memory of Esohe, any familiar spasms. Its woolen garment made it look much less shrunk than the Esohe who perfectly fitted in my bag.
The keeper continued. “I will speak out the words of the Zephyr to the hearing of the tribunal.” He gently raised the Zephyr to his ear.
The keeper held the Zephyr to his ear for a long while, then began. “The Zephyr, on behalf of the Order, expresses discontent on how they were not apprised or consulted of a case that relates to the sanctum, their dwelling. Had the matter not slipped from the mouths of conversing keepers, such a case would have continued without the Order’s knowledge.”
“It was agreed upon to leave the Order undisturbed,” the king’s hand said. “They need not hear of such a profane act.”
The keeper listened again to the Zephyr, now for an overstretched period, during which the atmosphere grew denser. My legs were wobbling. I was standing in empty air. There was nothing to wedge myself against.
“On the first Sabbath of the previous month, the Zephyr chose not to go to the temple. A while after the others had left, two young women appeared in the inner sanctum, for reasons unknown at first. But on further study, it became clear to the Zephyr that they had come to revere the dwelling of the Order.”
The chiefs turned their heads to me and I held their gaze. I prayed within. I’d never thought of praying since my arrest, not to the gods, not to the Zephyrs.
“Perhaps, out of overzealous faithfulness,” the keeper continued, “believing their worship and petitions were more acceptable if presented from the sanctum rather than the temple. The lengths to which some faithfuls can go to secure the favor of the gods can be as unimaginable or absurd as illicitly entering the sanctum to worship. It should be the temple’s duty to address the villagers, advise them of the limits, so they don’t go overboard with their faith.”
I peered at the Zephyr, wishing I could hold it to my ears, thank it for the freedom, hear its voice, if it would be similar to Esohe’s, ask it about Esohe: can she be possibly here? Is she still living, in the winds? Is she happy? Does she have any words for me?
A Zephyr was too pious to tell a lie. If it said we had come to worship, then we had come to worship; our gods defined truth.
After a conferment among the king’s hand and palace chiefs, the trial was adjourned to the next day, and the keeper replaced the Zephyr in the box and strode out with it.
I was sentenced to four months in the fusty and dank cell for unlawful entering and was fined twenty pounds of coins; the village could not afford the faithfuls yearning to access the sanctum. I always went early to the temple on first Sabbaths to stand at the front row and see the indistinct Zephyrs on their pedestal and focus on the most familiar, those of the last phase.
In the following years, I journeyed with the pilgrims to the Sahara. The breath of the Sahara was sublime, gently slid through my every pore and slipped through my fingers like dreams, swirled from the flowing skies and from beneath the seas of cascading sands, eager to embrace me with its delight and impress its mark. Sometimes, when it was as quiet as empty, I heard it, her subtle distinct voice amidst her undulating sighs.