(Shortlisted for the 2022 Nommo Awards, Best Short Story)
I: The Tethering
I lay on that stone slab beneath the stars, weak and delirious. I could feel the life bleeding out of me, even as the chilly mountain wind kissed my nakedness. From somewhere to my left came Mama’s distraught gasps: the cry of someone who had lost a child one too many times.
Baba Seyi appeared in my line of vision. “Cruel child,” he said. “Do you know what you are?”
I opened my mouth to speak, but the fever had stolen my voice.
“You are an abiku, a spirt child,” he said. “You have come to your mother three times before and have died before your seventh year. You relish her pain and suffering.”
How could he say that? How could he say I relished Mama’s suffering? I pitied her. I wanted to hold her, to tell her all would be well, that this was but a normal childhood ailment.
But I knew better.
“You will torment your parents no more.” He raised a bone knife and carved into the back of my hand.
I found my voice then, screaming as Baba Seyi carved three deep incisions into the back of my hand. He chanted dispassionately as he carved, fixing his lazy eye on me with a penetrating gaze.
Heat flared through my body. Heat so consuming that I feared I would melt into the slab. But I didn’t, and when Baba Seyi finished carving, I felt my fever break, felt the life return to me.
“Is it... is it done?” Mama asked.
“It is,” growled Baba Seyi as he faded into the darkness. “This will be the last time. The markings will hold her...”
Not long after, I started to see Rewa.
“Who are you talking to?” Mama asked.
“No one.” I said too quickly as Rewa snickered behind me.
Mama squinted. She wasn’t so easily fooled. “I think it’s time we went to see Baba Seyi again.”
“No!” I wailed. “Not the mystic, please Mama!”
Mama took my chin in her hands. “Look at you. You have that faraway look in your eyes. Don’t lie to me, are your friends calling at you?”
By ‘friends’, she meant other spirit children. By ‘friends’ she meant Rewa.
Rewa floated just above Mama’s head, doing cartwheels and pulling faces. I wanted to wince. “Mama,” I said, “no one is calling at me.”
Mama searched my eyes for a few moments before finally deciding I was telling the truth. She sighed. “Fine. But you’ll tell me if you... see them, won’t you?”
“Good.” She stood up and went into the kitchen.
I slowly exhaled. Rewa finished cart-wheeling and dropped in front of me, dipping into a courteous bow.
“See what you’ve caused,” I hissed. “Don’t talk to me when she’s around.”
Rewa plucked a bloodgrape from the bunch and tossed it into her mouth. For someone who was a spirit, I’d always wondered how she could contact the physical realm. “Your mother’s too much of a problem.”
“If you behave when she’s around, she won’t notice you.”
Rewa scoffed. “Look at you. Playing the good little daughter. You shouldn’t have to answer to them. You have no idea what you are.” She jabbed a finger in the direction of the kitchen. “You lived millennia before she was born.”
“The only life I know is this one. Whoever you claim I was—”
“—before, I don’t remember.”
Rewa gave a sour look. “How would you, when you...” She shuddered, gesturing at my markings.
When she raised her eyes, I saw something dark there.
“I have half a mind to kill her.”
“Don’t! Don’t you dare!” I cried. “Or... or I swear I’ll go to Baba Seyi.”
Rewa’s eyes were murderous. “You dare threaten me?”
“No—no—” I spluttered, remembering she did not respond well to threats. “It’s just—please don’t kill her.”
Rewa scowled at me, jumped off the table and vanished into the floor.
II: A Wall of Many Faces
Sometimes the walls developed faces. One moment they were the uninspired blandness of old wood, coated with soot from the coal pot, and the next there was a face staring at me, bulging out of the wood, a crude androgynous relief carving. Sometimes the faces stared unblinking, watching my every move. Sometimes they tittered. Once or twice the faces morphed, twenty or so of them, fusing into one hideous gargantuan aberration of a face. Strangely, strangely I did not scream.
I wanted to, though.
When I asked Rewa who they were, she said they were my family.
“Yes.” Her voice dripped with characteristic disdain. “Your true family. But obviously you don’t remember them.”
I looked at the tittering, whispering faces. “What are they saying?”
“Wondering how long this fallacy will last. When you’ll realize this isn’t where you belong.”
I bristled. “Well tell them this is where I belong. And my life is not a fallacy!”
Rewa tutted, touched my face. “You’ve forgotten yourself. This is not even your real face—it’s a mask.” My fingers reached for my face, tracing the spot Rewa’s fingers had been seconds ago.
I looked at the faces on the walls. “Why are they hiding in the walls? Why don’t they appear like you?”
Rewa shrugged. “I’m special.”
Just then Dotun poked his large round head into the room. “Hey abiku.”
“Don’t call me that.”
He flashed his stupid, annoying grin. “I’m not the one with spirit friends.” He entered the room, closing the door. “Where is it?”
“Where is what?”
“My cantikle. Don’t play dumb. I know you stole it.”
The cantikle was a brass-and-wood device which he had won from a toymaker a few weeks earlier. It had a wooden griot sitting atop several rows of rune tiles which could be selected to make the griot sing different songs. Almost like a real griot telling a story.
“Dotun, I didn’t take—” Out of the corner of my eye I saw Rewa produce the cantikle from the folds of her skirts, a wicked grin on her face.
“Hey hey!” He snapped his fingers in my face. “Over here. You were saying?”
“I...” I found it hard to concentrate with Rewa threatening to press a rune tile. The bloody faces were tittering behind Dotun. “I will try to find it.”
“See that you do, abiku.”
“Do you want me to handle him?” Rewa asked once he had left the room.
“Make it so he doesn’t bother you again.” She gave me a sly look, moving the stiff arms of the griot as though playing with a puppet.
Did I even want to know what she meant by that? “No, Rewa,” I said. “Just leave my family alone. Please.”
Rewa looked at me for the longest time. And when I looked back in her eyes, I realized for the first time that they were the wrong shade of black.
I did not feel the bed underneath me when I woke up. I did not feel the coarse bedspread scratching at my skin. At first, I wondered what was wrong, and it took me a while to realize it.
Then, I looked down... and did not see myself. My first instinct was to scream, but some morbid fascination held me back. I could feel my hands as I stretched them to my line of vision. I knew they were there—I just couldn’t see them! Panic welled up in me, and I leapt off the bed... and found myself floating, buoyed as if I were weightless, as if I were some stray redwood leaf tossed about by a chilly northern breeze.
But that too sounded wrong.
My voice echoed, strange and hollow like the clang of a gong in an old well. The effect jarred me, so disconcerting that I snapped my mouth shut. The world had a strange hue to it; where before my room had been a cacophony of colours—the sheets a mosaic patchwork of different fabrics, the old timber of the walls dark and subdued, colourful raffia embroidery on the walls—now everything, everything, waned to bluish grey, like the uninspiring hue of a rainy dawn.
And I felt cold. Too cold.
I heard chatter and laughter from the dining room. I drifted, grasping with hands I couldn’t see, towards the sounds. The same strange hue permeated the dining room, but the scene was a familiar one: Baba sat at the head of the rickety table, gently blowing on spoonfuls of steaming ogi; Mama sat opposite him, her headgear a wild elaborate thing perched on her head like some great bird of prey. She watched Dotun with mild fascination as he wound up his cantikle. I did not have time to wonder how he’d gotten his cantikle, because sitting opposite Dotun, in my chair was—
No. Not me. Rewa.
“...and then he said ‘see that you do, abiku.’” Rewa was saying in a voice which sounded uncannily like mine.
Dotun gasped, looking askance at Rewa. “I didn’t.”
“Yes, you did.”
“Now, now,” said Baba, gesturing with his spoon. “Haven’t I told you not to call your sister that?”
Dotun lowered his eyes and fiddled petulantly with the rune tiles. “She stole my cantikle.”
“I was trying to surprise you. I made some changes.”
Dotun finished winding the device and released it. The griot sprung to life, gesticulating and mouthing as she sang. Bright sparks went off from her tiara, lighting up all of their faces with awe.
“Wow!” said Mama. “Where did you learn to do that?”
Rewa shrugged. She caught my eyes and grinned a wicked grin. “Oh, you know. Lekan has been showing me some things.”
“I’m proud of you,” said Baba, reaching out to pat Rewa’s head.
I floated there, stunned. Lekan was a pyricc—the only pyricc in town—who had been showing me how to imbue light into things without light. I went to him when I could spare time from my chores, which was not often, and as a result I hadn’t even been able to summon light, let alone imbue things with it.
But he had shown me and not Rewa. He had been teaching me. Me!
This was my life, and this impostor was stealing it.
In that moment, blind fury rose up like a gorge within me, and I forgot all about my fear of Rewa. I threw myself at her, but I was a leaf in a breeze and my movements were clumsy and uncoordinated. I careened off to the side like a stone from a sling, knocking my head against the blackened rafters. White lights exploded in my vision, but my anger washed the pain away.
My family sat below, oblivious to my efforts, ignorant that the girl sitting at the table with them was an impostor and not their daughter. Oblivious to the fact that their real daughter floated above them in the astral world.
Rewa shot me triumphant looks as she slurped her ogi. Dotun wound his cantikle, face screwed in concentration as he selected rune tiles. I willed my anger into a fine point and shot down at Rewa like an arrow. She had only a moment to realize what was happening before I smashed into her. We crashed to the floor in a tangle of limbs.
My parents sprang to their feet, rushing to Rewa’s aid. Rewa sat there, flabbergasted. The look of surprise on her face was pleasing to look at.
She didn’t think I could touch her. I didn’t think I could touch her.
Before she could recover I launched at her again, grabbing her hair and yanking it back and forth. She screamed and I relished it.
“Give me back!” I yelled, dragging her hair. Mama gasped in horror as Rewa’s head snapped dangerously to the back. Rewa’s claws dug into my skin, but I held on in a vice-like grip, yanking her out of my disturbed parents’ arms. I wondered, vaguely, what they were seeing: their daughter being yanked about by an unseen force. But this wasn’t their daughter. The earlier they realized it, the better.
And then... Rewa became that which I feared the most. She flung me with such force that I landed on my belly with a loud oomf. I staggered to my feet and watched in horror as she morphed into a tall, spindly thing. Long arms and legs too numerous to count sprung out of her torso in sickening succession even as she stretched and elongated. Her face was the worst, never still for more than a moment, changing, changing, as though she couldn’t quite decide what she wanted to be.
I looked to see what my family thought of this metamorphosis and saw that they were frozen in position.
“I had to see for myself.” Her voice was something forbidding, textured. “Had to see why you love them so much. Now, I think... I can understand.”
I was pinned to the floor, watching the many faces of Rewa flit before me.
“And you know what? I think I want them for myself.”
“You can’t have them.”
Rewa bent till she was eye-level with me, her hideous face bare inches from mine. “Who is going to stop me. You?”
I felt a leaden sense of despair steal over me. I couldn’t stop her, and she knew that. I looked at my parents, at my brother, frozen. I thought of my life with them. The camaraderie. I thought of the way Baba bounced me on his knees; the musky, faint coconut smell of him. I thought of Mama and how she sang to me when she braided my hair to keep my mind off the pain. It wasn’t all bliss and sweet memories, but they were my family and I loved them. I couldn’t—didn’t want to —lose them.
“No,” I said with more conviction than I felt. “You won’t succeed. They’ll know you aren’t me. They’ll—”
Rewa laughed. “Oh, but they won’t. Like I said, we all wear masks. And yours fits perfectly over my face.” And with that she started to shrink, her numerous limbs retracting as she deflated back into my likeness.
In that moment my markings started to tingle, a low incessant itch which slowly morphed into something unbearable. White-hot pain flared up the skin of my arms
—my arms, which I could see!—
And I watched with morbid fascination as my arms materialized before me, as the markings twisted and curled along my forearms like snakes. I watched as my hands moved of their own volition, as they wrapped around Rewa in a strong embrace. I felt something yank me from behind my navel, and then I fell into darkness. Down, down, down...
Even before I opened my eyes I could feel that I was back in my body; I could feel the sheets beneath me, the coarse threads digging into my skin. Good gods, those sheets had never felt so good. I opened my eyes to find my parents peering at me, their faces sick with worry.
“Mama,” I croaked, “please take me to Baba Seyi.”
Baba Seyi came in the dead of the night to carry me away. I sat on the hard cracked earth in the town square beneath the gnarled iroko tree and waited for him. I had called him—or rather begged my mother to call him. I wanted to get rid of Rewa once and for all.
I waited in the town square because it was not safe for him to be in a human dwelling.
It wasn’t safe for the humans, of course; not him.
Rewa hovered somewhere around me, invisible. She only became invisible when she was angry, and oh—I could feel cold malice radiating from her.
“You’re making a terrible mistake,” she hissed. “You’re going to regret this.”
Rewa never made empty threats, and the flavour of this threat was something chilling. But I ignored her. This time I was determined to get rid of her. This time I would open myself to Baba Seyi and his... devices.
He came at the hour of the owl. One moment the barren landscape of the town centre stretched unbroken in all directions, and the next there stood Baba Seyi, jutting out in stark contrast.
“Girl,” he said, beckoning, “come with me.”
I stood up on gangly feet and dusted my skirts. I started towards him, and Rewa flickered before me, her black eyes alight with murder. I faltered.
“Quickly, now,” he snapped. The crack of his voice broke through my paralysis and sent me cantering towards him. He seized me with a bony hand—I barely had time to register the dryness of his touch before the world bent in over itself and the air squeezed out of my lungs. I felt myself flatten, thinner than a sea reed.
We stood high up on the mountain, outside his shack.
He let go of my hand and shambled into the shack, leaving me with the howling wind and biting frost. My heart fluttered as my eyes settled on the stone slab jutting out of the mountain like some giant phallus, remembering how Baba Seyi tied me to it before cutting the markings into my hand. Six years had passed since that fateful day, and yet the memory was as fresh as ever.
I stood there for a few moments, fighting the fear that threatened to spill out of my throat like bile. Moments later, Baba Seyi poked his head out of the shack and beckoned me in.
The guttering fire from the fire pit cast an interesting pattern of dancing shadows and warm light on the rough walls. An assortment of oddities hung from the ceiling, rotating on strings—a stuffed raven, yellowed clacking bones, old blackened carvings. A large water drum stood in the corner. I hesitated by the door, watching with great trepidation as Baba Seyi set his walking stick to the wall and unfastened his tie-dyed cloak, exposing a gaunt torso.
“Why did you call me?” he asked.
I could feel Rewa bristling with anger. “To... free myself.”
He looked at me, his lazy eye boring into mine. “Freedom is a many-faced god. There are a great many things I could free you from. Do you want to be free of this shell that you’ve worn to house your spirit? Do you want to die, abiku?”
Yes, Rewa whispered.
“No. Baba. I want to be free of... Rewa.”
“Mm-hmm.” He tore off a bunch of leaves and threw it in his mouth, chewing it methodically for a few moments. “Why do you want to be free of her?”
Why did I want to be free of her? Because she was demanding. Selfish. Destructive. A bully. “She scares me.” I croaked, but I knew that was not enough. “She is bad... for my family.”
Baba Seyi looked at me. “Hmm. So you’ve decided to stay.”
“The last time you were here, I bound you to your flesh to keep you from dying. You have remained with us only by the spells holding you, and that, effective as it is, is not enough. It is why you are still visited by your spirit companions. But now you have lived with your family and have grown to love them. So much so that you’ve come to the decision to remain with them.”
He paused here, and I had the feeling he was waiting for me to say something. “Yes, Baba.” I thought of my parents, of Dotun. I thought of the look on their faces when I gained back my body. It was a look I never wanted to see again. “I have.”
He nodded, contented. “Take off your clothes.”
I did not hesitate. Gooseflesh erupted over my skin the moment I peeled off the last layer of clothing. Baba Seyi placed me behind the fire before shuffling over to the large drum. He thrust a hand into it and came up with something brown and sticky—clay. And then he began to mould, chanting an earth song as he coaxed the clay into a shape.
I didn’t know how much time passed. It felt like a minute, but it well could have been years. Time this high up the mountain was irrelevant. But after some time, Baba Seyi stepped back to reveal a clay image, eerily lifelike. It felt, oddly, like looking into a mirror; from the position of uneasy repose to the small mounds that were my breasts. The image was me in every way except for the face, which was smooth and featureless, a blank surface.
“Where is the face?” I asked.
“You see, I wondered how Rewa was able to steal your body,” said Baba Seyi. “You are, after all, not the first abiku I have dealt with. They all have spirit companions, but you... this Rewa seems to have much more potent hold and connection to you. And then I realized: she is your ibeji.”
I was stunned. “My twin?”
“Yes. You have taken turns in coming to this world, each living for a short while before dying to allow the other come. Except for now. You have... overstayed, and she is quite displeased.”
It made sense now. I remembered asking her why she could manifest in a whole body but the other companions were just faces on the walls. She had only shrugged and said she was special. But then I also remembered her saying she wanted my family for herself. But didn’t I know? Hadn’t I realized, in the back of my mind, that she looked exactly like me?
Baba Seyi nodded at the clay image. “I will attempt to invite her into this vessel.”
A sister. I would have a sister. The prospect excited me. I turned to see what Rewa thought about it, but she was nowhere to be found.
“I—I can’t see her.” But that wasn’t right. Rewa didn’t always make herself seen, but I could always feel her and now... there was a Rewa-shaped space in my heart where she always dwelt.
Baba Seyi frowned. He sniffed the air and started to clap his hands and chant, stomping his feet into the ground. He stopped suddenly, his eyes growing wide. “No.”
That one word was a spear through my heart. Before I could open my mouth to ask what was wrong, Baba Seyi took my hand, and we appeared in the town square beneath the iroko tree.
Baba Seyi was hurrying in the direction of my house. “Quickly, girl!” he called over his shoulder.
I darted after him, a million thoughts hurtling through my mind. Through the chaos of it all I kept seeing Rewa’s black eyes, kept hearing her spiteful hiss: you will regret this.
I expected to find the exterior of the house in disarray; the roof on fire, the walls caved in—anything to denote Rewa’s wrath. But everything was just as I left it. Nestled between the fishmonger’s hut and the seamstress’, it stood serene. Deceptively serene.
Baba Seyi hovered by the door, unable to enter. I brushed past him, calling for Mama, Baba, Dotun. Anyone.
I found them at the dining table. They sat transfixed, staring at the gesticulating griot of the cantikle, watching as bright sparks shot out of her fingertips to bathe the otherwise dark room in a wash of colours. Where before, the griot’s movements had been fluid and graceful, now they were the choppy and strained movements of arthritic joints. She had a painful expression on her face.
Rewa sat in my chair, dressed in my best clothes, her dark eyes alight with malice. I did not want to think how she was there, how she was real.
“Rewa, please—” I started, but she held up a hand.
“Shush, now,” she said in a sugary voice, “we’re watching the performance.”
I truly saw the faces of my family members then. They wore slack, nearly vacant expressions and their eyes—oh, gods, their eyes!—were white.
The griot’s song sounded strangely detuned and warbled, and when she finally cut off mid-rendition, the silence that came after filled the air like a blanket of despair.
“Ah,” said Rewa, wiping a tear from her eye, “wasn’t that beautiful, Mama?”
I watched, numb with horror as Mama turned her head ever so slightly, settling her white eyes on a spot just above Rewa’s head. She nodded.
“Rewa...” I croaked. “What have you done?”
She drummed her tiny fingers on the table. “I have taken your place.”
“You—you don’t need to take my place. You’re my sister—” her eyes snapped towards me and I rushed on—“I remember now. We’re twins.”
She narrowed her eyes at me. “You remember?”
“Yes!” I cried. “We had a pact! I wasn’t supposed to stay this long. I—I left you, and I know that is bad, but I understand everything now, because I would feel bad if you did the same to me.”
A genuine look of hope appeared on her face. She pushed herself off the chair and rushed to hug me. “Oh, I’m glad! You finally remember. You have no idea what it was like waiting and waiting for you to come back to me.” She pushed me back and searched my eyes. “I thought you were going to send me away, that’s why...” She looked over her shoulder at my family who sat immobile, staring blankly into space. “Wait. How do you remember?”
“I—it doesn’t matter.” I said quickly. “We made you a body so you could come and join me here. But it looks like you have found a way.”
She gave me a mischievous smile. “I always find a way.” “Oh, we’re going to have so much fun together. Just like old times!”
I gave her my widest smile, darting a glance to my family.
“We’ll find another family to torment.”
My smile faltered. “Another family?”
“I thought you wanted to stay with this family.”
“I’ve changed my mind,” she said, leading me to the table. “Besides, where’s the fun in that? We were never meant to stay in one place.”
She stopped to look at me. “Do I sense hesitation, sister?”
A knife materialized in Rewa’s hand, which she pressed into mine. She nodded at Mama. “Kill her.”
“Kill her,” she repeated, watching me closely.
It was a test, I knew. And it was one I would fail. Even as I struggled to find an alternative, to say something, Rewa yanked the knife from my hands and plunged it into my Mama’s neck.
“What, you think I’m an idiot?” she said calmly as my mother buckled and thrashed like fish out of water. “You have been a very bad girl, Sola, and you will pay the price.”
The door opened, and my siblings—my real siblings—filed into the room. They were the lesser of us and had fashioned bodies for themselves out of anything they could find. Straw, wood, cooking pots and pans. Their faces were wood, the same wooden faces that had spied and tittered at me from the walls of my room. Grotesque aberrations of human forms, they moved in unison.
“Bad Sola,” they chanted in voices of metal and wood and straw. “Bad Sola. Bad Sola.”
Hands reached out to grab me as Rewa yanked out the knife and turned to attend to my father, cackling with pure delight, her thin sonorous chant of “Bad Sola” adding a musical texture to the droning of my siblings. It felt like a dream. A bad dream from which I would soon wake up, shivering and sweating but otherwise safe, safe in the knowledge that nothing could hurt me, that my mother was alive—
Something grabbed me. I looked down and felt the sudden urge to burst into maniacal laughter; a soup ladle, the same ladle Mama had used to pour soup into my plate, was now the arm of one of my siblings. It curled around my wrist in a vice-like grip while the sibling in question twisted his wooden face into a malicious smile.
I smacked his head with my other arm, screaming in pain as my fist connected with the hard wood of his head. Hands snaked out to grab me before I could recover, pinning me to the spot. Gods, they were strong. Too strong. They lifted me off my feet and bore me to the table, still chanting. My father sat drooling, and when I saw that Rewa had carved out his eyes, I fainted.
The pain woke me. Hands of spoons and wood held me to the table as Rewa carefully sliced the knife through my skin, cutting out my—
“Be still, now, sister,” she said when I started to struggle. “I am going to free you.”
Free me, no! I didn’t want to be freed. The markings were the only thing keeping me tethered to the world. Without them... I would be spirit again.
I screamed as Rewa plunged the knife into my skin, meticulously hacking away at the flesh. “Please, Rewa—I swear I’ll do anything—please—”
Rewa was deaf to my pleadings. She hacked, her eyes alight with malicious glee.
One of my siblings, who had fashioned for himself a body out of my mother’s cloak, leaned in. “Finish it,” he said to Rewa.
Just then, the roof caved in with a resounding crash, and in swooped the largest owl I had ever seen. It landed on the table just above me as my siblings scattered about. It turned its head to look at me, and I could see myself reflected in the huge glassy orbs that were its eyes. The left eye was a little slow. A lazy eye.
“Baba Seyi,” I breathed.
“Go,” He growled, and when I lay there stunned and transfixed, he spread his great wings and screeched. “GO!”
I fell off the table and bolted out of the house, Rewa’s formidable shriek of fury chasing me down the street.
I reached the town square when I noticed my feet were no longer touching the ground. The world took on that bluish-grey hue I had now come to recognize, and I rose, as if buoyed by an invisible wind.
I flailed, grasping for something—anything—to keep me tethered. As I turned around, I saw my body lying facedown in the dirt, saw my bloodied arm where Rewa had hacked away at my flesh.
Lying next to it was the torn patch of skin with my abiku markings.
The world fell away, breaking off like little flakes of burning parchment, until all that was left was the void.
First there was darkness; the cold, numbing darkness of the void. Then voices—whispers, really, a thousand sibilant words slithering over my skin like snakes. Then warmth.
—I am alive. I am me, festooned in a cocoon of water—
Then I am born. I see a face, teary-eyed and exhausted, the face of a new mother.