Our storytellers sing that the Great River Gimamu brought life to the world when the gods first stepped out of it. But when I saw the ships that morning, I knew that it also brought death.
As I sat at my stall, weaving the final threads of a new basket, I saw the outlanders’ masts gleaming in the sun, tall as the tallest tree in the forest. Many in the market drifted towards the docks to see the newcomers arrive, but beside me, my grandmother huffed disapprovingly.
The outlanders soon appeared at market, wandering from stall to stall, trailing a crowd of curious children. They wore stiff clothing and carried strange straight swords. I heard one of them speaking our language in halting tones, asking each stallholder how much for this calabash or that mud cloth. They were amazed, it seemed, at what we could do with the cahi plant; that its shoots could make a hearty meal and its leaves be brewed into tea or woven into baskets such as those I made.
“Hello,” a gaunt outlander said, stopping at my stall. His eyes roved over my baskets and mats and children’s dolls. His mouth smiled pleasantly, but there was a hunger in his eyes, a greed I did not like. “How much for one of these?” he said, stroking a doll I had made.
“Ten ca beans,” I told him, not meeting his gaze.
“You mean nine,” he said, then gestured to a second outlander standing off to one side. This man wore a cloak of white and silver and a hood that hid every part of his face. When the first man gestured, this one lifted the scroll he carried and began to scratch upon it with a feather, writing in a script as stiff and angular as the outlanders themselves. I found I could not take my eyes from either the scroll or the feather. Something about the way the first outlander glanced at his white-clad companion told me that this was a person to fear. And I did not want him in our town.
“Nine,” he said, counting the beans out onto the stand before me.
I opened my mouth to say ten, but the word would not come. It seemed to stick in my throat, then disappear entirely. I was still scowling and trying to speak when the outlander took the doll and drifted onwards.
My grandmother clucked disapprovingly. “Why did you do that?”
“I—I don’t know,” I said.
Before long, the Elders met with the outlanders in the market story-circle. I did not join the crowd that gathered to listen, but afterwards, my brother Tenu came to regale me with the details. They were traders, he said. They’d come for cahi plants, he said. They were willing to pay well. But still I wondered... what need did traders have of blades?
As the traders haggled with our Elders, the white-clad man drew his careful shapes upon the scroll. Committing what had been agreed to writing, Tenu told me, though why such a thing was needed when they had the word of our Elders was beyond me.
At midday, the traders left with ten sacks of cahi and gave us twelve sacks of yellowgrain in exchange. But I knew that they would be back, and I looked to that day with unease.
Everyone in town knew our grandmother, and everyone knew that her word could not to be disobeyed. Words were my grandmother’s greatest strength. It was how she kept the six of us in line after our parents died in a boat accident. It was how she secured the best prices for our baskets and dolls. And of course, it was how she kept much of the town entertained every sunset in the story-circle.
Ah, my grandmother’s stories! She knew a thousand of them and more. How the river changed its flow. What happened when Lord of the Night glimpsed the Daughter of the Day. The Tale of Jemoki and the Six Blades. They said our grandmother’s words could enchant even the wildest of hearts. That she carried power in her tales of our ancestors and our gods, our heroes and our myths.
And since my first child had begun to grow in my belly, my grandmother had also been the clucking hen who fussed over me night and day, as though I were made of gossamer and might fall apart at the slightest breeze.
It was perhaps ten days later when the traders returned, drifting from stall to stall again. My grandmother shooed me away when she saw them approach, told me to busy myself counting out our remaining dried cahi leaves. But the voice of the gaunt trader was like an insect creeping over my skin when I heard him speak.
“I’d like to buy all your remaining baskets,” he said. “How much, please?”
“No,” my grandmother said. “They’re not for sale.”
“Oh?” I looked around in time to see the man gesture. At the movement, the white-clad figure scratched on his scroll again. “Are you certain?”
My grandmother gripped her cane, her lips pursed. I saw a vein pulsing in her neck, and the creases between her brows deepen. Finally, she grunted, “They are yours.”
“Thank you,” the gaunt trader said, dropping payment on the stand—nine ca beans for each basket. Wordlessly, my grandmother handed our wares over. She did not meet their amused gazes.
“What happened?” I said, as the trader wandered onwards, his arms filled with my baskets.
“I do not know,” my grandmother said. “It was as though they... they took the words from my mouth. And not just the words; the very thought of refusal. I tell you, there is some foul magic in that script of theirs. Some terrible cruelty.”
I wanted to tell her she was wrong; that words and thoughts cannot be stolen. But I remembered the scratch of feather on scroll and knew something dangerous had forced its way into our lives.
My child was born just when things started to change in our town. The birth was long and hard, and afterwards, the child and I—I named him Ochunu, after my dead father—wanted only to sleep and nurse. So to me, the changes in our town happened suddenly, as day turns suddenly to night in the mountains, without giving any sign.
When I was well enough to walk again, perhaps two moons later, I strapped Ochunu to my back and made my way to our stall for the first time. I saw my grandmother there, weaving the baskets with her deft hands, and I saw the usual crowd of neighbours and townsfolk. But I also saw outlanders; many, many outlanders. They wore their stiff heavy clothes and sat in groups in the story-circle, while local children served them cahi leaf tea. More of them drifted out of Elder Zentini’s hut or headed towards the dock, where I could see the tall masts of four of their ships.
“What’s going on?” I said, joining my grandmother.
She sucked on her cheek, her hands moving ceaselessly, looping over and under.
“Go home,” she said. “It is... not safe here any more.”
I looked at the children, who were laughing and playing a chasing game. Then at the stallholders and the shoppers and the people I knew so well...
“They are everywhere now,” my grandmother said. “These outlanders. And we cannot say no to them. If we try, they take our words. Seal them up with that script, so that we cannot use them.”
“What do you mean?” I said. “Can’t the Elders do anything?”
My grandmother’s hands wove in and out, loop and pull, as though the movements were all that kept her alive.
“Only Old Haliin remains,” my grandmother said, looping and pulling, her brow shiny with sweat. “Zentini drowned when her boat was attacked by bandits. Bami died in their sleep—their heart, the healer said. Yeshin was mauled by a forest cat... at least, that was what it looked like when they found his body.”
“Then we must fight back,” I said.
“Yes,” my grandmother replied, looping and pulling.
The Ishani—that was what the outlanders were called—spread through our town like rot spreads through a diseased tree. Soon they were everywhere. Erecting tall, wooden buildings. Herding our people downriver, where the land was no good.
And they took our words. They took our numbers first, so that we could not make good bargains. So at sunset, my grandmother told the town the story of The Gonlo Bird, who always asks for more! more!, and the next day, the Ishani took that word, too.
Soon, the Abji people stopped coming to our town, and then the Forest People, too. At the river, I heard them saying that they thought our town was cursed. That a creeping disease of silence was stealing over it, which would infect any who stepped within.
Still, my grandmother told her stories. Even as her words disappeared, she found new ways to tell each tale.
Every day, I bound Ochunu to my back and took him to market to buy fruit and grain. And every day, the silence seemed to have penetrated deeper into the soul of our people. The children did not sing their rhymes or their counting games. The elders did not gossip. The signers who preferred to talk with their hands did not share jokes as they worked. Our people shuffled about in their old routines, communicating in single words. And the fruit and grain cost more now, I noticed; twice the price I used to pay. But Senlo, my mother’s favourite fruit merchant, simply shook her head at me when I asked her why.
There was a horrible power in the Ishanis’ twisted words, something not of the gods at all. I did not know if it was the feather or the scroll, or perhaps the act of bringing the two together, but whatever was written by the white-clad outlander was taken from our minds. I wondered if he were an evil spirit, able to reach inside our heads and pluck the knowledge from within. But when I tried to tell my grandmother so at the cookfire that evening, I found I no longer knew how to put my feelings into words.
The Ishani called the white-robed figure a Scribe, I learned, but I heard the others calling him Word-Eater. I watched the way his people bowed to him as he passed, the way they stepped out of his path. To the Ishani, it seemed a Scribe was second only to a king.
I made it my business, the next day at market, to step into his path as he passed. He looked at me from beneath his hood with eyes bright with lazy amusement. I snatched the scroll from him and tore it to pieces, since I could not form words for what I thought. Around me, I heard the Ishani gasp, and some of them dove to retrieve the fragments of the scroll, as though it were their god I had torn apart. Perhaps it was.
“It doesn’t matter,” the Scribe said, in our language. “I have more copies.” He took my wrist then, twisting, pressing. On my back, Ochunu began to cry. “A language is like a wayward woman,” he told me. “It needs taming.”
“She must be punished!” one of them cried.
The Scribe snorted derisively and moved on. As I watched them go, I realised that, to the Ishani, the act of fixing words was a demonstration of their power. Of their ability to make permanent things that sought to ever change.
I closed the stall early that day and returned home. I found my father’s old stack of papyrus and wrote down every word I could still remember... But the following evening, when I came back to my work, I found I could not recognise more than one word in three. By the next day, the markings had become as meaningless as the trail a snake leaves in the sand.
It became clear to me that the traders were no better than the racketeers I had heard ran amok in the sprawling city of Ekolo far to the south. They claimed to offer fair exchange, but really, there was no choice.
“What are we to do?” my brother Tenu said when our grandmother called a meeting of the families we knew best. “They take our clothes. Our ca beans. Our language. They will take and take and take until there is nothing left of us or this land.”
“We should flee,” my uncle said from the back of the room, and a dozen heads nodded in agreement.
“And go where?” my grandmother asked. “The queen of the Chiku people was murdered in her sleep two moons ago. Foreign mercenaries are laying waste to the Estani fields, following that terrible fire. Now the Estani can scarcely feed their own. No, I fear that there is nowhere we can go. I fear that, soon, the Ishani will be everywhere.”
“Then what do we do?” Tenu said. “Give up? Lose ourselves?”
“We will do what we always do,” our grandmother said, in that infuriatingly calm tone of hers. “We keep our stories. We sing our songs. We honour the river.”
“How are we to remember our stories if they take them from us?” said our neighbour, from somewhere behind me.
“Perhaps we could record them in writing,” one of my younger cousins said.
My grandmother regarded her patiently. “You cannot take a story and twist and cram it into something as flat as script,” she said. “To fully know a story, to fully feel it, it must be told, from mind to mouth to ear. With each telling, and each hearing, the story is enriched. It is a living thing, and we must not think to chain it.”
From mind to mouth to ear. I carried those words with me to the field the next day as I picked the ca beans, sweat dripping down my back, Ochunu bound to me, so that we might meet our household’s new quota. Our stall had gone now—all the stalls had. Now, we worked to pay off the debts the Ishani said we had amassed. We had so few words left that we all spoke Ishan now, but the Ishani language was a stiff, unyielding thing. It had only one word for love and sky, and no words at all for kin or harmony or sacrifice. These were concepts alien to them. How could such a language hold the history of my people?
That night, I wept. How would the ancestors recognise us; how would they welcome us into the Kingdom Beyond the Clouds if we no longer spoke their language? Would our spirits forever wander the Great Forest, lost and without hope of peace? I hugged Ochunu tightly. Already, it was getting hard to pass the language on to him. Already, there was so much we had forgotten.
A few days later, as we ate dinner outside our hut, I saw Tenu wandering down the road towards us, his face drawn. By the time he was close enough for us to see the tears that glistened on his brown cheeks, my grandmother was on her feet. My stomach tightened as I looked at him; I could see no blood, and he was not limping, but he was wounded somehow.
“Tenu!” my grandmother cried, touching him all over, shaking him. “Tenu... where are you hurt?”
Tenu stood stiffly while she examined him, his gaze distant. When she brought him over to join us, he ate his yam and stew in silence and merely gestured for his water.
They had taken all his words, I realised. All his words, unless he chose to speak Ishan.
The following day, the ropemaker’s daughter stopped speaking. Then, several children who lived near the docks. Soon, no child in our town spoke our tongue, and that was when I think the heart of us died.
We no longer knew our children’s names, and they did not know ours, but the Ishani gave us new names when they commanded us in the fields, and those names stuck. Their language had a way of sticking that perhaps had something to do with their magic. A way of twisting our thoughts until we believed all that they said.
One night, I overheard a group of wealthier Ishani who lived in the new stone houses on the riverbank. They spoke another version of their language. A secret version, with more words, more nuance. But it was forbidden to all but a few, and they were careful to never speak it around us.
The following morning, I woke to screams from outside our home, and when I stepped out into the street, I found our neighbour, the one we now called Stone, being dragged from his hut by two Ishani soldiers.
“He tried to fight the Word-Eater,” someone told us in hushed tones.
We watched silently as Stone fought and his wife screamed, but he was no match for them.
“They don’t burn!” he cried in Ishan as they dragged him away. “The Word-Eater’s scrolls do not burn!”
Many of us followed as they dragged Stone to the clearing at the centre of our new encampment down river. We watched as they tied him to a post and set dry branches at his feet. The new penalty for damaging Ishani property was death. Death by burning.
We all stayed to pay witness. We stood in silence while he screamed. The soldiers had to restrain his wife and beat his eldest brother until he did not move, but the rest of us watched motionless. Afterwards, the outlanders took away what remained of his body to dump in the river rather than bury, not realising that to scatter the ashes of the slain in the gods’ own waters was the highest honour of all, was to return the one who had died to the gods themselves. It seemed a fitting tribute to Stone.
We stayed there all night. Eventually, the Ishani soldiers left for their houses in our old town. My grandmother was first to strike up a song of good journey. We could not remember the words, but we remembered the tune. The rest of us joined in quietly, humming the memory. We spent the night humming and weeping until the first red of dawn touched the trees, and in the distance, we saw the Scribe sweeping towards us, flanked by more soldiers and the Ishani governor himself.
I made to rise, but my grandmother placed a hand on my arm and continued to hum a story whose name I no longer knew but which stirred within me fond memories of birdsong and damp leaves in a place whose name I could not remember. She was the last to keep up the melody, and I knew that the outlanders had noticed this. I knew that they had seen the power in her. That they could take every word but not the memory of what it meant.
The Scribe unrolled a new scroll and began to scratch upon it with the feather. “The old woman will no longer sing,” he said from within his white hood. I watched him carefully draw out new words. Words for my grandmother alone.
How much they must fear her, I realised, to write words just for her. I felt each movement of the Scribe’s hand in the base of my skull, as though he carved his words into my bone, into my blood.
Beside me, my grandmother continued her humming.
“Why doesn’t it work on her?” I heard the governor snap at the Scribe.
“It will work,” the Scribe said. “She is resisting, but eventually, it will work. These savages have unholy powers. But eventually, they will bend.”
I found the idea of our grandmother having unholy powers to be absurd; magic was a thing of the gods, a force as wild as the wind itself, not something to be wielded by a mortal, to be tamed by human souls. But my grandmother had always had the sharpest memory, the keenest mind. It was why she had taught so many of us our numbers and our stories. Perhaps her will was simply stronger than ours. Her desire to remember greater. Or perhaps, the longer the stories had been with a person, the harder they were to scrub away. She was older than anyone else alive in town, she often claimed.
My grandmother continued with her song until the Scribe gestured and two soldiers pulled her to her feet. I realised what they meant to do a moment before the first blow came, and I cried out as though I too had been struck. My grandmother made no sound, but her face squeezed tight with the pain, and I felt all the strength go from my legs. Even so, I handed my son to my cousin and leapt at the soldiers. I was nearly at my grandmother’s side when one clubbed me with the hilt of his sword, setting my head ringing and my eyes filling with white light. Still, I plunged on, until two of them hauled me back, and though I bit and scratched, they were larger and stronger.
Afterwards, when I went to her, my heart tightened at the sight of her hunched body and strained face. I thought that she was badly hurt, but as I knelt at her side, I saw that her lip was twisted not with pain but with resolve. Most of our neighbours had left now, but some few remained. They looked at my grandmother as though she were an oasis in the desert.
Back at home, as we washed our grandmother’s wounds, I said, “You have to stop. They will kill you.”
“If our words die,” my grandmother said. “We die too.”
It was perhaps a moon later that I woke to find my grandmother already up, her hair freshly braided and oiled.
“It is Ancestor Day,” she said as she dressed carefully. “I am going to the river. You stay here with the children.”
I watched as she bound dusk weeds around her waist then around her head, as we had done every year until this last, when the Ishani declared that we could not. She painted her face and legs with the red dye and worked more of it into her braids. Then she took up the smokeleaf she had made and strode towards the door.
My brother was the next to awaken. Shock flashed across his face when he saw her leaving.
“What are you doing?” he cried, rushing to take her arm. “You can’t go out like that!”
“It is Ancestor Day,” our grandmother said calmly. “I am going to pay my respects at the River.” Her mouth twisted. “This language we now speak... it is foul on my tongue, foul like rotten fruit.”
“They’ll kill you,” my brother said. His was voice no longer angry. It was fearful. “You saw what they did to Stone.”
“I saw,” our grandmother said, patting his hand with a smile that was devastating in its softness. “And that is why I must go. I do not fear death. I fear them taking our few remaining words. How will we know who we are if they take all our words?”
“We won’t be anyone if we’re all dead!” I cried, but even I could hear the desperation in my voice, and when my grandmother turned sad eyes upon me, I already knew it was useless to try to stop her.
Calmly, our grandmother lifted my brother’s hand from her arm and reached for the reeds of our hut’s entrance. I watched her stiffly, my jaw tight. When I stepped forward, I saw a spark of hopefulness in my brother’s eyes, and it wounded me that he thought that something I might say would sway her. But instead, I crossed the dirt floor and handed her her stick.
“You’ll need this,” I said quietly.
I went with her. I wore one of the smocks the outlanders had instructed us to wear, but I dabbed my forehead with the green dye. Even that simple choice felt like an act of triumph. Of rebellion. Hopefully the first of many.
I kissed my son goodbye, then joined my grandmother out in the street. I could feel the eyes of our neighbours following us as we passed. I could feel their fear and also their sadness. But the closer we got to the Great River, the more people I saw gathered outside their homes. Then I heard a noise at my back and realised two old men were following us. Then six more people joined them, then twelve.
Soon, a silent crowd trailed in our wake. I knew every face there. None carried offerings. None wore flowers or paint for the ancestors. But as I felt my grandmother straighten, as I saw a smile quirk at the corners of her wide mouth, I realised they gave her more strength than any walking cane.
At the river, my grandmother lifted her skirts and waded out, the red dye of her legs suffusing the waters. In normal years, the Great River would be a liquid rainbow as hundreds took to the shallows in their celebratory dyes, every colour bleeding into the next: red for oldest, blue for the youngest, and all the colours in between.
There would be drumming, and fresh fruit shared, and the youths who had come of age would perform their special dance, and children would climb the trees and throw painted leaves into the water, as though the sky itself rained bright gems upon us all.
“What is the meaning of this?” came a man’s voice from behind us, his horse snorting as he rode near. “There is to be no bathing in the water, and no wearing of barbarian clothing.”
“It is Ancestor Day,” my grandmother said, without turning to him. “I am giving colour to the Great River that brings us life, before we celebrate those who have gone, with song and story.”
“It is forbidden,” he said. “The punishment is death. Get back to your hovel, old woman, and stop causing a scene.”
“I will,” she said, tracing a languid hand through the waters. “Once I have finished my celebrations.”
I heard him climb down from his horse, but when I turned, I saw that he was young and alone. His long face was almost as fearful as those of the crowd gathered behind him.
“Come on,” he said, reaching toward us, but I put my back to him so that he could not touch our grandmother.
He drew his sword. “Look. I don’t want to hurt you.”
“Then don’t,” our grandmother said, wringing out her blouse where it had caught the water.
I heard a splash beside me and realised that one of the old men had joined us. He wore no paint, nor any flowers, but he trailed his hands in the waters, just as my grandmother had. And like the great dam upriver when we release it after the rains, suddenly they were all around us, my people flowing into the waters. When someone started up a song of thanks, wordless now, only a melody, we all joined in.
I glanced back at the young Ishani soldier as I swayed in the waters. His face was red with fear. There were near a hundred of us now, humming, and there was nothing he could do.
Our grandmother had just dropped the last of her petals into the water when I heard the clink of metal at my back.
Twenty soldiers now stood upon the bank, including the one I knew to be their captain. At his side stood the Scribe, hunched and hooded.
“You again?” the Scribe said.
I stared into his face as he spoke, willing him to look at me, to feel the fury that blazed through me like forest fire in the dry season. But he turned away and was lost to me in the group of soldiers who surged towards us.
Our grandmother looked them in the eye as they marched her forward, lips tight, gaze cold. Some of our younger neighbours tried to block the soldiers’ path, but my grandmother calmly commanded them aside. She was their elder; they would never disobey. I followed silently, and when she was bound to the stake, I held her hand.
I found the face of the young soldier in the crowd. His eyes were fixed on the ground. I wanted to rush at him. To seize his sword and slice the sadness from his features. To cut them all down. But I knew that my grandmother would not want me to do that. So I stared at them all, dry eyed, branding each of their faces into my mind so that, in the afterlife, I would know on whom to exact my revenge.
“I heard your people grant a last wish, before they execute,” our grandmother said to their captain. “That your gods say that you must. Isn’t that right?”
I saw them look at each other, and I wondered: the last sign the Ishani had posted up said that that we Bemenu were not like others of the world. That we weren’t quite people, which was why the order to seize our lands had been given; only people could hold lands, own property, and their Scribes had determined that we weren’t quite people. That their gods were unknown to us, meaning we had not been created by them. So I saw them look at each other and wonder if my grandmother was still a person deserving of a final wish.
“Very well,” the captain said. “What is your last wish?”
“I want to tell a story,” our grandmother said.
“A story? Listen, you know full well—”
“Once,” my grandmother began, in their Ishani language, “when the sun was young and the moon moved freely between all the worlds, there was a—”
“That’s enough,” the captain said.
“—a young woman,” our grandmother continued. “Free of heart and sharp of mind—”
The captain turned to his soldiers. “Light the flame.”
“The Lord of the Night saw the young woman’s spirit and wanted to claim it for his own.”
“Get away from her,” the captain said to me, but I turned my shoulder to him. Now, as the flames leapt from twig to twig, I had eyes only for my grandmother.
“No soul can claim the day, the shadows told the Lord of the Night...”
I made no sound as I took the dagger I had hidden from the fold of my skirt. My grandmother smiled at me through her tears and nodded her forgiveness. And when I took up her story, my voice was steady, even as my vision swam: “But I must have her, the Lord of the Night said. You shadows shall help me find a way.”
I did not give myself time to think, to prepare. Did not give the soldiers time to realise what I was doing. I lifted my hand. Sliced—quickly, decisively—across my grandmother’s throat. Her skin was thin. The blood came thickly. She smiled at me as the light left her eyes. By the time they dragged me away, she was gone.
I laughed when they beat me, because over their shoulders, I could see the smoke from my grandmother’s pyre and I knew that her spirit was leaving her body to join the ancestors. The Ishani bury their dead, but we Bemenu burn ours. Bemenu. The Scribe had written that name upon his scroll too. Bemenu. I would not let myself forget it.
The flame did not claim her. They would never hear her scream. They tried to take our grandmother’s words, take her last breaths, but they would get neither. I laughed until one of them put a boot in my face.
Even then, I could hear someone else take up the story. A man, shouting out the next line of the Lord of the Night and the Daughter of the Day in the crude Ishani tongue. Its meaning was twisted by this new language but not lost. It carried too much of us for that. I heard more cries. More blows. But as the blackness closed in, I felt exhalant. Because I knew they could not kill us all.
The outlanders got their way. When we work the fields, we speak Ishani. At the school they take our children to, they speak Ishani. Our grandchildren have Ishani names. They pray to Ishani gods; pray that one day, we Bemenu may be blessed enough to become people again, because their gods have decreed that we still are not.
But at night, in the darkness, when my children’s children cannot sleep, I tell them stories. About The Lord of the Night and about Jemoki and the Six Blades. About the Ten Winged Serpents. Whispered stories. And when I hum, sometimes a word comes floating back to me out of the darkness, because music is the gods’ own language and cannot be stolen. When I weave baskets for the outlanders, using movements as ancient as the hills, and when I dab paint onto my forehead on Ancestor Day—always in secret now—I hold onto the words that return like I would hold a butterfly: tender; not too tight. They are my children, returned from a long absence, and I cherish each of them.
Yes, it is a struggle to remember what they mean, how to pronounce them, and each time, I feel the sharpness of the Scribe’s magic at the base of my skill. But remember I do. Day by day, word by word, when I hum, when I weave, I remember, and I speak these words in the darkness. From mind to mouth to ear, my grandmother had said. The chain must not be broken.
And I know that our grandmother’s words are more powerful than any outland magic, and that through them, we Bemenu live on.