This page contains:
- Disregard for personal autonomy
- Body transformation
- Drug use
Kuyom stood at Death’s door, shuffling from one foot to the other. She patted her head impatiently. She had gotten rid of the lice a week ago, but she still felt the phantom itch. They’d crawled into her hair while she was sleeping under a mango tree in the evil forest on the outskirts of Dianku, just outside Death’s domain. She’d had to cut her hair. It had gone uncombed and uncut since the first time she bled, as was the custom for servants of Adeh. It had locked into thick cords that grazed her shoulders like a reassuring hand. Now she was as bald as a child again. It unsettled her, but did not matter in the end. Everyone goes to death like a child, unknowing and afraid.
Death came out of the house with a chewing stick in its mouth and a calabash in its hand.
“Have you risen?” Kuyom greeted it, hand on her hip. There was no need for respect now.
Death sighed, gripping its white wrapper at the armpit.
“Why are you here?”
“My name is Kuyomnkpa.”
“I said why are you at my door, Don’t Seek Death?” it asked, turning her name into a sentence on its tongue.
“I am disobedient,” she shrugged.
Death sat on a low stool, cleaning its teeth. Kuyom sat on the ground sharpening her dagger on a stone, getting harmattan dust on her wrapper. It would join the layers of dirt and sweat and blood already covering her. She had climbed seven hills, crossed seven rivers, and braved seven forests, uncovered secrets and offered sacrifices, to find Death’s home.
Kuyom sat in the shadow of a dozen lifeless palm trees, the dust-brown, drooping fronds reaching down mournfully towards her. The air was as dry as a final cough and the stones were brittle, ready to crumble at the slightest touch.
“If you want me to return a lost lover to you, I cannot,” Death said in a flat voice.
“That’s not why I am here.”
“A talented palm wine tapper?”
Kuyom stared at Death in irritation.
“People have asked,” Death shrugged.
“I don’t want to bring anyone back. I want to leave.”
“You want to die? You could have waited for the sun to rise. I would have come to you.”
“I don’t just want to die. I know that when you die you have to wait in Mfre until you forget your last life. You can’t come back to this world again until you’ve forgotten. I can’t afford to forget.”
“Hm,” Death said, scrubbing its teeth with the stick. “What must you remember?”
“What was this deal?”
Kuyom sat in stubborn silence.
“Ah, so it’s a secret. Tell it to me and I might let you keep it when you die.”
Kuyom looked to her left and right and sensed no living thing—but land and wind and water—they are curious too, so she gripped Death by the arm, drew it in close, and whispered, “Help me, and I will show you something you’ve never seen.”
When she pulled away, Death licked its lips and laughed, and across rivers and hills and forests, some heard that laugh in dreams or in dark corners, and they were struck with dread as sharp as lightning and as sure as thunder.
“Something I have never seen? Well,” Death said, “I will grant you this favour, because I am curious. I will tell you how to remember. You see, you must die a raw death. Come, I will show you how.”
Kuyom was an orphan, like many of Adeh’s servants were in those days. Her mother had died in childbirth and her father had followed shortly after. She did not know much about them, except that they had been cast out. Cut off from family and community, her parents had no one to leave her to. Kuyom did not know who had left her at the shrine of Adeh. It was taboo to help or touch or talk to an outcast or their offspring, but someone had risked it, and saved her.
Adeh accepted anyone with a strong enough spirit, and a strong enough need, whether outcast or accused or abomination. One of Adeh’s praise names was “The One Who Wipes Spit From My Face.” Adeh took shame and shaped it into a shield for his servants, blessing them with luck and strength and speed, lengthening their lives … if they were willing to pay the price. Adeh had two conditions for initiates. The first: need. They had to smell of a desperation so strong that it tasted like death. The second was sacrifice. It always came down to sacrifice, with these gods.
Adeh’s outcasts, having been thrown out of families and clans and age grades and villages, formed a community of their own on Adeh’s sacred land. On the outskirts, it was mostly overgrown bush which they left untended to maintain a sense of awe for visiting worshippers who came to leave offerings. People did not have to dedicate themselves completely to Adeh to worship him. Not everyone was so desperate. Adeh’s chosen were a rare few. Those who committed the most heinous offences, who did grievous harm, were almost always killed instead of exiled. Those who managed to escape that kind of death and came looking for respite in Adeh were met with unfathomable agony. Adeh contorted those he found wanting into grotesque shapes of anguish, fingers bent backwards over cracked spines to clutch at toes, limbs folded over and under each other to compress a person into a broken, bleeding pulse of pain. Adeh could weave bones with flesh and make a body nothing but a braid begging for a swift death.
You know a god by its doings, by what it punishes, and how. By who it accepts, and why. Adeh was vengeful and unforgiving and eloquent in torment, and in spite of this, because of this, he was a god of the helpless, a hider, a home. Adeh took in those cast out, those possessed by unknown spirits, called evil because it was the closest word accusing hands could grasp. He remembered those who were forgotten, who lived between realms, who had lived too many lives, whose eyes saw too much, who the world had called broken, and then proceeded to break. He wiped the spit from their faces.
Kuyom was raised by abominations. Others came to Adeh as a result of mistakes or misfortune; they came crawling and limping or running, but always as a last resort. Kuyom’s case was different. She was an outcast who had never been cast out. She was born unbelonging. All she’d ever had was all she would ever have.
Kuyom was a killer from the day she learned to love. The first thing she loved was an udara tree. It was only her third harmattan, and someone had handed her the smooth orange fruit, unthinking. No one had ever put much thought into raising her. She was a child, true, but she was practically invulnerable due to Adeh’s blessing. Every bit of sweetness in Kuyom’s life was handed to her carelessly, and could be taken away with just as little consideration.
Kuyom had bitten into the udara from the side, because no one had taught her to bite out the stem and spit it out, then lick the pale pink juice before tearing the skin to get at the sweet-sour flesh and finally sucking on the seeds. She had bitten into the rubbery skin and chewed the flesh with it, sticky and sandy and sweet, and she’d been content. So, from a young age, Kuyom learned that sweetness meant sand in your teeth.
Kuyom learned to climb the next morning, because she did not know when next someone would place udara in her hand. She decided she would pluck it for herself. She climbed the tree as the sun climbed the sky, falling five times and standing up by herself. She reached the branch with the fruit the sixth time, and she plucked an armful. She hid them in a calabash, planning to eat them at night.
By the next afternoon, the tree had withered. Have you ever seen something die in full bloom? It’s a different kind of rot.
Kuyom did not understand what had happened, but she sought consolation instead of answers, as children often do. That night when she went to eat her udara, she found that the fruits were so sour that they turned her mouth inside out. No one had told her that you need to wait for them to fall from the tree.
After the tree came the bad tempered old black goat that had been given as an offering to Adeh. It was a living offering, not meant to be eaten. Kuyom had seen the sun reflect on its smooth black coat, and it was the first time her child’s eyes had seen darkness catch light and hold it.
She would dig up immature cocoyam from the farms some of Adeh’s people kept, to feed to the goat and lay her head on its round stomach on hot afternoons, until her low-cut hair took on its musk. Whenever the goat licked her hand between bites of cocoyam, Kuyom’s stomach felt warm and her chest felt light. She learned then that sometimes if you give away something solid, you can get lightness in return.
And then one day, she came to the goat pen to find her goat stiff on the ground, harmattan dust covering its coat, eyes wide open and staring at her in accusation. Some people had complained about the waste of meat. It would have to be buried instead of eaten, since it belonged to Adeh.
It was not the last to die by her unknowing hand. This was Kuyom’s curse, the sacrifice Adeh demanded: where she went, death followed.
Kuyom visited the river when she could, and she often could, since Ndia ran like a vein through the seven towns. It was a killer like her, and a safe thing to love. River people were suspicious and quick to hire servants of Adeh to break curses and seek out evil medicine causing illness and misfortune. It was an easy living, and most of the time she didn’t have to do much work. Kuyom hated ease. She persistently sought out harder tasks, joining parties venturing into evil forests, seeking strange creatures, finding lost royal stools and staffs and heirs. She entertained no suitors. Not the wealthy farmer from Ikoro which was far enough inland for people there to scoff at riverine taboos, who sought to marry her and keep her as a conquest in his home, an adventure in a basket, for his kin to gawk at over palm wine, pork, and edita-iwa. Not the imperious trader from the city of Kuwo who had first wanted Kuyom for her son, and then herself, promising her the most exquisite cloth and coral and a life of endless pampering. Not the servant-vessel of Itamke the goddess of birds, who had abandoned life on land and all its rigidity, white robes and chalk, godbound, yet untethered, and promised to teach Kuyom how to fly. Especially not that one. Kuyom told them all that she was a hardbuilt, sharp thing. A soft life would dull her to despair.
Kuyom was not supposed to accept offerings. Nkoyo was not supposed to go to Adeh’s shrine alone. Their disobedience had collided on a rainy day, while Nkoyo’s father was asleep and no one could be bothered to be beaten by rain to receive offerings. Kuyom was bored and restless, and lonely, so she offered to go.
Children were not supposed to give offerings, but they weren’t supposed to receive them either, so the girls had assumed it would balance out. Nkoyo had brought a dirty yellow chick. It was stolen. Her father did not keep chickens, and her mother had gone to sell yellow pepper in Kuwo. She’d been selling that same pepper in that same Kuwo for twelve seasons now, half as long as Nkoyo had been alive. Nkoyo confided this to Kuyom over fresh palm wine offered to Adeh by Ekere, the best tapper in Isino, who had been born a twin, and had a brother in Adeh’s sanctuary. He brought two fresh calabashes every market week and Kuyom had been stealing sips of it with Nkoyo from one of Adeh’s sacred gourds since the beginning of the rainy season. It was almost harmattan now, and they knew everything worth knowing about each other. Nkoyo helped Kuyom find out more about herself than she ever could have in Adeh’s sanctuary.
Kuyom knew that Nkoyo would not eat smoked catfish unless it was in afang soup and that she was more loyal to Adeh than any of her family gods and that Nkoyo dreamed of going to Kuwo when she was old enough, to ask her mother whether she still hadn’t finished selling that pepper. Nkoyo knew that Kuyom loved udara and her favourite part of serving Adeh was how strong she was, and that Kuyom dreamed of death. In some of the dreams, she was reunited with people she had never met. Kuyom told Nkoyo that the dreams were not sad or bad omens, that they comforted her, and Nkoyo accepted that, and said she would listen to Kuyom talk about her dreams until the day they both died, and even after that.
Not every untrue thing is a lie.
On a cold harmattan morning, Nkoyo’s father came to Adeh’s shrine with no offering. The first thing Kuyom saw through the fog was his eyes, red and searching; the second was his hands on his head. She listened to him offer his curses to Adeh. He screamed until he was hoarse that Adeh was an ingrate who had killed his daughter after she had served him so diligently.
For the first time, it occurred to Kuyom to pity a god. What did Adeh know of Nkoyo? Of how she always hummed after yawning, of how resentment and understanding could both fit in snugly in her chest, one never overpowering the other, of how she could look at you and know you entirely and choose to come back day after day, to help you know yourself, of how she had taught Kuyom that udara was sweetest when you waited for it to fall on its own.
Kuyom stood with Death at a crossroads, watching the woman in the indigo wrapper.
“What is she doing?” Kuyom asked Death, scratching her head.
“Sealing her fate,” Death said softly, almost affectionately.
The woman was only beginning to grey. Her wrapper was worn and faded, and her jaw and arms were carved in the sinewy shape of suffering. She dropped a covered calabash where the road split, and she turned her back to it, walking purposefully away. She did not look back even once.
“She just traded her life for her child’s.”
“Her child was meant to die?”
“The child was never meant to live,” Death laughed.
“So now it will?”
“Yes. She will die the day the child stops nursing, and it will have no choice but to live.”
“Who did she make this trade with?”
“You don’t know them. And it’s a good thing you don’t. You’re too troublesome for that kind of knowledge.”
Kuyom hissed, “Stop talking like you know me.”
“Ah, of course I know you,” Death laughed, turning to her. “And you know me. We have met several times. Don’t you remember? When you were almost beheaded in Amana for cutting off the tip of a cobra’s tail, the sunlight reflecting on the cutlass caught my eye. When you fell from an iroko tree in the evil forest in Nka, I heard the sound your bones made when they broke. When you angered that stubborn goat of a god in Ubok Akan and he cursed you, I watched and laughed. When you were summoned by Ndia, I—”
“That’s enough,” Kuyom said.
“Is it?” Death asked, deceptively soft.
It lifted her chin with one finger.
“I don’t think you understand yet. I own all deaths, but you? Even your life belonged to me. When you were born, your father saw your face and your future, and he screamed. Your name was a plea, and a prophecy. And yet you chased me until you found me. Maybe you are lying to yourself that you’re here because of a friend or a promise or a deal, but you are not. You are here because of destiny.”
Death held Kuyom’s neck and whispered in her ear, “I told you that you would need to die a raw death to remember a past life. Do you know what that is? It is what that woman just did. She looked her end in the eye, and chose it. Can you do that, Kuyom? What will you choose, now that you’ve finally found me?”
Kuyom drew back, her teeth carving her face into a smile. She gripped Death tightly by the neck, looking into its eyes.
“Is that all?”
Kuyom took her newly-sharpened dagger, and led it to her heart, the question still on her lips. She fell where the road split in two, her left hand still wrapped around the crocodile-leather handle. When the blood came, the dry crackled ground tasted it first, and it travelled in thin red streams down the two roads.
Death only laughed.
The day Kuyom first saw the face of Adeh, she’d been plucking palm-oil-stained feathers off a guinea fowl she’d found in a chalk-marked calabash under a tree. It was obviously an offering to some god or the other, but in Kuyom’s experience, gods only had as much power as you believed. At the moment when she’d stolen the fowl, she’d felt the fact of her hunger, and it weighed more than the fear of lightning or affliction striking her. Besides, she’d been struck by lightning once already that rainy season after a member of a search party for a wealthy yam farmer’s first son had killed a sacred newborn goat and shared a single roasted ear with her. What were the chances that it would happen again?
Kuyom had woken up two market weeks later, thanks to Adeh’s blessing, and found the rotting body of the goat-roaster beside her. The rest of the group had already found the yam farmer’s son living with a plantain trader’s son in the the city of Kuwo. They’d shared the young men’s bribe and sent news to the father to show his second son the boundaries of his family land since he would never see the first again.
Since Kuyom had gotten no bribe and no bounty, and fishing during Ndia’s feeding season was death, she’d been surviving on goodwill and forest fruits. Since Kuyom was not one to keep friends, and she did not particularly like pawpaw, it didn’t take long for her to grow hungry enough to justify stealing from the gods.
She looked at the bony thigh of the roasted fowl, weighing the risks, and then as always, ceded them to Adeh.
She chewed slowly and swallowed cautiously. When nothing happened she hissed dismissively and took a second bite. She did not get a chance to swallow it.
She woke up to something scratching at the bottom of her foot.
Kuyom sprang up, clutching her dagger, and pointed it at the back of the man in front of her. He looked only a bit older than her, with wide, pretty features, a dark, even complexion and hair neatly braided back. His lean body was stretched out as he sat, palms in the sand and toes fluttering gently in the river. He’d tossed the stick he’d used to scratch her feet to the side when he turned to face the river.
“You’re awake. I wasn’t sure if I had debased myself enough for her to let you live.”
“Who are you?” Kuyom asked.
“Who are you?” the man mimicked, pitching his voice lower and making it coarse like Kuyom’s.
“I asked you a question,” Kuyom said, touching the top of her dagger to his back.
“So,” the man said lazily, turning around to look at her with half-lidded eyes, elbows resting lightly on his knees, “you do not know the god you serve?”
Kuyom hissed, dragging the dagger across his throat, “I serve no god.”
He stared at her in annoyance, wiping the thin stream of blood seeping from her killing cut.
“I’m even bleeding!” he said petulantly. “Is your disbelief this deep?”
“You’re really him.” Kuyom said with a sigh. “You sounded different in my dreams,” she muttered, walking away.
Adeh started speaking to Kuyom through dreams after she realised what exactly her curse was. After what happened to Nkoyo.
Most children are taught the praise names of their ancestors, the prayers of their gods or incantations for the spirits they pledge to as soon as they can speak. Kuyom was taught the most searing insults that existed in the river tongue and all the pidgins of Kuwo.
She did not know her lineage, or how to speak to gods or summon spirits. A child who knows what comfort is, not finding it during the day, might seek it at night in other realms. Kuyom did not know what comfort was, and did not know to seek it.
But maybe there is something divine about these gods. Because what is it but a miracle, that a god would smell a small girl’s sorrow, and seek to soften it?
Adeh came to Kuyom as a voice in the night, as warmth and as reassurance, as a lightness in her chest and a heaviness in her eyes. He was the reason she’d always felt safer in the dark. But he was always gone in the morning. And in the sunlight she would remember that he was the cause of the tears he dried. He was the reason for her curse; the lives lost to her love were a sacrifice to him. It is a dizzying thing, to be slapped with the right hand, and embraced with the left.
As Kuyom sized Adeh up, she saw that he was smaller than she’d first thought, shorter than her, with a sharp smile and a gap in his teeth like the ones the youths in Kuwo prized so highly. She wondered if the gap was natural or if he had filed it in like they sometimes did in Kuwo.
As he followed her quietly, she decided that he had been born with the gap, if gods are ever born. He walked like someone who was born into beauty, treading lightly as if he was blessing the earth with every step, and staring straight ahead, trusting the ground not to trip him. She wondered if it was his beauty or his power that made his steps so sure. Beauty is a kind of power too, she decided, and power makes you beautiful.
He followed her quietly for a while, humming a song.
“You know, you sound different too.”
“What do you mean?”
“I never heard your voice, all those nights. Your spirit is so different from your body.”
“What is my spirit like?”
“Timid, and strong. But here you are bold, and so weak.”
“What do you want from me?”
“I want you to do something for me.”
“No,” Kuyom said, happy to deny him.
“You would refuse me? Your saviour and provider?” Adeh asked, placing a palm on his chest, and giving her a beseeching look.
“Yes,” Kuyom said, with a smile.
“Do you know whose guinea fowl you ate today? Who I had to beg to save your life?”
“I don’t care,” Kuyom said, turning around to walk away from him.
“I will give you something in exchange.”
Kuyom turned around slowly, rage simmering.
“You. You will give me something. In exchange.”
“After all you’ve taken from me. You’ve stolen any life I could have had, everything I’ve ever had, and you won’t even let me die! You’ve made me too strong and brought me back every time I’ve come close. And you want something else … in exchange.” Kuyom’s laugh was bitter.
“I’m sorry. You cannot understand how sorry I am.”
“I don’t want to.”
Adeh did not touch her, he was standing at a distance, but somehow she felt his presence embrace her like it used to when she was a child, a warmth in the darkness.
She threw her dagger at his chest, and it stuck there.
“Never do that again,” she hissed through her teeth.
Kuyom saw the bloodstains on Adeh’s teeth as he spoke. “Let’s make a deal. If you do this for me, I will let you die.”
Kuyom was silent for a moment.
“What do I have to do?” Kuyom asked, walking up to him and pulling out her dagger. Adeh winced and smiled, almost as if he enjoyed the pain.
“You have to kill Death.”
Kuyom sighed, “Is that all?”
Kuyom woke in Mfre, the before and after, the place of forgetting. There was no dagger in her chest, no gaping wound where there should have been. She could still sense and feel, and she was stronger in spirit, like Adeh had said. She was in front of what looked like a river, sitting in what felt like sand. Except for the fog, thick as a morning in the middle of harmattan, it reminded her of the days she spent sitting on the banks of Ndia.
“Where you go, Death follows,” Adeh had said. And he was right. He had made it so.
Surely as the sunrise, Death came after Kuyom.
It appeared beside her, sitting in the sand.
“You did well. In your next life, you will remember your deal, but you must move fast now. The raw death crystallised your memory, but this place will strip it if you stay here too long. Hurry on to your next life. I will find you there as well.”
Fast as lightning, Kuyom grabbed Death by the wrist, slamming her knee into its back and holding it over the river of Mfre. In the still water, Death saw its own reflection for the first time.
How do you make a god? By believing, by remembering. How do you kill a god? By forgetting. Death is a god, in its way.
Death choked out a laugh, amusement mixed with shock.
“This … this is the deal you made? You cannot kill me, Kuyomnkpa.”
“I can keep you here until you forget what you are. You are nothing if you don’t know your name.”
Time passes differently in Mfre, but Adeh walked out of the fog just as Kuyom was forgetting her name, and Death its purpose. Adeh found them both sitting in the sand, staring at the water.
The one that was once Death looked at Adeh, face contorting in an effort to remember. “You … I know you. You were—”
“I am Adeh.”
“Who am I?” it asked.
“No one important, now. But you might be in your next life.”
“Who am I?” the one who was once Kuyom asked.
“You?” Adeh turned to her with a sharp smile. “You are Death.”
Editor: Hebe Stanton
First Reader: Hebe Stanton
Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department
Accessibility: Accessibility Editors