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The first and last time the sisters met was decades ago when they were seven. Their father, Olikoli, had picked them up from their mothers—Aimerienina from her human mother on the mainland, then Ngasiena from her Njeri mother in the Silts—and taken them to one of the only swimming pools that dialled down its chlorination on Sunday mornings for Njeri and overcharged them for it.

It was a seedy indoor pool with a glass atrium, the glass fogged by layers of grime so the light that passed through was grey and murky no matter how high and yellow the sun was outside. The pool had been crowded, teeming with Njeri bodies trying to be subsumed by water, eyes closed, gills open, trying to pretend they were once more in the vastness of the ocean the way it had been before the poisons dumped into it leached through their skin and ribboned their gills.

When their father shepherded them in—one blue-tinged hand on each of their backs—Ngasiena ran across the linoleum floor and dove into the pool and had to be coaxed out by her father, who swore her mother would kill him if she returned with a rash because he hadn’t made her put on protective cream first. He reminded her, as he put the cream on her arms and back, that today was meant to be a sisters’ outing and she should carry her sister along. Ngasiena made a face. “She’s a human. She’ll slow me down.” Their father had crouched down to look her in the eye. “No, she’s not. She’s your sister and she’s Njeri just like you.”

Ngasiena looked past him at the girl with her opal skin and dark, silky hair that maybe in the right light could tend towards blue, with fins that were mere imprints on her skin, and shrugged.

Then their father had urged her towards Aimerienina and disappeared into the inner depths of the building to shoot pool with his friends, reappearing only when one of them almost drowned.

 


 

Ngasiena sat knees-to-chest, the sides of her large Hawaiian shirt fanning out, watching the blue tongue of the hose fatten as water gushed through it and splattered against the cracked white and teal tiles, and waited for her sister.

Minutes ticked past. The double doors did not creak open. Aimerienina—or Nina as she liked to be called—was late. Ngasiena could imagine her rushing in, dressed in her boring business attire, saying, “Sorry. I had a meeting.” Like her time was so much more important than Ngasiena’s.

Ngasiena stood, following the hose into the bowels of the building. Away from the grimy light of the atrium, it was dusk dark. She picked her steps across the crusty, cracked linoleum. The staccato rumbling of the generator blurred out all sound. She attempted a light switch on the wall; the fluorescent bulb made a weak attempt at coming on. “Dump,” she muttered under her breath and waited for her Njeri eyes to adjust, to sharpen the outlines of things even as their centres swirled with shadow. Useful in the ocean, but on land, she did not have good depth perception in the dark and had to swipe her hand out at things to keep from running into them. She retrieved the broom and dustpan from a metal locker and headed out.

“Hello! Sienna?” Ngasiena heard when she got to the lip of the exit. It was Nina, in a coat dappled with raindrops despite the dripping umbrella in her hand, floating above the floor on a lily pad designed for gliding over the flooded streets of the Silts. “Where is she?” Her voice was high and barbed.

“My name,” Ngasiena said, stepping out of the shadows, “is not Sienna. It is not English. It is not human tongue. It’s Un-guh-sheyi-nah, and if you can’t say that, call me Shey.”

Nina whipped around, eyes going wide then narrowing. She crossed her arms. “Okay. Shey. I’m here. What’s so urgent.”

Ngasiena leaned against the wall. “Our father is dead.” In the same tone one might announce, “It’s still raining.”

Nina blinked. “For about a year now.”

Ngasiena crossed her arms. “Oh, you know that?”

“Of course I know that,” Nina snapped. “He was my father.”

“My father, she says. You’d almost think she cared about him. You’d almost think she knows he’s been on ice since he died.”

“You haven’t buried him?”

“Don’t be daft.”

Nina scoffed. “Okay. I didn’t come all the way across town for you to insult me.” She headed for the door, the clopping of her heels like a countdown.

Ngasiena wanted to let her go. There was something about her sister that made her feel like she was seven, stirred this unfathomable desire to be brattish and ill-tempered. But she needed her. She could not do this without her. “Wait,” she ground out through gritted teeth.

Nina stopped and turned with her hand on the door. “You want to be adults?”

Ngasiena bit the inside of her cheek. “Let’s be adults.” She headed to the lowest level of the white bleachers where her bag was and sat, bracing against the pain pulsing from the bruise beneath her breasts. The pool had once been owned by a swimming school that went bankrupt. In its heyday competitions were held here. Humans with their little swimming records they thought meant anything.

Nina stepped off her lily pad only when she got to the bleachers, like she was too important to let her patent leather kitten heels touch the dirty floor. She swiped her smartwatch so it folded itself into a small, hard-edged circle and put it in her bag, and then dusted off a seat on the row above Ngasiena and perched. “What did you want to talk about?” Nina asked.

Ngasiena took a breath, her gills clenched at her sides. “I need money for—”

“Of course. Why did I think this was for anything else? Threaten me and harass me because what,” Nina rifled through her purse, “You need what? How much do you need to keep you out of my life?” She brought out a wad of cash, way more than anyone should have been walking around in the Silts with.

“Not for me!” Ngasiena cried. “Wait. Harass you? Threaten you? How did I do that?”

“What do you call an unknown number calling me over and over, leaving messages about showing up at my place of work?”

“It was only an unknown number because you refused to save my number and what else was I supposed to do but show up at your workplace when you wouldn’t take my calls?”

“Stop. You knew what someone like you showing up at my office could do to me.”

“Someone like me? You self-hating piece of—” Ngasiena whipped around, her silken hair flashing in the air like an indigo curtain.

“Not someone like you like that. I have no problem with people who are like you in that way,” Nina sputtered. “I meant someone in your line of work.”

Ngasiena jumped to her feet. “What’s my line of work?” she asked, chest puffed, chin jutted.

“Come on, you’re really going to make me say it?”

Ngasiena put her hands on her hips and stared down Nina.

Nina looked away. “I know you’re a hooker or sex worker or whatever you want to call it.”

Ngasiena gasped. “I am not a hooker.”

“I saw you at that club.”

“The SS? When? When were you there and what did you see me do? Dance?”

“Yes, and then I saw you and your friend go in the back with a guy from my office.”

“And you saw me fuck him?”

“It’s not a stretch of the imagination.”

“What’s that thing you humans say? When you assume you make an ass out of you and your mother?”

“You and me,” Nina said.

“Not me ’cause the only ass here is you,” Ngasiena said. “I do private dances. There’s a tank in the back and I do private dances for them.” She hopped down and picked up the broom and dustpan. “Naked. But they don’t touch me. They don’t ever touch me.”

That was a boundary she’d learned to set. All those fetishizing men that walked in. They didn’t see her as a person. They didn’t even see her as an object. To them, she was like an animal. It wasn’t that something drastic had happened to her. A man had come in once and he just wanted to trace her body, not in a tantalizing way. His fingers had gone over her gills, the ridge of fins on her spine, the tips of her teeth and claws filed to a dull point, and the slit-like shape of her eyes. It wasn’t that bad, she repeated to herself when the memory came up and roiled her stomach. In the back rooms whispers of worse abounded. She couldn’t even tell anyone for fear they’d laugh at her. She just set up a “no touching” policy and danced for them behind the glass where it was safe. Sure, it was less money, and maybe if she’d kept it up she wouldn’t have needed to grovel for Nina’s cash, but it wasn’t worth it to feel like she needed to moult after work.

“Why were you there anyway?” Ngasiena asked. “Since you consider it such a shameful place to work.”

Nina squirmed at the edge of the bench. “I didn’t know it would be … like that.”

“You didn’t think there’d be nudity at a place called The Sensual Siren?”

“No. That’s not what I mean,” Nina said, pushing hair off her face. It was butter brown. A weave or wig to hide her stringy, pigmented Njeri hair. Her shoulders wriggled worm-like. “Just the way it was. The demographics.”

Ngasiena knew what she meant. If you danced, you wanted to dance for The SS. Lush leather couches and crimson lights to contrast with the girls’ blue bodies, with tanks affixed to the walls, and stage tanks with poles in them. All the girls that danced were Njeri. All the clientele that could afford it were human.

“I was trying to get in with the guys at work,” Nina continued. “Sometimes after work they go there, and I thought I’d tag along.”

“So you thought you’d be like, ‘Why yes, I do enjoy beers and gawping at naked women’ and they’d let you join the boys’ club?” Ngasiena said, affecting a ridiculous accent.

Nina shrugged. “Well, I tried everything else. Like doing my job.” The details of Nina’s job were fuzzy to Ngasiena, but she knew Nina worked for Entropy Energy LLC, a multinational company with fingers in wind farms, solar and hydro energy as well as petroleum, natural gas, and every other planet-perishing pie. Save the planet. Screw the planet.

“Did it work?”

“I left early. It just made me feel …”

“Not so different from us,” Ngasiena supplied.

Nina said nothing.

Ngasiena started sweeping plastic bottles, cans, cigarette butts and other trash people had left the last time the swimming pool was used.

“Can we talk about—” Nina called from the bleachers.

“What? Sorry, I can’t hear you,” Ngasiena lied.

She found a used condom and gagged. People were gross, she thought, even if in her youth she’d been one of them, sneaking with girls under the bleachers. For a time there was only the rustling of her broom and the slapping of water into the pool.

The front door whined open and a man stepped in, human, with short locs. He narrowed his eyes and scanned the room.

Ngasiena darted to him. “Bolaji,” she said, drawing out the last syllable. “What are you doing here?”

His eyebrows shot up. “What am I doing here?”

“I just meant, you’re here early. The fight is still hours away.”

“I been want check say everything dey in order.” He switched to pidgin. “Clean am well o or forget anything early arena access. If you like cry blood I no go send you.”

Ngasiena held up the broom. “No yawa.”

He scanned the space, satisfied at the pool filling with water and the gathering clumps of trash, and frowned when he noticed Nina. “Who be that? Hope say you no dey try sneak one of your girlfriends into the fight without ticket?”

Ngasiena glanced back at Nina who was pretending to look at her phone, but her eyes kept darting up to the both of them. “Nothing like that boss. She go commot long before show start.”

“Speaking of the show,” Bolaji said, undoing the two middle buttons of her shirt and parting it to reveal the bruise blackening beneath her breasts. “Hope say you go fit perform today. You collect beating kata kata last time.”

Ngasiena stifled a flinch as his fingers brushed the bruise. “I win abi I no win?”

Bolaji gave a half smile. “If you say you fit do am, okay.” He shrugged, then turned to walk out the door, throwing a final warning at Ngasiena as the door swung shut, his voice echoing in his absence. “But remember na my money on the line.”

Her money too. If she lost the fight, she might not make rent on time, would have to live off stale, tasteless nutrition blocks. The bruise across her ribs was stiff and taut. It was sheer luck the hit glanced off her gills.

“Who was that?” Nina asked when Ngasiena came to the foot of the bleachers.

“Nobody,” Ngasiena said, and stretched, forgetting she hadn’t done up the buttons of her shirt.

“Okay, can we talk about—Did he do that to you?” Nina rushed down the bleachers’ steps and threw open the shirt.

Ngasiena stepped back, lashing the shirt around her torso. “No. Of course not.”

“Who then? A patron from your club.”

Ngasiena stared at Nina, her furrowed eyebrows, the urgency in her tone.

It had been a long time since anyone had shown her the most basic level of concern. It knocked out her instinct to lie. She unfolded her arms and let the shirt flutter open. “It’s from my other job. You should see the other guy.” She forced a chuckle.

“Your other …” Nina started, then understood. “You’re a brawler?” she whispered.

Every so often in the news when there was a lull in what the information industrial complex deemed important news there would be a report about some dead illegal hybrid animal dumped outside the levee walls. Less often it was a Njeri’s mangled body left in front of a morgue, even if there were more Njeri casualties than hybrids. Njeri could be replaced easily, the hybrids not so much. If a hybrid died in a fight, whoever had killed it would be held liable for astronomical sums by its owners even if the thing entered the fight old and battered beyond repair. They’d once held someone liable when a scorpion bear had keeled over from a heart attack halfway through a fight.

“Yes,” Ngasiena said.

“You fight those hybrid monsters? Are you insane?” Nina asked.

“If I’m lucky. Those are the ones that pay the most. Mostly it’s just other Njeri.” Ngasiena shrugged with affected apathy. “Don’t look at me like that.”

“Like what?”

“Don’t pity me,” Ngasiena said, turning away from her to stand at the lip of the pool. It was half-full.

“I–Isn’t there something else you can do?”

“Ha!” Ngasiena barked. “Like what? Clean up after humans like my mother and grandmother? Work in sewage systems like our father?”

Nina walked to her and held a hand out to touch her shoulder but stopped short. “It’s not like it was before. Things are better now. You could go back to school. Get a degree. Learn some skills.”

Ngasiena whipped around and clenched her fists, holding them up in a guard stance. “This is my skill!” She swept her hands over her body. “This is all I have. And what would you know about how things are? How things ever were?”

Nina flinched back. She said nothing.

Ngasiena sat at the edge of the pool letting her legs dangle into it, her toes skimming the water. Nina went to join her but at a respectful distance, leaving enough space between them for another person to sit comfortably. “So that’s why you chose this dump? ’Cause you have a fight here?” she said.

“This dump,” Ngasiena started acidly. Then she looked around at it—the missing seats in the bleachers, the broken glass in the atrium where yellow sunlight peeked through, the dust mites dancing in that light, the scum over the tiles of the pool—and shook her head. “Yeah, it is a dump. But it was my favourite place as a child. I’d beg my mother to bring me here every Sunday, and when I was old enough, I started running errands so I could afford the fee. Closed down when I was fifteen. Resurrected a couple of years ago as this. Besides, I thought you’d appreciate it. This is where we met.” She swept her feet over the surface of the water and watched the ripples spread.

Nina looked around. “Oh. No wonder I’ve felt uneasy since I walked in.”

Ngasiena stared at her. “You don’t remember?”

Nina shook her head. “Honestly, I’ve mostly blocked that day out.”

Ngasiena let out a slow wow.

“No, it’s not like that—”

“Not like what?” Ngasiena spat, shrugging off her shirt. “You know what—it makes perfect sense. Probably the only day in your life that you haven’t been able to pretend that you’re not Njeri.” She dropped into the pool. The warm water lapped her hips. She went under. Her gills fluttered open. Her belly grazed the tiles as she cut through the water like a blue bullet.

 


 

Ngasiena’s memories of that Sunday bled into others spent at the pool, differing only in the presence of the slight opal girl she met for the first time. Timid and fidgety, tiptoeing around the edges of the pool but never getting in. “I don’t see any space,” she said in a tiny voice.

Ngasiena found that absurd. You didn’t look for space, you cleaved a section for yourself. She tried, halfheartedly, to get the other children to make space, but they were cut from the same cloth as her and just snorted water at her. Maybe if she had said, “That’s my sister. Make space for my sister,” they would have, but she didn’t, couldn’t, the words buried beneath her tongue.

She sank beneath the water, playing with the other children, but would often raise her eyes above it to see the girl skittish at the edge of the pool, dipping her toe in then withdrawing it. Ngasiena got sick of it. She just needed a little tug, was all, and then she’d overcome her shyness, Ngasiena reasoned as she darted between bodies beneath the water like a shark. Only her hand popped out, closing over Nina’s bird-like ankle and pulling her in.

She went down like a stone.

Her gills will kick in, Ngasiena thought. They would filter the oxygen from the water, and she’d be swimming like her. Then she lost her. All the Njeri bodies pressing against each other swallowed little Nina up. Ngasiena tried to swim through the lattice of flesh, but she couldn’t see her. Then there was a loud gasp, a sputtering, a hacking cough. Ngasiena raised her head above the water.

There was Nina, clinging to the edge of the pool like it was a life raft, struggling to lift herself out. An Njeri mother lifted her out by her armpits and set her sitting on the linoleum. “Whose human child is this?” she called out, trying to find a human in the sea of Njeri.

“Can’t the infectors just let us have this one day?” people muttered. The Njeri word for human was the same as the Njeri word for infector. They could have said it in Njeri and Nina wouldn’t have understood, but they wanted her and any human that might be present to understand.

Ngasiena saw Nina’s head swivel, looking for her, and let the water engulf her before Nina’s eyes met hers.

 


 

Ngasiena rose out of the water. She was surprised to see Nina at the bleachers, staring alternately at her phone and the pool. “You’re still here,” she said softly as she climbed up the bleachers.

“You haven’t told me why you called me yet,” Nina said, putting away her phone.

Ngasiena sat, with one busted seat between her and Nina. “I’m sorry.”

Nina turned to her. “For what?”

“I pulled you in that day. I thought it would help you.”

“I know, or I suspected, and I hated you for years.”

“And now?”

Nina turned away from her. “I’m not like you. I don’t just get into the water and automatically breathe. I have to really think about it and that day I couldn’t concentrate. I couldn’t breathe. I haven’t gotten in water since.”

“Maybe the thinking is the problem,” Ngasiena said. Nina shot her a sharp look. She held her hands up in a “hear me out” gesture. “You’re breathing right now. You’re not thinking about it.”

Nina let out a staccato chuckle. “If I could get myself to not think sometimes, half of my problems would be solved.”

For a time, there was only the gulping of the pool drinking up the water.

“Did you go visit him in the hospital near the end?” Ngasiena asked, puncturing the silence.

“I—” Nina started, then shook her head. “No.”

Ngasiena turned away from her, looking at the pool, three-quarters full now. “I thought maybe we missed each other or something.” She sniffed. “I was there. Not in the beginning, you know. I was too pissed to see him in the beginning, hadn’t heard from him in years and then there he was calling me up like I was some sort of nurse. I thought he’d bounce back. Some people do. No one I know, but there was this woman at the community centre that said her aunt did.” Her throat became hoarse, strangling the words as they came out of her mouth. “He was so frail, so skeletal when I saw him. The cancer had chewed him up and spat him out at that point.” Ngasiena paused, dabbed wetness from her eyes. “And he said, ‘Please don’t put me in the ground, Shey.’ The water killed him and yet he wanted to go back to it. That was the last thing he asked for. Well, that and a hit from a bong.” She full-stopped her words with a brittle laugh.

“I wanted to remember him as he was,” Nina said. “The last time I saw him was on my sixteenth birthday. He was waiting outside my mother’s apartment complex in the middle of the night, dressed in khaki shorts and one of his Hawaiian shirts. His hair was wet and windswept like he’d just come out of the water. He had a gift for me, this coral totem of the goddess where she’s enveloped in the tentacles of the squid. He said he carved it himself.”

“He gave that to me too,” Ngasiena said, reaching for her gym bag and pulling the totem out by the thin brown cord she’d tied around it. “I only take it off for work.”

Nina brushed the totem. “I almost didn’t take it. When he was gone, I spent the whole time being angry at him and swearing that I would never speak to him again and then he’d flash back into my life, and I’d just melt.”

“I know the feeling,” Ngasiena said.

Nina turned to her. “Really? I always assumed he was with you, with his Njeri family.” Her voice dipped low at the last part.

“And I assumed he was with his human family.”

Their eyes met. A bark of laughter escaped Ngasiena, spurring a giggle from Nina.

“Why did we assume,” Nina squeezed out between fresh peals of laughter, “he was out there being a perfect father to someone else and wasn’t just a really shitty one?”

Ngasiena cackled. “Truly, we couldn’t have asked for less.”

The laughter petered out. They wiped tears from their eyes.

“Yet you want to give him everything,” Nina said softly.

“My grandmother was a mean bitch of a woman. She was one of the stragglers of The Upheaval, refused to leave until the poisoned water killed most of her family. She never got over it, took it out on me and my mother. When cancer took her, my mother used her savings to make sure she got a proper burial. Putting a body in the ocean shouldn’t be that expensive but after all the fees and bribes you need to pay to get past the levee … we were eating nutrition blocks for a month. But when malaria took my mother. I couldn’t—I was young. I didn’t have anything. I let them burn her.” Ngasiena’s voice splintered around the last sentence. She knuckled tears from her cheeks.

Nina put her hand over Ngasiena’s. “How much do you need?”

Ngasiena told her the amount she needed.

“You don’t have that?” Nina asked, pity slinking between her words.

“I’ve been paying the mortuary so they don’t use him as a cadaver or something for over a year and I don’t …” Ngasiena had brought Nina there that day fully intending to lie, to play up how poor she was, but she couldn’t bring herself to do it now. “Well, I do. I do have that. But it’s all I have. It would take a chunk of my retirement fund.” She looked into Nina’s opal eyes, flecked with bits of seaweed green.

“Retirement fund?”

“I’m not dumb, okay. I know I can’t make money the way I do forever,” Ngasiena said. She put a hand over her bruise. “One day my body won’t be able to take the hits anymore or be deemed fuckable enough and I’ll have nothing. I don’t want to die like my mother and grandmother—on my knees turning floors to mirrors.”

“What will you do?”

“Go to Australia,” Ngasiena said, wistful. “The Great Barrier Reef is still one of the most preserved parts of the ocean. I could live in the water like I was meant to. No more worrying about rent or if I look good enough that night for Lanre to let me dance or if my reflexes are sharp enough. I could just be.”

“That sounds nice,” Nina said.

“And expensive. You cannot imagine the costs required to migrate as a stateless individual in this world.” Most Njeri did not have passports: the countries they had surfaced in barely considered them people, much less citizens.

“Send me your account details.”

A smile split Ngasiena’s face. “Really?”

“Yeah. I’ll transfer the money tonight.”

“Oh, thank you so much.” Ngasiena pulled Nina in for a quick hug. “It’s going to have to be Friday which sucks but I managed to track down his friends and most of them are going to take time off work. I don’t know which part of the levee we’ll go through, but I’ll send you the details—”

Nina shrank back. “I won’t be there.”

Ngasiena’s smile wavered. “What? You have to be.”

“I can’t get in the water, Shey.”

Ngasiena took Nina’s hands. “I’ll be with you every step of the way. Nothing will happen.”

Nina shook her head. “I can’t and it’s not just that,” she said. “I have a meeting on Friday.”

Ngasiena raised her eyebrows. “And that’s more important?”

“It’s my life. It’s everything I’ve been working towards,” Nina said. “If I land this account, they wouldn’t be able to shut me out ever again. I’d be up for promotion. The raise I’d get … you wouldn’t have to do this.” She gestured at the arena. “Or dance for those disgusting men. You could live on the mainland.” She squeezed Ngasiena’s hands and said this with a spark in her eyes like Ngasiena should collapse with gratitude.

Ngasiena bristled away from Nina. Leave the Silts. She couldn’t imagine it. Sure, it was a squalid slum with poor drainage systems that caused the streets to flood whenever it rained, half the buildings bulged and cracked with water damage, and everything was covered with a layer of soot generated by illegal oil bunkering and refining. But it was right up against the levee walls and Ngasiena woke in her matchbook apartment some mornings with salt spray on her lips. She couldn’t take a walk without running into someone who’d known her as a child, or her mother or grandmother, or without coming across places like this swimming pool that had shaped her. And her jobs weren’t the best, but they were some of the only ways Njeri had access to water enough to engulf them. She didn’t have to run up her water bill by curling herself up in a basin once a week like most other Njeris did—because who could afford a bathtub? All the swimming pools on the mainland would surely be chlorinated to poisonous levels. And leeching off Nina—the thought sent shudders down her spine. “Keep your charity, Nina. I’ve survived this long without it,” Ngasiena said.

“But don’t you want to live the kind of life you deserve?” Nina asked. There was a pleading quality to her voice.

Deserve. There was no Njeri equivalent and whenever humans used it, it struck Nina as funny, shortsighted. Who ever got what they deserved?

“I don’t know what you think you’re doing, but it’s not living,” Ngasiena said. “There are things more important than money.”

Nina sighed. “You’re a saint.”

“Don’t patronize me,” Ngasiena said.

“I’m not.” Nina held Ngasiena’s shoulders. “You are good and kind and selfless for wanting to do this and I … I can’t be those things for him, not when he never tried to be them for me.”

There was nothing Ngasiena could say to that.

“I’ll send the money, but that’s all I can do,” Nina continued. She checked the time on her watch. “I need to get back to work. It was good seeing you, Ngasiena.”

“You too, Aimerienina.”

“Can you say that again?”

Ngasiena smiled. “It was good seeing you, Aimerienina.”

Aimerienina sniffed. “I’d almost forgotten what it sounded like.”

Ngasiena took Nina’s hands again and said, “Please just think about it.” Then she let her go and watched as she disappeared through the double doors.

The glugging sound had stopped. The water had caught up with the hose and swallowed the noise. Ngasiena went in the back and turned off the pump, then slipped into the water, swimming until she forgot where she ended and the water began, and she could pretend it was the ocean she’d never known.

 


 

True to her word, Nina transferred the money that night. Ngasiena paid the fees and bribes necessary to buy a pass to a spot beyond the levee that wasn’t too close to where the factories dumped their waste or where oil companies drilled and spilt crude oil, confirmed the availability of one of the Goddess’s acolytes from the shrine to perform the ceremony, paid for their father’s body to be transported on that day. Then she sent Nina a thank you with the details of the ceremony attached in case she changed her mind.

 


 

Friday came. A good number of people made it, just shy of two dozen. They were far-flung friends of her parents and people from the temple, no one she knew deeply. Ngasiena led the way, flanked by the acolyte and the pallbearers carrying the make-do box of bamboo that held her father’s body.

They were dressed traditionally. The men in woven seaweed loincloths. The women also wore loincloths and woven seaweed that hung strategically down their fronts. All had pieces of coral and cowries adorning their necks, wrists, and hair. The acolyte’s front was draped in long, tangling necklaces of cowrie shells and coral beads instead of the seaweed the others wore, her seafoam hair piled atop her head. They jangled musically as they walked to the levee.

The smell of salt and the sound of the waves crashing against the walls intensified with each step. The last time Ngasiena had made this walk was during the Upheaval Remembrance Ceremony, held yearly when Njeri, led by the priestess and the acolytes, went beyond the levees to remember where they had come from, to offer prayers to the Goddess for healing of the waters, to allow themselves hope that one day they could return home.

The group stopped at the base of the towering wall of the levee, rising to kiss the clouds. This close to it, the line of the top sickled around the sun-bleached sky. There were thin rectangular lines in the concrete, the seams of a door, B-28 painted in faded black letters next to a little screen. Ngasiena swiped the one-use wristband over the screen. It flashed to life then started a countdown in red letters, ninety minutes. The concrete slid apart, revealing the ocean.

Salt spray battered Ngasiena’s face and coated the back of her mouth with an acrid taste. The waves were calm—Goddess be praised. According to her weather app, a storm would come in tomorrow and whip it into a violent frenzy that could pluck them from the shore, batter them on the rocks, make it impossible to carry out the ceremony.

They waded until they were calf-deep in the water, milling past bits of decades-old trash the ocean was trying to reject—plastic bottles, nylon bags, Dunlop slippers, brittle takeaway packs—that crashed into the concrete walls and pendulumed back to the open water.

The pallbearers let the bamboo box bob atop the water, holding some ropes affixed to it to keep it from floating off. The acolyte unhooked a conch shell from her loincloth and blew it, a deep mournful note that reverberated inside Ngasiena. Then she dove into the water to look for a proper burial space and bless it. She was gone for what felt like a while to Ngasiena. Her eyes darted between the water and the gap in the concrete. How much time did they have left? What would they do if the concrete walls began to close?

The acolyte emerged from the waves, whistling a low tune, coral and cowries rattling, green hair curtaining in the sea then slicking to her neck, back, upper arms, and thighs as she came up. “I have found a place where he can be laid to rest,” she said in Njeri to Ngasiena.

Ngasiena turned one more time to the open concrete door, then went to the front of the bamboo box and took hold of one of the ropes with one hand so she could pull it down along with the pallbearers, the other hand cupped around the totem on her neck. She tightened her hand around the rope and waded in to chest level, getting ready to slip in, when she heard, “Wait!” Ngasiena turned. There was Aimerienina, in her office wear, running through the levee door.

Her father’s friends formed a barrier between her and Ngasiena, thinking Nina a government bureaucrat come to ruin the ceremony with demands for more bribes. “Go,” they urged Ngasiena in Njeri.

“No,” she said, pushing past them. “That’s my sister.”

Aimerienina kicked off her heels and waddled into the water. Frustrated with her restricting pencil skirt, she ripped the seam along one side to allow her to move freely.

“You came,” Ngasiena said at the same time Aimerienina said, “Am I too late?” Around Aimerienina’s neck was the carved coral totem of the Goddess and the squid.

“You’re right on time,” Ngasiena said. She led her sister through the throng of Njeri, who tipped their heads at Aimerienina, muttering recollections of Olikoli’s half-human daughter.

Aimerienina’s head bobbed above the water. Her eyebrows were scrunched, eyes blinking to keep the water out. Ngasiena found her sister’s shaking hand under the water, holding it until it stilled.

Together, the sisters dove beneath the incoming wave.

 


Editor: Hebe Stanton

First Reader: Aigner Loren Wilson

Copy Editors: Copy Editing Department

Accessibility: Accessibility Editors



H.B. Asari is a Niger Deltan writer. Her fiction was shortlisted for the Commonwealth Short Stories Prize 2023 and has been published in The Voyage Journal, FIYAH, and adda.
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