“For the last time, Bola: I’m not going to sleep with your dentist.”
“But it would only kill him a little bit.”
“And even if he does die …” Bolajoko’s toothy smile reached all the way to her cowrie shell earrings. “At least he’d get a taste of heaven beforehand.”
“Fine, Yemi. Geez, chill.” My best friend and coworker Bolajoko held up her gold-ringed hands, pretending to surrender. She leaned against the gray wall of my cubicle, and a fluorescent pink wad flashed between her lips.
I swore, she picked up some weird new eniyan habit every week. Another month in the Diaspora Unit, and she would start wearing Uggs instead of our company-issue goatskin sandals.
“Run out of chewing sticks?” I asked pointedly, nudging the tin I kept next to my laptop. I had cut the sweet-smelling twigs from the pleasure orchard back at Home Base. Home. I inhaled sharply, adjusting the too-tight band around my afro puff. I tried not to think of azure skies. Of piles of golden plantain, fried until they crackled and glistened. Of gilded barges, floating down creamy brown rivers to a chorus of cicadas.
You’ve rolled out your sleeping mat now, Yemi. And by the gods, you’re going to lie in it.
I’d beat out sixty applicants for this post. The Diaspora Unit was revolutionary, I reminded myself. An honor. So what if it meant working in a crummy Los Angeles high-rise, and sipping coffee instead of palm wine? We were making history here. We were helping people, I was sure of it.
Unless, of course, we keep killing our clients.
Bolajoko tinkered with the delicate giraffe carvings on my desk, ignoring my jab about the gum. “You act like the eniyan’s death would be permanent,” she said. “I mean, of course the Boss would bring him back. She can bring anyone back.”
“Not our job, Bola.”
“Our job is to make people happy,” she purred, raising a playful eyebrow. “Fulfill their requests. Help them make connections.”
“Connections with their fellow eniyans,” I shot back, pointing at the Iyami Aje mission statement on my cube wall, engraved on a glittering obsidian plaque. “With their own fragile kind. I don’t work like you, Bola.” I fiddled with the ergonomic levers of my swivel chair. “I don’t just ignore the hazards of getting entangled.”
She blew a bubble until it popped, then picked the pink remains from her face with dainty fingers. “The hazards didn’t stop you from kissing that guitarist.”
I winced, feeling my face grow hot as a velvety tenor crooning John Legend slipped into my mind. The eniyan had smelled of sweat and allspice. The phantom of a dense curly beard tickled my neck, and I shivered.
“Once,” I muttered. “We kissed once, okay?”
Bolajoko snickered. “Last I heard, he’s still recovering. What was the diagnosis? Temporary heart failure?”
“I mitigated the damage and filed a report with upper management,” I said through gritted teeth. “Everything was handled properly.”
“Oh. I’m sure plenty of things were handled.”
Against my will, a smile tugged at my lips. “Shut up, Bola.”
She grinned triumphantly and slapped a wrinkled file on my keyboard. “Take a look, Yems. Come on … you know I wouldn’t ask if I wasn’t desperate.”
I frowned at the fading timestamp on the file’s cover. “May 2015? Bola, this prayer request is ancient.”
“I know,” Bolajoko moaned, rolling her eyes. “You wouldn’t believe how hard it is to make this eniyan happy. I’ve tried everything. Money. Health. A fulfilling career. The only thing left is a love connection.”
“Yeah—with his own kind.”
Bolajoko sulked, snapping her gum. “I’m not good at matching up mortals, okay? Remember the André 3000 and Erykah Badu incident? Exactly,” she said when I grimaced. “That’s why I usually hook up with them myself. But I’m not this guy’s type.”
“And I am?”
“Take a look.”
I opened the manila file with two fingers. A stale cloud of ochre dust tickled my nostrils; I coughed. Beneath yellow residue, the image of a clean-shaven mortal blinked up at me languidly. He had the broad, soft Yoruba nose and mouth I would recognize anywhere, disarming and stubborn at the same time. He yawned. His glasses were black and fashionably large, and the collar of a starched examination coat grazed a perfect dark collarbone.
Attraction stirred inside me like a cloud of gadflies. I frowned wistfully, exhaling through my teeth. “He’s an asshole.”
Bolajoko snort-laughed. “Why? Because he’s hot?”
“Because he’s sleepy,” I quipped. “No guy is that sleepy and that hot without being an asshole.”
Still, I rested my fingertips on the image and let the ochre dust rise. It formed lines of glittering characters, swirling around my arms as I heard the eniyan’s prayers.
His name was Olajide. Oly-Jay to his Malibu girlfriends, and to his fellow USC School of Dentistry alums. Like most prayers, Olajide’s contained very few words—a barrage of thoughts and feelings, hastily stuffed into a grumbled please or an earnest whisper. I still marveled that American mortals prayed to Oshun. Most immigrants abandoned the old spirits when they left Nigeria, if they had ever believed at all. But in the godless clean streets of California suburbs, and the indifferent hell of Houston swamp tenements … a new generation had quietly grown.
Children with pear-shaped faces and brown eyes had listened in kitchens, breathing the smell of boiled yams and Lysol as mothers spun tales of the immortals. Eledumare, the creator. Olorun, crown prince of the sun. And Oshun: goddess of life and love. As these children grew, cheeks stinging with Ambi Whitening Cream and hair limp with lye relaxer, stories of Oshun and her loyal Iyami Aje had soothed their inflamed skin like cocoa butter balm. Iyami Aje were lesser immortals, devoted to Oshun’s work on earth. Crafty. Powerful.
And in my opinion, vastly underpaid.
I mean, it was an honor to be chosen and everything. Few were selected to leave our heavenly Home Base and live among eniyans. Like most rookies, I had applied for the Central Units in Lagos and Abuja. “It’s barely work,” the veterans had giggled, filling my head with fantasies of midnight block parties, greasy street food, and hip-to-hip dancing in highlife music lounges.
Then she had reviewed my application. I still sprouted goosebumps at the memory of her gold-rimmed black eyes, burning over my skin as she presented my plaque of completed training. Her full lips had grazed my forehead, turning my knees to jelly as she breathed: “Teach them.”
“How?” I had stammered.
She had smiled. “Stay versatile.”
The next day, I had applied for the Diaspora Unit. The London, Dublin, and Dallas offices had been full, but then the Boss began receiving prayers from Los Angeles.
I was dying to make her proud. But she hadn’t visited our Inglewood office in five years. As our attempts at matchmaking ended in disaster after sticky disaster … we had begun to wonder if she had forgotten us. Or worse: if she was ashamed.
We never meant to hurt people. Iyami Aje were drawn to loneliness, to prayers of isolation. But as goddesses of love, our affection could be a little … enthusiastic.
Some pleasures of heaven were not meant to be consumed on earth. And if we weren’t careful, well. The best night of an eniyan’s life could easily be their last.
As Olajide’s prayers continued to wind around me in a quiet howl, I could see why Bola had found this mortal difficult. His desires shifted like a smoggy Los Angeles sky: streaks of gray, blue, and angry gold, constantly in flux. But the challenge was enticing. My assignments had been scarce since the guitarist incident; embarrassment had me laying low. But if I solved a case that had been cold for years …
Maybe even the Boss would be impressed.
“Fine. I’ll take Dr. Droopy Eyes off your hands,” I told Bolajoko, trying to sound as bored as possible. “But I’m not hooking up with him, okay? I’m doing this the right way. A mortal matched with a mortal.”
Bolajoko squealed and threw her arms around the back of my chair, pressing her cheek to my head. “You. Are saving. My flawless butt.”
I laughed and squirmed. “Get off. You’ll frizz my edges.”
“Oh gosh, sorry. Eniyan hair products are the worst.” She released her grip and looked me over. “So if you’re not going for Olajide, who are you sending?”
“Another client. I know just the one.” I fished another file from my desk drawer and tossed it on Olajide’s. It fell open to an image of a woman with fine laugh lines and sarcastic black eyes. She wore a tweed blazer and a patterned wrap over her neatly cornrowed hair.
Deanna Idowu, professor of history at UCLA. I’d read her political think pieces in three different newspapers. Most of her prayers concerned research, her students, and public policy. If you could just get my intern’s study past peer review … please, she needs that scholarship … Don’t let Congress screw up prison reform again. Not again. For pete’s sake, put a muzzle on those idiots …
Very rarely, she would ask for something different.
Usually after a couple glasses of wine. Wine, and one too many men who called Deanna each month to talk about his relationship problems—you’re such a good listener, Dee—but who never remembered to call on her birthday.
One too many messages from Black matches she swiped right on Tinder. No offense since u a sister but I like light-skins … haha ur pretty tho
One too many ethnic preference sections beneath a grinning Match.com profile, with every box checked except “African-American.”
Deanna hated this prayer. The eniyan wondered why she even had this stupid craving, when her life was already so full. Hadn’t she crowned herself with laurels when no one else had done it for her? Hadn’t she watered the budding minds in her lecture halls, pruning thought after blossoming thought? Hadn’t she grown to worship every curve and curl in her bedroom mirror? It was enough. It was enough. And yet—
It would be nice. That was the prayer whispered into the wine glass. Barely audible, drowned out by the earthy alto of India.Arie, wafting into the vents of her loft apartment.
“She’s perfect,” I told Bolajoko. “He’s perfect. Two birds with one stone.”
“Fine. Just don’t be late for your appointment.”
Bolajoko’s grin took on cheshire proportions. “You’ve got a teeth cleaning at 11:30.”
After a whirl through Wardrobe Tech, who assigned me a crop sweater with ankara accents and matching yoga pants, I was standing on the grimy front curb of our Inglewood office. We were a modest high-rise, with OSHUN, INC. displayed in sleek gold letters above our awning. Our business front, of all things, was a nutrition supplement pyramid scheme—excuse me, a multi-level marketing enterprise. If any eniyans noticed me leave the building, they would have seen nothing but another starry-eyed sucker, dreaming her way to riches through smoothie powders and living room investment parties.
A urine smell, exquisitely warmed by the sun, wafted from a bundle of rags propped against the Oshun building. My nostrils wrinkled. It had been there for months; why didn't the city remove it?
Then the rags lurched.
“Good morning,” I told the bundle after jumping three feet. I cleared my throat sheepishly. “Didn’t see you there.”
“Change,” it croaked.
I dug through my leather crossbody bag—Tory Burch, and not at all convincing for my cover as a broke college student, but Wardrobe did their best—and held out a twenty-dollar bill. A fine-boned brown hand took it gently, and I made out a wrinkled face with wide rheumy eyes.
“Baller,” she observed.
I smiled wryly. “Yeah, right. I'm more like the water girl.”
“But you share the wealth. Queens stick together.”
“We do.” I checked the SuprLift app on my pink smartphone, watching the rapid approach of Your Driver, Wu Chen in a White Toyota Prius. A car with MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN and LEGAL IMMIGRANT PRIDE stickers soon rounded the corner. “Off to my big break,” I muttered as I climbed into the back seat.
“God bless you now,” mumbled the bundled woman, adding as I closed the car door: “Don’t miss T’Jocula.”
I nodded politely at the nonsense advice and waved as the Prius pulled away. “Elite Dentistry, please,” I told my balding driver. Wu Chen peered at me through his rearview mirror, as though I might steal a seat belt buckle. After several minutes, I asked: “What’s on your mind?”
“You don’t look like a prostitute, but you’re probably pregnant,” the driver blurted. Immediately he turned bright red. He stammered apologies, shocked at himself.
“Knocked up?” I said innocently. “Unlikely. It’s crazy hard for my kind to have a baby. And let me tell you, Wu Chen, our prenatal care is the worst. Yam rituals, muddy fertility springs, sacrifices at sunset … No, sir, not for me. Bet I could make a pretty convincing prostitute, though. Wardrobe has some killer cut-off shorts.”
“Please don’t rate me down on the app,” he rasped. “I wasn’t—I didn’t mean …”
I took a mint from my bag, humming as I unwrapped it, and plopped it in my mouth. “So. Why do you hate black people?”
“Because you are too much like me, I think.” His face contorted, unnerved at the words he had never admitted to himself, let alone spoken out loud. His hands shook on the steering wheel, but his lips kept moving. “You are poor, outsiders. And I am tired of being outside. If I hate who those big men hate, I think, maybe they will give me a chance.”
“Big men?” His gaze locked on mine in the rearview mirror, and I smiled at him ruefully. “Never mind. I know who you mean.”
As the car rolled to a stop in front of Elite Dentistry, he whispered miserably: “Rating?”
I climbed out of the Prius and showed him my screen. “0 stars and a $1000 tip,” I said and his face paled in surprise. “Good luck with your big men, Wu Chen.”
The mortal sped away. I wondered, a little guiltily, if I had broken too many rules. Eniyans could not lie to Iyami Aje. As a courtesy, we were supposed to avoid asking direct questions.
Most mortals told me their secrets voluntarily. Immortality made me a very good listener. When you know what you’ll be doing for the next few hundred years … well. You’re rarely in a hurry.
I watched the Prius disappear, sighed, and passed into the crisp conditioned air of Elite Dentistry. Fifteen minutes later I squirmed in a plush green examination chair, wincing as the red-haired hygienist marveled at the state of my teeth.
“You don’t understand,” she said for the third time. “Enamel this strong is unheard of! Not a single cavity, not a hint of plaque anywhere. Holy hell, do you floss with a hose? And ruler-straight rows! No gum recession whatsoever …”
“Where ith Dr. Olajide?” I asked, tongue muffled against her blue-gloved fingers.
“Reapplying his cologne,” the hygienist blurted, then blushed. She hadn’t intended to tell me so much. “Probably in the bathroom. We’ve tried to tell him that some clients are sensitive to perfume, but …” She giggled, gaze growing a little dreamy. “He likes smelling nice.”
The cologne hit me before he entered the room. I tried to be offended at its overwhelming strength, but … well. It was nice.
Sandalwood and airy citrus, sweetened ever so slightly with chocolate, wafted from Olajide’s frame. He was not tall, but squarely built. A collared white lab coat hung from broad rippling shoulders. Behind the glasses his eyelids drooped, as if perfection were exhausting. The hygienist slipped flusteredly from the room. When he flashed a luminous smile, I allowed myself a sigh.
Mistake. Immediately the room’s temperature skyrocketed, and my skin began to glow. Rosy swirls spread in patterns across my skin. Olajide couldn’t see them, but unconsciously he drew closer, features piqued with interest.
Stop it. Stop it, Yemi, you greedy monster, I scolded myself. Reluctantly, the seductive aura faded from my face and hands. The room cooled. This errand would be brief, in and out. I’d come to collect a single item: a shard of Olajide’s soul.
He glanced at his clipboard. “Mmm … Yemi Orisa. Yoruba?”
I was rewarded by the sleepiest of chuckles. Olajide fell into the swivel doctor’s stool and punched on the chair’s observation light. The sudden brightness made stars spiral in my vision, shimmering around his face. “It’s not every day I get to meet a sister,” he intoned. “What are you in for today, Yemi Orisa?”
“I think I gave your hygienist a crisis of faith,” I said, and bared my immortally straight incisors. “My flossing puts her out of a job.”
“I’ll be the judge of that,” he purred, and then began the slow recline of my chair.
He leaned forward and the cologne hit me in a dizzying wave. Keep your mind out of the gutter, goddess.
This was a business call. Iyami Aje collected soul fragments all the time, and while our method could be … pleasurable for both parties, I was here for a job. My breath slackened as he grew nearer. He flicked down his plastic eye shield, then reached for the gauze mask around his neck. But before he could pull it over his mouth, I grabbed his lab coat lapels and kissed him.
To my credit, I kept it professional.
It was over in a blink. Spearmint, coffee, and just a hint of metallic electricity tickled my tongue as a shard of Olajide slipped through my lips. My vision spun with thirst. I longed to let this mortal’s soul slip down my throat, warming every nerve like a shot of expensive vodka.
No. Be good.
In a fluid movement, I snatched a flask from my purse and spat the soul fragment inside.
“What the hell,” sputtered Olajide. “What the—I could sue you for—”
“For what?” I screwed the flask shut and slipped it neatly away, patting my purse.
“For—” His face grew confused, blank, and then as bored and drowsy as it had ever been. “I … where were we?”
“Firing your hygienist.”
“Right,” he said, checking the clipboard. He squinted at me, as though for a moment I had disappeared from the chair. “Guess I’d better see those heretical molars.”
The memory-obfuscating miasma sunk back into my fingertips, leaving faint spots of pulsing green. I was going to have the worst hangover tomorrow morning. Two auras in the space of an hour drained even the most reckless of goddesses. But I had to stay awake.
I had to reach Deanna.
When it came to helping stubborn eniyans fall in love, soul sharding was the oldest trick in the deity book. Well, second only to eros arrows, which were outlawed in the heavens after the Mortal Rights Humane Act of 33 CE. When an eniyan possessed the soul shard of another, the two were drawn repeatedly together, complete strangers or no. Of course, it didn’t make them fall in love. The first time they bumped into each other at a club, or he spilled her latte at a Starbucks, or she sneezed on his lunch on the Metro Rail, they might hate each other’s guts.
But then she’d show up again at Griffith Observatory. She’d claim the telescope right by his, and he wouldn’t be able to believe it. She wouldn’t even know why she was there: only that she had awoken with an overwhelming urge for a glimpse of Saturn. They would make awkward conversation and part ways. For a while.
Then he would happen to pass the window of her favorite salon. She would give an embarrassed wave from her stylist's chair; he’d come in and they would laugh—are you a PI, or something? Both would feel a little unsettled, but neither could stop smiling. He’d offer to bring her lunch from a taco truck down the street. They’d eat mulitas together, sauce running down their fingers as the salon workers installed her box braids.
Eventually the soul’s pull would grow too strong. The shard would return to its original body, and both eniyans would be free. But by then, more often than not, their hearts were already far, far gone.
I hopped down from the examination chair, beaming at a confused Olajide. “You’ve been very helpful.”
“But—we haven’t even done the exam.”
“You’re right,” I agreed. “The next steps will go way more smoothly once I have some information. But to start, just one question.” I opened the recording app on my phone and pressed the red button. “Olajide: if I told you that your soulmate is someone you’ve never met, and you could send them a single message, what would you say?”
He snorted nervously, rubbing the back of his neck. “That’s a weird question to ask your dentist.” But the honesty compulsion made his lips keep moving. “I’d say: if she wants to get with this king, she’d better be a queen.”
I frowned. “So you would send the future love of your life … instructions?”
“Yeah. I guess.” Olajide’s sleepy gaze grew distant as he warmed to the topic. “I’d want something real. A girl who knows who she is. But not stubborn, you know? Educated. Articulate. But not one of those ankh-wearing feminist types. I want old-school but like … woke.” He gave a little chuckle. “That got heavy.”
“Oh no,” I said in a monotone, pressing pause on my phone app. “Please go on.”
“Not to be shallow,” he obliged without missing a beat, “but I don’t understand girls who cake on makeup. Don’t they know guys like that natural beauty? But not … like, rolled out of bed and zits natural. My queen has to take care of herself, have self-respect. Skinny, but not one of those annoying girls who only eats salad, you know what I’m saying? My queen’s gotta love to eat—”
“Uh-huh,” I said, jamming the phone in my purse and heading for the lobby.
He followed me. “Not one of those stuck-up types. Counting calories and afraid of messing up their nails … Man, I just want a queen who’s down to earth. Who doesn’t care about all that. She should be able to dress, though. Like in heels. And a dress that shows those curves, but not too slutty. My queen’s a lady in the streets. But …” He leaned against the reception desk and winked. “She won’t be some prude, that’s for sure.”
“Maybe you should wear a mood ring,” I suggested brightly. “That way, she can change her outfit to match it every morning.” Then I swept through the Elite Dentistry doors.
As if she were spying via drone, Bolajoko texted me the moment my shoes hit the pavement. My phone buzzed furiously as her texts barreled in.
B: Well?? How’d it go?
B: That bad, huh
At my second ellipsis, Bolajoko sent several crying laugh emojis. 😂 😂 😂 I know, I know, she texted. he’s a fixer upper— now u see why I thought you’d be perfect
Y: … no. No, Bola I do not see that.
B: Yems. Oly doesn’t want a real person. he wants us. literal fantasies. and u have that ice queen snarky unattainable thing going on. men like Oly dig that
I stopped dead in my tracks. The soul fragment pulsed through my leather bag, waiting to be poured into Deanna Idowu’s wine glass. But what if Bolajoko was right?
No. She couldn’t be right. The dreamy dentist and the strong-willed professor—this was supposed to be the romance of my career. My big break. The union of eniyans as lonely as Olajide and Deanna would make deity headlines. It would put the Los Angeles Diaspora Unit back on Oshun’s map.
Bolajoko could not be right.
I strode grumpily down the street, head bent over my phone as I searched for a properly defiant gif to send my best friend. I’d just settled on a hair-flipping Olivia Pope with the caption IT’S HANDLED … when I walked headfirst into a rainbow-stained stepladder.
“Whoa,” said a deep voice. I rubbed my nose, looking up in time to see a middle-aged man in a painter’s jumpsuit scramble for balance.
“Sorry! Sorry,” I gasped, holding out my hands, as if to steady him.
He barked a laugh and hopped down, sticking a brush handle-first into his smock pocket. “You all right, baby girl?”
“Fine. Oh gosh, did I mess you up?” For the first time, I took in the block-long mural I’d missed while texting. My breath caught in my throat.
This was what eniyans did best.
The blues, blacks, and vivid golds drew life from the grimy wall, veins pumping across the cement brick. The mural was several smaller pictures—oceans and forests, ghostly eyes, intertwined hands, butterfly wings, and mouths open in song—all coming together to form the silhouette of a soft-lipped woman. Her afro blossomed across the wall like a starry night sky.
“You walked right past my hazard cones,” the artist said. His dreads were slender and long, tied up and speckled with blue paint. He smiled. “I’m just glad you didn’t smudge the Count.”
“Sorry,” I said again, then echoed, “Count?”
He pointed to an image near my shoulder—barely discernable in the swirls of blue and black. “Count T’Jocula.”
I squinted and leaned in closer. “It’s you, isn’t it?” In the drawing, a man hunched with dreads and cheerfully naughty eyes. An arm obscured his mouth, showing only the glint of two sharp teeth. He wore a paint-splattered cape with a high brown collar, and spidery words arched around him: I VANT TO TELL MY STORY —T’JOCULA
“TJ for Trey Johnson,” the artist said, suddenly sheepish. “That’s me. I put him in all my work. It’s kind of an inside joke, never mind. Don’t you run into any more ladders. You stay safe now, honey; have a nice—”
“Too late,” I said, raising an eyebrow. “I’m invested. Now you have to tell me the joke.”
Trey considered me. His face was lightly lined, as though with graphite pencil. Grief and humor pooled in wide charcoal eyes. “There’s this author, Junot Diaz,” he said at last. “He won the Pulitzer. They had him talk down at that fancy hipster place, The Last Bookstore. He said this thing about vampires and mirrors. How they have no reflection, and that’s what makes them monsters. So when you’re invisible, when your story’s never told, the world never sees you as human.”
“Is that why you paint?” I asked. “To tell your story?”
Trey gazed at the constellations twinkling in his mural woman’s hair. “To tell as many stories as possible.”
I smiled and said goodbye, and he waved from his ladder until I disappeared. Two blocks down, I froze in my tracks.
Don’t miss T’Jocula.
The phantom smell of ammonia filled my nostrils as the homeless woman appeared in my mind’s eye. Camped outside our office building for months. Rags that hid rheumy eyes, rimmed at the edges with cataracts and … gold. They were rimmed with freaking gold.
I threw back my head and laughed.
Tears streamed down my cheeks as I howled and snorted. I chortled until pee escaped into my Wardrobe-issue eniyan underwear. Queens stick together. When I regained control of my lungs, I shook my head at the hazy Inglewood sky. “Well played, Boss,” I said. “Well played.”
Immediately my phone buzzed. My heart began to pound as a text from an unknown number flashed onto my screen, then disappeared.
Ready for your big break? ~ O s h u n
My palms broke out in a cold sweat. But I nodded, swabbed my hands on the seat of my ankara-print yoga pants, and marched back to the mural. “Hey, T’Jocula,” I yelled up the ladder.
“Hey, Phone Face,” Trey yelled back.
“If you’ve never met your soulmate, but you can send them a single message, what do you say?”
Trey cocked his head in thought. “Her story matters,” he said.
A lump formed in my throat. I swallowed hard. “That’s it?”
“That’s it, baby girl, unless you have any more weird questions. She matters. Happy?”
I retrieved the flask from my purse and uncorked the cover. Olajide’s metallic soul fragment splattered onto the pavement, then swirled back to Elite Dentistry in a smelly cologne wind.
I grinned up at Trey and replied: “So happy, I could kiss you.”