The party was going swimmingly.
Adé stood in a corner of her sitting room, presently doubling as an exhibition space, and took cautious sips from the glass in her hand, eyes following Nkem’s butterfly movements around the room.
She’d had enough of Nkem and her crowd. Her head had started pounding again.
She dropped the empty glass and wandered out of the sitting room, to the front door, and was soon treading a familiar path to the beach.
She fished out a joint from the pocket of her denim jacket, lit it and took a deep drag.
The sea was roaring, the moon trying her damndest best to reflect the light of the sun, the air cold and stiff. Adé blew out a long stream of smoke and sighed in contentment. This night would have been perfect … She was about to lift the joint back to her lips when something caught her eye in the distance. Is that someone walking on water?
Her legs continued their brisk walk to the beach of their own accord, her eyes trained on the figure rapidly approaching the shoreline. She glanced at her wristwatch. It was 12:30am. When she looked up again, there was a woman on the beach, her form silhouetted against the dark velvet of the skies.
The woman was in her face now, dress billowing, a white cumulus of afro contrasting with the blue-black of her skin.
Adé opened her mouth to say something snazzy—
“What in the world are you doing out here?” Nkem’s voice crashed into the space between her and the woman, who disappeared.
Adé glanced at Nkem in annoyance, her mind still on the strange encounter.
“It took you long enough to prepare for this damn exhibition.” Nkem was at full throttle. “Then all the drama we had to perform just to get you to agree to the showing—”
Nkem was so furious she was letting her human form slip. The heat of pre-transformation came off her in waves. Adé took a few steps away from her.
“—able to get art critics and people who have money enough to attend your damned exhibition, and where is the artist?”
Adé spread out her hands. “I’m sorry. I just needed a break.”
“You’ve been on a break all your damned life!” Nkem would not be placated. “When will you sit up and take responsibility? If I had half your talent do you think I’ll bother—”
Nkem was her compound sister. More than a sister, a part of her. They'd been fostered by Yèyé, an inland water spirit as mean as the vipers that were his avatars. They'd spent their growing-up years catering to his unpredictable temper and running his household as unpaid interns. Yèyé was bound by the land, his waters, a mere tributary of a larger body of water. After years of careful planning, Adé and Nkem escaped to Lagos. A place they knew he couldn’t enter, except by invitation.
“—how dare you switch off on me!”
Adé pulled her wandering mind back from its journey.
“I’m sorry,” she said, looking deep into Nkem’s eyes and putting as much sincerity as possible in her words.
“Let’s get back to your party!” Nkem stomped off.
The party was going swimmingly.
Adé was at her most charming, talking to potential clients, discussing her art, what each painting meant, where she got her inspiration from, how she mixed all those colours that seemed chaotic, until you drew closer, and they resolved into an utterly delightful image.
“The painting sucks me in,” said a solemn woman who had not bothered to introduce herself. Her eyes were fixed on a piece done in shades of grey, brown, and black, of a storm in the shape of Oya blowing into a cowering city. “It is both hyper-realistic and surreal, it puts in mind the works of—”
Adé swallowed a groan. The woman would probably expect her to say something terribly intellectual in response to her musings.
She started putting words together in her mind, but they kept slipping away, flashes of brilliance that dissolved as soon as they hit her frontal lobes.
She took refuge in the woman’s low voice, nodding as if she actually understood what was being said, praying the woman would not end any of her sentences with a question.
“Ms. Arigbabuwo!” Nkem joined them, eyes feverish with excitement. “So have you decided on this piece or the one in the dining room?”
Adé smiled politely and stepped back as the two women went into an earnest discourse about finances.
“If you ladies will excuse me ...” She smiled at Ms. Arigbabuwo, a ready lie on her tongue. “I think that gentleman needs my attention.”
She needed some time just to breathe.
Within a few seconds, she was at her studio. She pushed the door open, stepped over the threshold and came to a halt.
The room glowed. Comets of light, in different hues of blue, swooped around a woman seated on a low stool placed in front of one of her half-finished paintings.
Curiosity won over Adé’s initial surprise. She stepped further into the room and shut the door quietly.
The half-done painting was of a merchild covered in scales, outlined by translucent fins. She was swimming around a coral reef, laughing and clapping her hands. Jewel-coloured fish swam in and out of the painting. Water sloshed against the edges of the canvas.
Adé felt a tilting, a blur, as reality shifted from the studio into the painting.
She whooped and turned a figure eight, reveling in a body that had turned into a perfectly honed machine designed to move underwater. The merchild swam up to her, laughter in her eyes, Adé and the girl swam round each other, turning loops that got tighter at each passing. That was when a woman joined them.
She jerked to a stop as she realized it was the same woman that had walked on water, at the beach. “Who the hell are you?”
At the edge of her hearing, she heard a shattering. Reality shifted back into the studio, and she was face to face with the woman, who had enough sense to look sheepish.
As the woman called her true name, some of the barriers Adé had spent nearly a lifetime building around her memories came tumbling down.
She remembered Mphsiebo, and her days of innocence, when all she had known was her mother’s love and the sea.
Mphsiebo had once been her closest friend. They’d been hatched in the same nursery, then tutored by the ancient ones. They’d learnt about the arts and sciences, about humankind, merkind, of beings that dwell in the stars and far-flung galaxies.
Days of play and exploration that had come crashing down around Adé’s ears when her mother grabbed her early one morning and fled to the cities of humankind with Olokun’s minions hot at their heels.
Her mother, hiding her true self; becoming an itinerant beggar; her mother, dead …
She stepped away from Mphsiebo, anger rising in her chest like a wild thing.
“How dare you invade my space?” she growled, trying to regain control of her temper. “How did you even find me?”
“Your true self called to us.” Mphsiebo looked at her through sad eyes. “I’m not the enemy, Adé. There are always two sides to a story—”
“I don’t give a damn about your story!” Adé choked out through a tight throat, the headache kicking in again. “Just keep away from me. You and Olokun should stay far from me!”
Adé brushed past her, through the glass doors, onto the small patio that fronted her studio, and swung over the balustrade into the garden.
Tears blinded her as she crashed through rose bushes, one part of her wanting to get as far away from Mphsiebo as possible, the other cautioning her not to go too far.
A fresh wave of frustration washed over her.
I can’t even do whatever I want!
She stopped by a coconut tree and leaned into its curve, willing the tears and her headache away. Instead of dwelling on Mphsiebo’s words about how her true self had called to the seas, she concentrated on the rhythmic sound of the waves hitting the beach, on rustling leaves, the scurrying of small animals underfoot. She was still taking deep breaths when she felt a change in the air, a presence. The pounding in her temple receded.
She opened her eyes cautiously. Standing right in front of her was Olokun.
They were dressed in a translucent gown that flowed with the motion of the sea, their hair a wild tangle of green locks and seaweed, their skin a deep brown, eyes that changed colour endlessly.
“You have to merge your selves, Adé. You need to come home. You’ve spent too many years ignoring your true nature.” Their voice was the soft murmuring of a brook, musical, soothing.
“What home are you talking about?” Adé was surprised at how calm she felt. “This is my only home, and merging my selves is entirely my choice. I am not one of your subjects, Olokun.”
“It is for your own good, child.” Olokun sighed. “You’re in danger.”
Adé sneered. “How am I expected to trust the words of an Orisa who killed off my family—”
“We would never do that!” Olokun’s voice was a whiplash.
A dead silence descended on the garden. Not even the sound of breaking waves could be heard.
“We do not take life. We give!” Olokun’s form flickered in and out of reality before they steadied their selves and continued in a low, level voice. “We cannot interfere since you no longer live in our territory, or we would have taken this matter in hand.” Their tone gentled. “You need to merge, child.”
They paused as if considering their next words. “Somebody has led your human grandfather to you.”
Adé’s heart thudded loudly in her ears at the implications of Olokun’s words. “Isn’t my grandfather dead?”
“Wait a second.” Ade’s anger returned in full force. “Did you just say my grandfather has been searching for me but you’ve prevented him from finding me?”
“We couldn’t have allowed him near you! The man is ruthless!” Their form was flickering again. “In exchange for the power of persuasion, he made a pact with the egbére to lure weakened Orisa for them to feed on. He sacrificed your father, your mother—”
“Lies!” Adé shouted at Olokun, but her words were swallowed by the sound of sadness.
“Your mother was our daughter, Adéolúòkun. We loved her, like we love you …”
The words lingered in the air as Olokun dematerialized. Adé leaned limply against the coconut tree once more, her head buzzing.
“I’m so sorry you had to hear about your human grandfather in this fashion,” Mphsiebo said, from somewhere behind her.
Adé whirled on her, bitter words on her lips—
“What in the world are you doing out here?” Nkem’s voice crashed into the space between her and Mphsiebo.
Adé’s head whipped towards the patio.
Nkem had morphed into her true self. Gone was the waif-like woman with features that got her taken for a teenager. In her place was Nkemdilichukwu, half-human, half-bird. Her feathers were jet black, shining under the full moon like a million shades of sapphire. Her wings spanned the length of the patio. Her dreadlocks stood stiffly over her head. She launched herself into the air, wings spreading darkness as she soared over the garden.
Adé felt a tilting, a blur, as reality shifted from the garden into a blinding white space.
She threw an arm over her face then peeped through the fold. The landscape was flat, an endless sea of sand far as the eye could see. She was still trying to make sense of her sudden shift from the seaside into what was obviously a desert when she heard Mphsiebo’s voice.
“Oh shit, oh shit, oh shit!”
Mphsiebo was turning in circles, looking at the sun and the sand. Swearing like a sailor.
A sandstorm had kicked off in the distance. Adé pulled off her jacket and threw half of it over Mphsiebo, both of them coughing as the wind peppered them with sand.
Mphsiebo made a symbol in the air. A small tent plopped in front of them.
They ran inside the tent, coughing and dusting sand off their bodies.
“Why did you bring us here?” Mphsiebo said, as she shook out sand from her hair.
“What are you talking about?” Adé’s voice was frigid. “How could I have brought us here when I don’t even know where here is!” She needed space to think about all the things that were happening to her … not think, undo everything! She wanted to go back to the moment she’d said yes to an exhibition … maybe farther back, to the day her merkind mother fell in love with her human father …
Mphsiebo was snapping fingers in her face.
“—I need you to be present, so we can find our way out of here.”
“Look, I didn’t bring us here, so I don’t know how we will get out of here.” Adé plopped down, pulled off her shoes and turned them over, spilling sand on the otherwise pristine rug. “At least I don’t think I did. I couldn’t have,” she added, sotto voce. She folded her legs to her chest and buried her head in her arms.
Mphsiebo sat down beside her.“Adé, I need you to listen to me.”
She looked at Mphsiebo, not bothering to hide her misery.
“The thing is, I am a creature of the seas, which means I can only access energy when I’m either in the sea, or near a body of water.”
Mphsiebo turned earnest. “I just used my last reserves of energy to bring this tent here. So it’s up to you, how we get out of here.”
Adé nodded again.
“Don’t you have anything to say?” A note of exasperation had crept into Mphsiebo’s voice.
“I have no energy, or powers.” Adé said, finally. “Whether I’m near water, a forest, or the desert—”
Mphsiebo laughed. “You are kidding me, right?”
Adé turned serious eyes on her. “No, I’m not. All I know how to do is to paint, smoke up, take lovers—”
Mphsiebo grabbed her shoulders. “Adéolúòkun, look at me.”
She did as instructed.
“You’re not powerless. You’re Olokun’s granddaughter, for goodness sakes! Who in the world made you believe these lies?”
“First off, I’m not Adéolúòkun!” She shrugged Mphsiebo’s hands off her shoulders. “Secondly, if I’m Olokun’s granddaughter and I’m so powerful, why can’t I do something as simple as, say … swim?”
Mphsiebo sighed in exasperation. “You don’t need to know how to swim!” She jumped off the rug and paced the tent. “You were born in the seas! You grew up there! You are part of water! What am I even saying? You’re water itself! Do you even have an inkling of the vast power available to you in the universe?”
“If you insist …” Adé was thirsty. She swept a look around the tent and spotted a water dispenser. She went over and got herself a cupful. “At least we won’t die of thirst.” She drank deeply of the cup. “You think of everything, Mphsiebo, thank you.” She returned to the rug and lay down on it.
“You’re mocking me.” Mphsiebo whispered.
Adé sighed. “No, I’m not. I’m confused, but more than that, I’m tired and a little high. I just want whatever is happening to end. I want to return to my little house by the beach and continue living a simple life. I’ve never wanted more.”
Mphsiebo sat by her feet. “Why are you so reluctant to merge your selves?”
“Do you think I haven’t tried?” Adé yelled, then gentled her tone. “I failed all the tasks Yèyé set for me, failed at everything! Mother must have been sharing her powers with me—she enabled me to live in the sea. Adéolúòkun is dead …” She touched Mphsiebo. "If it’s any comfort, I know where we are now. It’s one of my paintings. A desertscape I did some years ago. It was on display in the passageway.”
“Yeah, I saw it. Dreary, bleak, joyless,” Mphsiebo muttered.
“That was the way I felt when I was painting it,” Adé said, matter-of-factly.
“Adé,” Mphsiebo was tapping her.
She didn’t want to wake up. She was back in the sea, moving through the water like she’d never been able to do in real life …
“Adé, some bird woman is here.”
Her eyes snapped open, she turned over and saw Nkem.
“It took you long enough to get here,” Adé muttered as she sat up and pulled on her loafers. “Is the exhibition still going on?”
Nkem glared, arms across her chest, wings folded primly on her back. “You are such an idi—”
Mphsiebo was on her feet in a flash. “She is such a what?”
Her fists were doubled, her posture daring Nkem to finish her sentence.
Nkem swept her a contemptuous look. “Who is this interfering woman? Why does she keep popping up everywhere?”
Adé shrugged. “Are you going to help us out of here or not?”
Dawn inked the skies with pale fingers. Adé rested on the railings, eyes on her wristwatch. Counting down the minutes till the ferry would come and remove Nkem’s people from her house.
All her paintings had sold. Nkem should be happy.
She glanced at Mphsiebo, slumped on a rocker in exhaustion. Comets swarming her as if they were desperately trying to replenish her lost energy. Adé had never felt more helpless … Useless was what Nkem called her, not fit for anything …
Nkem stepped through the patio doors, back to her human form.
“There’s someone here to see you.”
She moved aside for a new visitor.
Adé’s jaw dropped as he entered into full view.
The man was tall and imposing, his skin the yellow of ripe mango. His muscular frame was draped in a midnight black babariga. He was the very image of her father.
“Won’t you welcome your grandfather?” The man smiled in delight, showing off pearly white teeth.
“I … I—”
Before she could finish her sentence, she was enveloped in a tight hug.
She stood stiffly within the embrace.
“I’ve searched for you everywhere, for so many years.”
The sadness in his voice melted her resistance, banished Olokun’s warnings from her head. She relaxed against him and sobbed into his shoulder.
“I’m so glad we’ve been finally been reunited.”
He laughed … and that was when she remembered.
They’d been running for three days. Mother was tired. The egbére were closing up on them. Mother used her last energy to make Adé invisible. She was summoning Olokun when they'd arrived, the egbére, with their chalk white skin, blood red eyes, lips, and hair. Among them stood her grandfather. He watched as they swarmed her mother in a feeding frenzy. He laughed. The same way he was doing now, gleefully, like a child who just got a new toy.
Adé didn't resist the rage that burnt through her. Her comets of light lit up the skies. They were burnt orange, burgundy, dark blue, emerald. She grabbed her grandfather and studied his fears as he wriggled within her grip. She felt … nothing.
She summoned the sandstorm.
She didn't watch as the sandstorm wrapped him in a steel embrace and dragged him screaming into the desertscape. She was dumbstruck by the sight of her guests morphing into egbére and realised why she'd been tired all day. They'd been feeding off her.
Ms. Arigbabuwo led the pack, her transformation almost complete. Red eyes, white skin, red hair, red lips drooling in anticipation of a feast.
As they swarmed the patio, Adé opened her arms and embraced them. Careful not to let their colours run, she squished them into a palette of red, white and some pink. With a few sweeping strokes she created a masterpiece of chaos, then dropped the canvas on the floor.
She mounted a storm and followed Nkem, who was already soaring towards the city, darkness trailing her wings. She sent a wall of water ahead to block Nkem’s path.
Nkem swung around with a quiverful of arrows that sped unerringly for Adé. In the spirit of play and sportsmanship, Adé painted the arrows as two-dimensional child art, complete with ribbons and balloons.
Then she turned serious.
“I loved you. I still do—” She flung a jet of water at Nkem, knocking her off balance, and caught her as she fell from the skies. “I just want to know why.”
“You never give of yourself!" Nkem snatched herself out of Adé’s arms. "Always taking, affection, laughter, you're so fucking self-absorbed! I got tired of being your sidekick, the one who had to struggle while you surfed through life!” She shook water out of her wings angrily. “Adéolúòkun, the favourite grandchild of a powerful Orisa. Even when we were at Yèyé’s, you got the easier chores while I did the heavy lifting. Yet you carry your tragedy around as if you’re the only one with problems! And that bullshit about not asking for anything, you never had to because you had everything!”
Adé's heart shattered in a million pieces as she listened to the words of betrayal.
“I know about your parents, Nkem, why you were sent to Yèyé,” Adé said. “The little ones you harmed in your bid for power. I thought we’d found redemption in simplicity …”
“You can’t send me back! You shouldn’t!”
Tears sprang into Adé’s eyes as Yèyé appeared, his vipers moving sinuously in his wake. He was riding the wind.
“No! You can’t do this!” Nkem shouted as she was sucked into Yèyé’s gilded cage, and then they were gone.
She rode the storm back to her house. Mphsiebo was gasping for breath. Adé carried her to the sea. As she waded into the waters, the salt of the sea mingled with the salt of her tears.
She might not hold the power of life or death, but she would give of herself.
So she fed Mphsiebo, as she waded deeper into the waters. She held nothing back even as her body went through the pain of transformation. The song of the sea that she’d spent so many years ignoring rose from her chest, so she sang, of sadness and loss, of the beauty to be found in pain.
She swam past dolphins, sharks, past coral reefs, and merpeople who stared at her in wonder. She swam into depths of darkness, where the silent ones lived, yet she fed Mphsiebo.
Adéolúòkun's song changed as she felt a stirring in her arms. Mphsiebo joined her voice to hers.