by Wole Talabi
The Shrine, Ikeja, Lagos. | June 20th, 1977 | 11:46 pm.
The air was saturated with a heady mix of lust, freedom and marijuana.
Aadit Kumar was sitting at an unstable table carved of cheap wood and held together by the skill of a poor carpenter. Fela Kuti was on a small make-shift stage singing something socially scathing while simulating strange, savage sex with a sweaty, skinny seductress to scintillating sounds from a splendid saxophone. The girl sitting next to Aadit, stroking his shaggy black hair with her long, sleek fingers was driving him insane.
She seemed, in his mind, to be Africa made flesh – dark, mysterious and just a bit little dangerous. She had radiant ebony skin that seemed to be made of midnight and the edges of her frizzy afro refined stray bits of light to an eldritch fringe.
She’d ignored everyone else at the gathering and come to sit by the hairy man with the Hindu name, gold chain, wedding ring, and American accent wearing the Ankara shirt and khaki bell-bottoms. He thought, charitably, that she was a very beautiful prostitute.
They were alone at the table and the space around them buzzed with electric lust as Fela moaned and laughed and shouted and sang with fevered ebullience. Aadit endured the aching in his head and in his loins until it became a mad pounding in the space behind his temples.
“Want to go to the back?” Aadit said to her carefully, trying to mask his embarrassment but still possessed with hot desire.
She laughed sharply, then smiled and stood up without saying a word. He concluded that his guess had been right. She let him lead her to a dark alley just outside the shrine after slipping an oily security guard a few one naira notes to ensure they would not be disturbed.
He leaned in to kiss her in the darkness but she pulled back.
“I know what you really want,” She whispered breathily before turning around, hiking her leather skirt up and shoving her hands down his trousers. She seized him. He could barely breathe. Saxophone notes echoed around them. A cornucopia of sensations overran him as images flitted through his mind like butterflies in a field.
Birds. Lips. Music. Flowers. Wings. Skin. Sachika.
His mind instantly recrystallized into a lattice of coherence.
“Please. I’m sorry, I… I can’t do this,” He mumbled as he pushed her away and started to struggle with his trousers. She glared at him with eyes like dying coals.
“What are you doing?” She demanded.
“I’m sorry, I shouldn’t have . . . I have a wife. I’ll still pay, but I can’t. I have a . . .”
Her voice took on the quality of an earthquake. “What is this? You think you can just stop? There are things that cannot stop once they have begun. Understand?”
Aadit’s lust was hastily replaced by fear of equal magnitude. Perhaps greater. He glanced at the ground and noticed that despite the harsh light from a lone bulb hitting them at the same angle, his shadow was alone.
“You must finish.”
Aadit realized with all the abruptness of tropical rainfall in July that he had done something terribly wrong with something that was not quite human. Driven by a wild, mad, need to escape, he snatched the gold chain hanging around his neck, removed the small peacock feather hanging from it that his mother had told him would protect him, and threw it at her. She leapt back to avoid it. He took his chance and fled for the taxi park.
There was first a piercing scream and then a tremulous cackling behind him, tainting the saxophone echoes in the air like rudely spilled black paint on silk robes.
The world was spinning when I woke up. My head was pulsing like a fearful human heart.
I managed to roll off my raffia mat before throwing up a good portion of the previous night’s merriment and excess onto the red clay floor. The mess was brown and viscous; it contained pieces of half-digested kolanuts, morsels of meat, palm wine and blood. Lots of blood. I retched and threw up a second wave of vomit that left me feeling slightly less terrible. The world seemed a little less unstable. I managed to drag myself to my feet, stumble out of the door past the brief brush of bush beside my house and make my way to the hole in the ground that served as my latrine. I was there for at least half an hour, heaving, retching and spitting.
When the only thing that came after each burning retch was a clear and colourless liquid, I lifted my head from the pit and up towards the sky. The sun hung low and there were no clouds. Olorun was wearing red and yellow again. He seemed to favour those colours in the evenings even though he never wore the exact same dress twice. He was a vain one, our aloof and leisurely sky god. But I suppose leisure is your lot when you are Chairman of the board of what used to be one of the largest spirit-companies in this version of existence.
Staggering back into my hut, I began to feel like myself again. I ignored the smelly mess on my floor and readied myself for work. I could clean up later. No one visited me anyway.
I hated my job. It was dreary, uninteresting, and painfully mundane. But a deity had to do what he could to survive in hard times. Belief is scarce. Good offerings were far and few between and almost everyone I knew had already taken a prayer-cut.
By the time I had put on my official cloak of cowries, and covered my face in black clay, Olorun had changed outfits and was wearing his flowing black agbada as the sky; this one shimmering with star embroidery and a brightly beaming moon fila.
I took the untarred bush path that snaked past the disused shadow of the evil forest. Ososhi, master hunter and one of my few friends had mentioned a while ago that the Orisha board had voted to cut down the trees to make way for a movie shrine. It was a shame but they must pander to what few customers are left, I suppose. Evil forests are out, Nollywood is in. Belief is a funny thing.
The office looked even worse than it had two days earlier when I had come to collect last month’s pray pay – most of which I had thrown up this morning. Another hole had appeared in the front wall just beside the door and another window pane had slipped from its place to hang precariously over the overgrown grass. The lights were out. I was not sure if it was because there was no one there or if the power had been cut. I sauntered through the curtain of hanging beads and into the reception, standing in a thin sliver of moonlight.
“Shigidi, you are late.”
Oya, Sango’s most annoying wife was sitting in the darkness, at the reception desk.
“You this woman, why are you hiding in the shadows like a rat?”
“Everything will be shadow until one of you idiots gets a sacrifice big enough for us to afford to fix the generator.”
Oya had a caustic way of distilling situations down to simplistic statements and then projecting them into the future.
“I see. Well, it would help if you could speak to your husband about . . .”
“No. I won’t.” She cut me short as she stepped into the sliver of moonlight with me and handed me a half-melted candle and some matches. “Don’t even mention Sango’s name, you hear? If you try it I will slap you.”
She was at least three times my height and four times as rotund. Not because she was that big, but because I was that small. Ugly and small. These are the characteristics that made me perfectly suited for the job which I hated so much. Sango made me that way intentionally – large head, ugly face, small body, ashy skin of unpolished clay. I had never felt the touch of a woman – human or spirit. How could I, looking like that? I hated it and had taken up the issue of my appearance with our spirit resources representative but I had been told that my creation and recruitment were both non-negotiable parameters of my contract. There were many non-negotiable parameters of my contract, including what Sango would do to me if I ever got into a fight with any of his wives.
So I said, “Fine. You are lucky I don’t want trouble today,” hoping to end the issue there.
She snorted. “Let me hear word please. You have an assignment to get to. Someone sent in a small sacrifice three hours ago. Log-in to the human world and respond to him as soon as you can. You know you still have a lot of objectives to meet this quarter.” She handed me a work-slip and I studied it casually. It was a standard nightmare-and-kill job.
Turning around, she asked, “Have you seen Ososhi?”
“No, I haven’t. Why are you looking for him?” I queried. There were rumours of competitor deity assassination. I suspected Sango was using my friend to do his dirty work.
Oya bent down and poked her ugly fat finger in my face, “Is it your business? Amebo! Drunken gossip hound. Get to work, lazy thing!”
Annoyed, I muttered, “Hag,” under my breath and walked away. Sango’s second wife was rude but I could not insult her to her face. Her husband – my boss – would punish me in ways that would boggle even the most macabre of minds in the spirit-company. I continued to my office.
My office was a small, grey room in the back of the building with a small bowl of water in the middle and several ancient charms hanging on the walls. The basics really: tortoise shell, cowries, palm fronds, dried frog skin, kola nuts, and one two hundred year old gourd of palm wine. Getting in, I placed my heavily tattooed forearm and fingers into the bowl of water. Each tattoo was a sigil; a log-in key of summoning for the wind between worlds. I waited for it to identify me before breaking into fevered incantation and entering my password.
The wind was almost imperceptible when it came. One moment, I was in my office, the next, I was in a lavish hotel room standing beside a bed where a naked man and woman writhed on thousand thread count sheets. I observed them closely.
The male was tall – his feet spilled over the edge of the king-size bed and his grey hair was cropped low. Wedding ring on finger, slight and slender, he appeared to be in his late fifties or early sixties. According to the work-slip, he was my target.
The female however, drew my attention with a bizarre power I could not resist. My eyes slid from the male to her and the first thing I noticed about her was how sleek her fingers were, resting on his bare chest. They were svelte and finely crafted, like one of those imported menthol cigarettes that had replaced our local pipes. She had radiant ebony skin and on her head was a corona of curly black hair splayed about her on the pillow. Her pout was full and blood-red. She was painfully beautiful – the kind of woman Eshu would have used to torment someone before destroying him, back when he was still head of our legal department.
I stepped toward the bed and made to press out the breath from the male whose business partner wanted him dead for personal reasons of his own – they did not matter. What mattered was that he had made a sacrifice to our spirit company and called upon me through an accredited spirit-company customer service agent – a Babalawo. I would do as he asked, be on my way and get paid.
I clambered onto the bed and made to move the female’s hand from his chest so that I could sit on it and crush his lungs. That was when the female rose into the air suddenly like an erupting volcano; hot, intense and with violent quaking. She latched onto the ceiling,
twith claws extending from her slender long fingers that were now covered in razor thin scales. Long, feathery wings burst out of her bare back, seamlessly obscuring her contorted spine. Her neck twisted at an impossible angle as she stared down at me.
“Shigidi!” She rumbled.
“Oh, for Olorun’s sake!” I exclaimed, annoyed.
I knew her kind; they were freelancers not affiliated to any company. They did not trade in belief; they simply stole spirits and used them for their own sustenance through aggressive and deceptive guerrilla marketing. They were reviled by my colleagues. I was indifferent to them but I did not want one of them undercutting my job.
“What is your name then?” I asked the thing. Well, her. It looked like a her at least.
“Naamah,” She said in a voice that vibrated violently like the ground beneath a besieged city. “My name is Naamah. But in this body, I prefer to be called Nneoma.”
She was one of them then – one of the original four of her kind. I felt a small measure of fear creep up on me.
“Nneoma, look, this man’s life is mine.” I told her as I waved my palm through the air, displaying my work-slip in bold-font spirit particles.
She laughed with a sound like a burning city.
“Those documents mean nothing to me, little nightmare god. He has lain with me. He has enjoyed the pleasure between my thighs. His essence belongs to me now. I will claim it at sunrise.”
“But if you take his spirit, he will end up trapped between worlds.” I protested. “You will leave a shadow of him that will haunt hidden places. What’s the point of that then? My client needs him dead. My job requires me to make him dead. Please don’t make this difficult.”
She let out a sound somewhere between amusement and annoyance.
“It seems we have a problem then, little nightmare god.”
“Yes. We do.” I confirmed, preparing myself for a fight.
I like women, I really do. But they never seem to want to do anything with me except fight. There’s something about me that just seems to bring out the worst in them. So, accepting my fate, I looked around the room for a good position from which I could strike the beautiful, evil woman in front of me when she suddenly said, “Have you ever been with a woman, Shigidi?”
Her voice was no longer harsh and trembling; it had suddenly gone soft and genteel but her eyes still glowed ruby red and danced in their sockets frantically like the flames of a forest fire.
“No.” I answered honestly. “What does that have to do with anything?”
“I can break your contract,” She said coyly.
That was when I saw that there was something strange about her. I should have known the moment I saw her. It wasn’t her horrific beauty or the fact that she was perched on the ceiling, slit pupils trained on me with a curious intensity. I had seen stranger than her familiar form, the leathery wings and ochre eyes were something that Eshu used to pull off for a drunken laugh at our spirit-company’s annual end of year parties. No, there was something else, something subtler. It was in the way she still arched her spine so the yellowed bulb hit her breasts at just the right angle to rivet my badly drawn eyes. In the way her wings fanned gently, almost imperceptibly, each gust pulsing through her wild hair, giving it life. It was the way her lips were pursed, just at the edges, a perpetual pout. She was putting on a show. Reeling me in. She wanted something from me.
“I can make you one of us, nightmare god. If you lay with me, you will no longer be as you are now. I possess both powers of extraction and transformation. Lay with me and you will take upon my form.”
Something rumbled in me, trapped inside my earthen flesh and lipless smile. I was not used to being headhunted. Especially by such an alluring recruiter.
“Are you trying to trick me, Nneoma?”
“Not at all. Come, join us. It’s not so different from what you do now. You will still take spirits but you will pleasure them first and they will pleasure you. You will work for yourself, not for that corporate sociopath Sango. You will travel beyond African shores too – taste sweet American flesh, spicy Asian spirits, hardy European souls. You will no longer be ugly. You will be handsome, tall, hulking, admired by all who set their eyes upon you. I do not wish to kill you in a fight for this meagre mortal’s soul. Will you not lay with me, Shigidi?”
“No.” I said.
She grinned from ear to ear, apparently unruffled by my refusal. I could not tell if she was just amused or she was simply unused to being denied.
“No?” She asked, slightly tilting her face so the light exaggerated her cheekbones.
“No. I will not lay with you. I don’t trust you.”
We stood, staring and smiling at each other.
I considered her proposal as I took in her polished ebony skin, long neck and gracile arms that seemed to have been carved by the hands of a particularly precise god – like one of those yuppie craftsmen that helped build Ile-ife back when Olorun was still running the company himself. I too could be viewed with such awe if I believed her. Lay with her. Quit my job. Or I could fight her and probably lose. I would then be forced to return to the office with an assortment of injuries and to the bite of Oya’s caustic insults. I would not meet my quarterly spirit-collection objectives and Sango would probably dock my pray pay for the next six months. It wasn’t worth a fight, the sensible thing to do was to take her offer but I wasn’t going to allow myself be recruited too easily.
“Nightmare god, don’t you want to be beautiful? The spirit market isn’t what it used to be. Faith prices are falling. At least with me you will feed directly from the source. Come now. Lay with me.”
The offer was indeed too good to be true. Our kind needs belief to exist and we need human spirits to enjoy our existence. A freshly harvested soul is worth the faith of a hundred believers to our vitality and well-being. But the consumption of souls by spirit-companies is tightly regulated. We can only take souls when requested by a human prayer or summoning. Faith around the world had taken a hit, and the big two multinationals dominated what was left of the market after subjecting our local spirit business practices to a brutal smear campaign; luring away our own people by presenting our corporate culture as ‘barbaric’ and theirs as ‘civilised’. The universe thrives on irony.
I barely had enough people that believed in me to get by. And I had to share what souls I reaped with the company. So yes, the times were indeed changing. Perhaps, I thought, it was time for me to change along with them. My options were limited anyway.
“Alright. I accept your offer.”
Her grin became a smile that seemed to radiate her pleasure outward in cresting waves. I had been recruited.
I rose slowly from my position above the sleeping man, who remained oblivious to all that was transpiring around and above him.
She removed her claws from the ceiling and descended slowly downwards from her perch on the ceiling, gracefully, like a grand butterfly or perhaps an especially graceful moth. She landed and sat on the vanity table, crossing her legs so a swath of thigh lay exposed but not the prize beyond. I angled my neckless head, the supple pseudo-clay of my shoulders yawning to accept the impossible. I trembled with anticipation.
“Tell me, Nneoma, what is it like to lay with a creature as beautiful as you are?” I asked in a low, eager whisper, betraying myself.
Her body rippled as her wings shrunk and her fearsome persona regressed, leaving supple skin and a brazen nakedness like I had never seen before. I barely even noticed the man I had been sent to kill sizzle and char underneath me, my eyes were fixed solely on Nneoma’s hills and crevices, and how the light seemed to bend to her body’s whims. She walked up to me, her full hips swinging with each step; put her hands into my dirty khaki trousers and her lips to my ears, filling me with an alien heat and desire.
“Shigidi darling,” She murmured, “The pleasure between these thighs is to die for.”
Her touch was wonderful. I had never experienced anything like it, not even during my official induction when Sango first created and recruited me.
“You are an amazing woman, Nneoma.” I croaked.
Her laughter was genuine, wild and all encompassing. It almost made me want to chuckle too, to validate her mirth but all I could do was breathe in short, sharp breaths.
She pushed me onto the bed and scooped a handful of ash from behind me, letting it fall through her fingers, “You insult me, nightmare god.”
The ash continued to fall.
“I am not a woman, not anymore.”
I could barely contain myself as she dragged my trousers down and slid herself onto me. I felt everything I had ever known bifurcate, torn apart by unbelievable pleasure. The world spun around me and blurred into a greyish nothingness that pushed against me from all sides. I gasped. It felt like the wind between worlds had become a tornado and I was caught in it. I could feel my form disintegrating and spreading into the grey haze that saw and felt and was all.
Coming from a place where each trip into the human world had to be requested through the official travel desk and with my sigils closely monitored once approved, it felt like a glimpse of omniscience. Pure unadulterated freedom. And then there was the pleasure.
I was all at once the smoke filled air of Obalende and the fresh sea salt of Victoria Island, the swampy fog of Makoko and frigid metallic din of Apapa. I engulfed every soul, inhaled through every nostril and loved with every heart. I was unfolding. My contract was being broken and it was exhilarating.
Just as I began to understand the scope of the gift Naamah was giving me, I felt myself suddenly withdrawn, dragged back to the world with the violent efficiency of a recoiling whip. I shrieked. It was a guttural shriek that burst from within me as I peaked in a corybantic explosion of sensations and light. So much light.
The light became unbearably bright and I felt the urge to cover my face. My body slowly reconstituted itself into a form that was familiar but not quite, in a world that was now no longer abstract and nebulous but firm as retribution. Swiftly, with my eyes still closed, my hands flew to my face and travelled down, collating organs, limbs and features, making sure everything was intact. I was the same, still made of Sango’s familiar clay, but better. Much better. No longer the squat legs and arms, but sleek limbs and a chiselled face that even the most artistic hands in ancient Ile-Ife would have envied. She had remade me in her image, given me the uniform of the freelance spirit agent – beauty. I opened a sculpted eye, and then another and removed my lengthened arms from my face to unveil Nneoma, standing by the window, smoking a cigarette. It was almost dawn.
“Did you enjoy your transfiguration?” She asked quietly, turning to me.
Looking down at the pile of ash in which I sat naked, I opened my mouth to speak but words failed me, so I sat, jaw bobbing in silence at words I couldn’t seem to string together.
“It is lonely, being a freelancer in this business. I have wanted a partner for so long. Will you now forsake all others for me?”
There it was, revealed. The final section of the recruitment – an agreement to terms and conditions. The signing of a new, different contract. The spirit business is a ruthless one and even a freelancer has to have a partner. Or at least someone they can trust.
But I did not mind, I did not want to be alone either. I wanted to be with her. How could I not? She was powerful and beautiful.
I wanted to say yes but the words wouldn’t come so I turned to the bed and using my clay fingers that shimmered with recently rearranged spirit particles, scrawled into the ash that had been landscaped all over it in big, ungainly letters,
“Y E S.”
Her sequin blouse clung tightly around her and glimmered sharply in the evening paleness, lending what I can only describe as an almost spectral quality to her already divine figure. Nneoma was, as always, dressed to kill.
The night was young but the day had gone by quickly and the night seemed to be in an equal hurry to end. Olorun always seemed to grow impatient in November. We were eager to find a spirit to consume before the dawn brought Lagos dwellers back to their senses. We were free of schedules and KPIs and targets but we still needed to collect enough to keep ourselves satiated. We hurried down the stairs of the Ikoyi town house we had ‘inherited’ from our last victims three weeks ago and got into the Range Rover. I started the vehicle and eased out of the gate.
I looked up through the window and saw that the sky had fashioned itself a tattered blanket of violet and gold.
“Olorun is playing games tonight,” I said, my lips barely parting.
Nneoma seemed a bit startled. Her eyes spun to gaze at me sharply, but only briefly. Then she relaxed.
“The Orisha have their games, and we have ours.” She replied with a tender smile before looking away.
I let down the window of our sleek, black Sport Utility Vehicle, savouring the titillating scent of dried fish and kerosene as they mingled with the sweat of the hawkers. Lagos was an olfactory paradise. I had never smelled the city in such detail before when I had my small, squat body. With this new, beautiful shell, I saw and smelled and felt so much. It was intoxicating.
“You look impossibly handsome, Shigidi.” Nneoma said, her voice thick with a rasp. I wore a grey suit, purple shirt and matching pocket square. My clean-shaven head gleamed. I had no doubt I was as she said, impossibly handsome. She had moulded Sango’s clumsy clay into something exquisite and her praise was more for her handiwork than my appearance.
“Look at them,” she started, touching my shoulder as I slid the vehicle onto Falomo Bridge, “All these people, looking without seeing anything. Even the spirits among them will never realize what it is like to be like us, to be free to prowl for faith and spirit sustenance. It’s wonderful, isn’t it?”
I said, “Yes, it is.” Mostly because that was what I was supposed to say, but also because it was true.
A skinny young boy in tattered clothes ran up to our car as traffic slowed and tried to clean the windscreen with an ugly makeshift squeegee. I dismissed him with a short but violent wave.
Nneoma seemed to be in a strange mood. She seemed anxious. I had never seen Nneoma look anxious. Then, unexpectedly she asked, “Were you ever human, Shigidi? Even temporarily?”
“No. Short term assignments in human bodies were restricted to high-value performers in the spirit company. The real faith-makers and spirit reapers and those that kissed Sango’s ass.” I didn’t add that it was only restricted because the spirit-company was insanely worried that one of us would impregnate a human female and create an Abiku bastard.
“That’s a pity,” Nneoma told me and went quiet.
Confused, I said nothing.
A few silent minutes later, we reached our destination.
The massive metal gate regarded us with suspicion when we arrived until the guards pulled its maw open. The car slid through and we parked our car right in front of the main foyer.
“Let’s find some food,” Nneoma said as she slid her hand into the crook of my muscled arm.
We walked in briskly, determined to make the most of the night. The Oriental hotel lobby was well furnished. On the far wall ahead of us stood what I knew to be the largest painting in Lagos. I knew Nneoma would want to see it again. It had become a sort of pre-work ritual for her here. She always did. We ambled up to it and lingered.
“It is a Sebanjo. One of the largest oil on canvas paintings in the world. Magnificent, isn’t it?”
The voice was gentle and melodious, like the music that comes from the slow dance of fingers on a finely tuned goje. I turned around to face its owner – a tall, shapely woman with creamy skin and dark hair in a royal blue bodycon dress. Her glassy eyes caught the light frequently, revealing a different colour each time as though it were an inside joke between her and the building. She wore the kind of smile that made things happen in Lagos. The whole woman was improbable. I instantly grew suspicious. But not suspicious enough.
“It must have cost a fortune,” Nneoma said to the woman, smiling. “But it is a pleasure to see such a beautiful thing in Lagos.”
She spoke with the kind of warmth reserved for old friends. Nneoma was perpetually charming, it was part of her work philosophy, but I knew there was something different about this. She seemed to instantly like this woman.
“Yes indeed. It is.” She proclaimed before extending her hand to Nneoma. “My name is Omolara and this is my husband, Rotimi.”
The man she gestured to, about seven steps away, looking at another painting, was dressed as glamorously as his wife but lacked the same brilliance in his eyes. He turned to address us and seemed mildly amused by the scene his wife had orchestrated. He kissed Nneoma’s hand and shook mine as Nneoma introduced herself to them.
“Nneoma. Such a beautiful name. Can my husband and I buy you and your-” She paused, waiting for Nneoma to introduce me since I had chosen to remain silent. She obliged.
The woman and I regarded each other briefly.
“Yes, of course, your boyfriend. Can we buy you both drinks?”
Nneoma nodded slightly at me, marking them as our first targets for the night, before replying with a smile like a knife’s edge, “Only if you join us upstairs, I hear there is an excellent live band playing Fela classics tonight,”
“Of course.” She agreed, smiling. The light caught her eyes and flashed hazel. Nneoma was flirting with her and she welcomed it.
We walked to the elevator briskly – a powerful quartet of beauty, flamboyance and sensuality drawing stares like a four-sided magnet.
In the claustrophobic embrace of the elevator, Omolara, without warning, turned to Nneoma and drew her in for a kiss. It was a hasty thing. There was no artifice to it, just need. Nneoma kissed her back fervently and they clung together like a compound name.
Her husband pressed himself against Nneoma from behind and kissed her neck. Nneoma shot me a look and so I joined the three bodies and slipped a hand between Nneoma and Omolara to cup a full breast. The heat and lust in that small space was overwhelming. I was not sure if we were the seducers or the seduced but I could not bring myself to pull away. Not with Nneoma egging me on, eager to claim the two lusty, beautiful spirits with us.
We never reached the bar, arriving instead, on the ninth floor where Omolara and Rotimi had a suite. We spilled out of the elevator and into their expansive luxury suite, a fluid mass of heavy breaths, limbs and lust.
I watched Nneoma yield to Omolara and Rotimi’s hands. There was a learned aspect to their manipulations. Then Rotimi rolled onto the other side of the bed, lifted Nneoma’s dress up and eased himself into her, thrusting with slow, deliberate motions.
I let my mind drift as her pleasure intensified, hypnotically drawing me to the tangle of flesh, into that dire mire of mad desire. I slid toward the bed and Omolara reached for me, cupping my face and expertly guiding it to her mouth for a kiss as intense as childbirth. I was suddenly thrown into a haze of my pleasure. My eyes rolled back behind shut eyelids as Omolara’s mouth worked its magic on mine.
The kiss held for so long, I began to feel like I was drowning.
And then, as in a nightmare, I realised I was.
I could not breathe, the clay of my lungs felt swollen and thick. I began to struggle. I tried to wrestle my mouth from Omolara’s but I could not and so I drew back my right arm and threw a vicious punch right into her abdomen. She detached with a muted whimper, rolled backwards, and onto her feet. At that point, I knew something was very wrong with the night’s business. It was what we used to call, back when I was in the spirit-company, an unforeseen job process deviation.
Nneoma’s eyes had widened at the sight, rinsed of any passion she had been in the throes of earlier. I watched her try to rise into the air, let her wings loose and fly but she seemed unable to move, unable to detach herself from Rotimi who had stopped thrusting and now lay atop her, still as a statue.
It was magun.
“Nneoma,” I called to my partner. “Listen, I know this category of juju. They use it to bind cheating wives to their partners in infidelity. You’ve been locked to that . . .” I looked at the hardening, still form on top of her and continued “ . . . thing.”
Nneoma seemed to scream, “Help me!” but her voice trailed off into silence even though I could still see her mouth move. The modified magun must have locked both her body and her mind. She could not move or talk to use her powers or transform or do anything until I separated her from it. I tensed.
Omolara silently kept her eyes locked on me, her eyes red. Her burnt honey skin started to desiccate and flake away. I understood then what was going on. My former employers had come for me.
“Shigidi,” Omolara called to me. Her voice had melted away and now sounded like the moaning of rivers.
“What made you think you could just break your contract and run away with this demon whore?” She said to me, her voice full of something like scorn.
She had almost completely shed her skin and beneath it, I could see she was not this Omolara woman at all, if such a person had ever existed. No. The person moulting from the shell of beautiful skin was squat and grounded by an impossible amount of weight around her middle, most of it in grand rolls of fat that hung from her stomach like fleshy drapes and in her wide, rolling hips. Her ears had been rudely cut off and her hair was woven into tight corn rows that ran parallel to each other, meeting at the centre of her head from which rose a broad spike of hair that rose high above her like a failed attempt to stab the ceiling. It was Oba – first wife of that bastard Sango and head of spirit-resources at my former company.
She had tricked us, with an animated golem, like me, also made of Sango’s clay. The magun had probably been woven directly into his elementary spirit particles, concealed with some sort of animation juju – a soul shadow – and designed to activate once he coupled with a woman like a computer virus. I was surprised that neither Nneoma nor I had noticed. There must have been at least a faint trace of the magun imprinted onto the soul shadow, like a whiff of perfume riding the sea breeze. No one can touch or make a thing without leaving a fingerprint; this is true even of spirits. It was cutting edge juju.
They had found us and neutralised Nneoma. My undoing was at hand. But I had tasted exquisite freedom, I was not about to just give it up without a fight.
“You and your husband weren’t treating me very well,” I said, glancing at Nneoma, “so I found alternative means to make a living.”
“With this demon?” She snapped at me. “Business is bad for everyone. You got a fair share.”
I laughed, using the opportunity to take a sweeping look around the room and through the window, below which the Lagos lagoon lay like a lovely, lazy child, undulating softly.
There were probably more of them nearby. Waiting, watching. The Orisha never went after anything that was not human without back-up. I wondered briefly if Sango would actually come for me himself. Probably not, I thought. Unless, of course, I forced his hand.
“So what are you going to do? Force me to come back to work for you?” I asked.
Oba, naked and unashamed, smiled.
“No, we are going to kill you.”
Everything happened fairly quickly.
A rope made of wind seized my body like a malicious thought and I found myself swept past Oba in a flash, thrown through the hotel window with a crash and suspended, face down, in the air over the Lagos lagoon by some invisible power. I forced myself to calm down and saw Oye – god of the Harmattan wind and vice president of operations beneath me. The skinny bastard wore a yellow wrapper wound tightly around his waist and red beads on his hands, neck and ankles. With the new body Nneoma had given me, I could have taken him out with one hit, if I managed to get close enough.
The wall of wind around me warped and reshaped itself into giant fists that came from everywhere.
I blocked Oye’s ferocious assault with all the speed and grace my new body afforded me until I felt pain unlike anything I had ever felt before. I heard Oba laughing from the room as I looked down to see a vicious arrow crackling with cerise spirit particles sprouting from my chest. And then I saw another. And another.
Ososhi’s arrows had pierced me with such malicious purpose; I could not believe he had ever shared palm wine with me.
Kneeling on the wind, with three arrows in my chest, I prepared myself, ruminating on things I had recently come to understand.
First, I am made of Sango’s clay.
Second, Sango’s clay is a fine-grained rock soil material that combines one or more spirit-particles with metal oxides and organic matter.
Third, all clays, on both sides of reality, are plastic due to their water content and can become hard and brittle when dry.
Fourth, clay has shown remarkable absorption capacities in various applications, such as the removal of heavy metals from waste water, purification of a human possessed by malevolent spirits and extended spirit particle storage.
I had studied myself extensively since Nneoma changed my form and broke my contract. Working for yourself, you need to know your strengths and weaknesses. I knew exactly what I was capable of enduring. And I knew what I needed to do.
Battered and wounded, I struggled to my feet on the carpet of wind. I tensed my body, turning my malleable flesh hard as stone and ripped a hole in the wind. Ososhi’s arrows came in a flurry, I evaded some but I took several to the shoulder and back as I leapt through the hole and broken hotel room window, arrows, blood and all. I landed on my feet with a force that sent cracks through the ground.
Back in the room with Nneoma and Oba, I took the naked goddess by the throat and squeezed desperately, unwilling to yield even as Ososhi glided into the room behind me and stabbed at my sweaty, bloody back with an arrow. My will was rock. Oye seized my feet with ropes woven from a tempest and threw a whirlwind noose around my neck. Against this multitude of powers, I did not yield. Oba’s eyes bulged in her head.
Suddenly, there was an incredibly loud sound as a bolt of lightning broader than a man pounded into me. I collapsed onto the floor in spasms as Sango materialized before me, a sanctuary of burning rage.
Believe me; my former CEO, the thunder Orisha, drawn to full height and brimming with rage was chilling to behold. He wore a brown agbada, made of aso-oke with vermillion flame and azure lighting embroidered onto it. The stitching danced. His fila drooped lazily to one side. He held a machete with a translucent blade, its hilt carved to resemble a tiger, and his eyes burned. Of course, he was upset at the way this whole business had turned out.
“Shigidi!” He bellowed, as Oba coughed on the floor beside me. “What is the meaning of this madness?”
“Madness?” I pointed at him as I rose to my knees and crawled to the edge of the bed where Nneoma lay still, locked in her own body. I needed to free her.
“Madness because I didn’t just lie down and allow your lackeys to kill me?”
The aura around Sango surged in intensity.
“Madness. Insolence. What has happened to you, Shigidi?”
“Abeg!” I shouted, fear and excitement causing me to slip into Pidgin English for protest, “I am just no longer stupid. I have become my true self. I have become what I always wanted to be. You made me ugly, I am now beautiful. You made me think I was weak but I have now learned my own strength. You treated me like a slave in your company, working for a pittance, now I seek souls for myself and to my own satisfaction. The real madness when I still worked for you. My head is now correct.”
“You tried to kill my wife.” He was enraged, as well he should have. I needed more of that. “I will show you suffering unlike any that has ever existed.”
“Well—” I glanced at Nneoma again, and then turned back to Sango “—don’t expect me to take it without a fight.”
I was almost there.
“You overestimate your new self, Shigidi. But this foolishness, it ends now.””
“Look, big man, all this is fucking talk. Go ahead. Come and kill me.”
I think I heard Oba, Ososhi and Oye gasp.
I’m sure Sango had never been spoken to that way before, by anyone or anything, and it drove him mad. Which is exactly what I needed him to be.
Sango let out a war shriek, hoisted his machete high above his head, his power heating it to a bright vermilion rage. He swung the machete down in one clean motion. I dragged the bed forward and relaxed my flesh completely, sinking down to the hotel room carpet as a puddle of thick mud. Sango’s machete cut through the air where I had been and hacked halfway into the body that had been Rotimi, atop Nneoma. The solid human frame split and became a deflated contortion, its entrails spilling onto the bed and the floor in a mangled mess of severed flesh tubes and intestinal fluid.
Nneoma was free.
“No!” Oba cried out as I reconstituted myself in flesh, just in time to evade another one of Sango’s vicious downward hackings.
There was an explosion of wood and concrete beside me as the machete crashed into the ground where I had been. It came again and I danced away from Sango’s sweeping slice, amazed by the width of the trail of red the blade left in its wake.
Nneoma took to the air.
Oba, Oye and Ososhi stood behind Sango, apparently unwilling to do anything until they were told to.
Nneoma swept down from behind and above me with her wings spread and her claws extended. She tackled Sango. He barely budged. But she managed to knock the machete out of his right hand. He used his free left hand to toss her away like a piece of chalk.
The thunder god raised his head and our eyes met briefly; I stiffened when I realised he had seen past my apparent fearlessness. A cold, horrific realisation settled over me.
Sango leapt across the room with the grace of a swallow, the enraged god’s hand full of a bright and crackling azure power.
I felt an exotic flood of emotion surge through me, a cocktail of the panicky urge to flee what I knew was coming and a blinding need to protect Nneoma swirled into a white daze.
I knew then that I loved her truly and completely because my limbs moved of their own accord, throwing me in front of her as Sango’s body sailed through the air, nosed by the dastardly power in his right hand, aimed straight for Nneoma’s heart. I loosened my clay body, allowing everything that was me become fluid just as Sango’s handful of lightning sank into my viscid chest. Nneoma gasped from behind me. Before the pain could set in, I hardened my flesh again and shut my eyes; face scrunched in readiness for was sure to come as the cold power of the god’s hand touched my core and became locked within it.
It started with a shift in air that surrounded us.
Sango struggled to extract his arm from my chest. The hotel floor cracked and gave under his feet. I gagged and shook and I felt Nneoma’s hand on the small of my back and heard her voice break into an ancient but unfamiliar incantation.
I remember thinking that I had found a noble death in saving the one I loved. It was such a human thing to think.
“Insolent creature!” Sango bellowed, cursing as an azure stream of pure plasma tore through me. Pain bloomed inside me. My consciousness spread like water spilled from a calabash and the spark of intelligence that animated me widened, encompassing all that was around me. Words and images flew like birds. I saw a ship made of fingernails, a six-armed woman riding a peacock, a throne of thunder bolts, two dogs eating a hailstorm, a pale woman wearing a purple ankh, a man wearing a dress made of sky. I saw. I saw. And then, suddenly I did not see. I heard whispering. Shouting. Then I heard nothing. I was nothing. I was everything.
White light dissolved the darkness and the nothingness that was me. I opened my eyes and there was sky. So much sky. Blue and white clouds whizzed past me.
Mere inches away from mine were Nneoma’s smiling lips.
“You’re awake.” She said.
“I’m alive?” I queried, finally realising that she was carrying me and that she was flying.
Her smile dimmed and she sighed. “Yes. It took considerable haggling to bring you back but it’s done now.” She said quietly.
“How did I . . . how did we survive that?”
She looked away and said, “I made a deal.”
I looked across her naked body and spread wings to see that she was unharmed. I knew that she had traded away something of significant value to purchase our escape from that predicament. Sango would not have let us go quietly, if at all.
She stiffened briefly, and then relaxed. “Olorun is a businessman above all else. And he is still chairman of your former spirit-company, with veto powers. So, I called on him and I offered to do for him something that Sango cannot do. He forced that thunder thrower and his coterie to let us go.”
So, it was a hostile takeover of sorts. She stopped flapping her left wing and banked, turning toward the sun. The clouds around us exploded with wild, new colours.
I opened my mouth to ask her exactly what it was that she had promised but decided that I did not truly want to know the answer so I pressed my lips tightly together and stilled my worrying tongue.
Nneoma smiled at me again and said, “Sango wasn’t happy about losing his hand though.”
Within my chest, there was something new, something that beat with the steadiness of a heart but was cold and thunderous and alien and immensely powerful and felt like it had once been a part of someone much more powerful than I.
I did not ask what it was.
1-Altitude Bar, Singapore | February 13th, 2017 | 03:54 am.
The bright strobe lights danced lazily in the periphery of his vision as Aadit downed an oversweet Singapore sling, only mildly aware of how cliché he was being. The live band in the corner was playing a decent rendition of Don’t Stop Believin’ and although the bass was a bit too heavy and the singer’s accent a bit forced, it still managed to be enjoyable. Aadit suspected that anything would, sitting at a bar on the 67th floor, overlooking the precise electric order of the city-state.
Around him sat expats smoking slim cigarettes, svelte, local sex kittens in short skirts and barely-existent necklines, the odd corporate yuppie group here and there. An old African man in a blue suit with a thick white beard sitting alone. Aadit ignored everyone. He liked to drink alone.
He did not see the impossibly handsome tower of a man whose dark skin seemed to be made of rich, clay loam that had been following him throughout the day, eyes glimmering azure.
Aadit was painfully aware of his age as he tried to ignore the smarting that radiated from the holes in his back where hooks attached to bells had been looped in three days earlier in Malaysia. The Thaipusam crowd had been dense. He had been a drop of water in a veritable river of humanity that flowed via the fifteen kilometre trek to the Batu Caves temple bearing some sort of burden – their Kavadi – an offering to Murugan. Some heads had been shaven clean and daubed with yellow sandalwood like his. Others had been dreadlocked. Some bodies had been clad in saffron robes and white cloth like his. Others were tourists in jeans and ironic t-shirts. Some had carried silver pails of milk and heavy wood and metal constructs attached to their bodies with wicked braces. Others had carried cameras. The most devout had had spikes through their faces or hooks through their backs or their sides pierced with needles the length of a giant’s forearm. Aadit had borne all three. His request to Murugan, god of war, demanded great pain as payment every year.
He was glad to be home.
He lifted his glass to his lips for a sip just as a dark, luscious thigh appeared on the vacant stool beside him, anchored to a body sheathed in a white dress so tight, it could have been a condom.
“Need some company?”
The voice was familiar. He assumed she was a prostitute.
“Not tonight. I’m . . . ”
His breath caught when he saw her taut, polished-ebony skin and impeccably sculpted face. Her hair was different, it was long and curly now and the afro was gone but she had not aged a single day. There was no doubt it was her. His first words were an explosive excrement of exclamations.
“Shit. Shit. No. Fuck!”
“Oh don’t be crass.” Her smile was a full red slash.
Aadit’s shoulders sank, “Why are you here?”
“Why did you run away?” She snapped back, vicious like a herder’s whip.
The band had segued from Journey’s Don’t Stop Believin’ into Bon Jovi’s Livin’ On A Prayer. Aadit pushed his glass away and shot up to his feet.
“You! You cannot harm me. I call upon the protection of Lord Murugan.”
A chill blew through the open space as a man in a pinstripe suit appeared beside them as though he had been painted into the scene in one smooth brushstroke. He wore a peacock feather in his breast pocket and his silk shirt was puffed around his collar. He had ashy, dark skin and long wavy hair. He stepped between Aadit and the beautiful ebony creature in the tight white dress.
“What is your name, foul spirit?” His voice sounded like it came from a faraway place.
“Naamah,” she sipped her drink lazily, unperturbed, “But you can call me Nneoma.”
“Naamah, leave this man alone. Go and find another mortal with whom to satisfy your perverse hunger.”
Her laughter was wild and all encompassing, a tropical rainstorm of mirth.
“You know, there was a time when I would have been scared of you, Murugan. But that time is long gone.”
She licked her lips and called out, “Shigidi!”
A bolt of bizarrely precise lightning shot through the bar, striking the suited man square in the chest. It was trailed by a hulking body that gleamed like glazed wood, moving with grace and speed that should have been impossible for its size. There were three hefty steps, a short sprint and a vault.
1-Altitude was bathed in brilliant white light as Shigidi’s form met violently with Murugan’s.
The two potencies crashed into the reinforced glass barrier at the edge of the bar, and fell, plummeting toward the ground in a flurry of fists. The skies turned turbulent. Lightning struck indiscriminately without the courtesy of thunder. People screamed and ran for the exits, their addled brains unable to process what they had just witnessed in the bar at the top of the city. All except the bearded old African in the blue suit who’d sat up in his chair, finally interested.
Nneoma cupped Aadit’s stunned face in her hands and leaned in close.
“Come on. Smile. Finally, after all these years, we are together again.”
Falling, the two dueling powers engaged each other. Murugan evaded three of the clay and lightning behemoth’s blows, as they plunged down the night sky blazing a luminous azure trail. Murugan summoned his vel – a vicious spear –and thrust it into Shigidi’s side. The mighty spear which had slain many demons and won many wars snapped like a toothpick on impact without piercing the dark giant’s solid clay flank. Shigidi pressed his advantage and a powerful punch rammed into Murugan’s side, winding him. A vicious head-butt followed just as they crashed into the ground below, the impact pushing away everything near its hypocentre in a powerful wave of dust, debris, lightning and compressed air that folded back in on itself like an empire invaded by its own army. Car alarms wailed in protest. Murugan lay pinioned beneath Shigidi, his suit in tatters, his spear broken and his face bloodied.
“Beast, you cannot kill the son of Shiva.” His lips were motionless and the sound came from everywhere at once. “These lands belong to my family. These people pray to us. They are under our protection. You cannot do business here!”
“Shut up.” Shigidi growled above the din of the disrupted city.
He raised his hand and it became a thing of solid rock, gloved in harsh blue and white light. Before Murugan could make sense of what was transpiring, Shigidi’s lightning-gloved fist pummelled his body into an incongruous mass of carmine blood, dark flesh and off-white bone.
Nneoma spoke firmly, “Aadit, stop running. I told you all those years ago; no one tastes my pleasures and shirks the price. No one. Not the gods. Not the endless. Not even Lucifer himself.”
Tears ran down Aadit’s cheeks.
“Please . . .” His voice, like his soul, was broken.
She tilted her head to the left and her features softened as she stood up and laid his head on her supple breasts.
“Awww, poor baby. Poor, poor baby. Come here. It’s okay. Let Nneoma make it all stop.”
Aadit’s limbs hung limply by his side as he allowed her to unzip his corduroy trousers. He was devoid of desire but at the touch of her fingers, he found himself turgid. She hiked her dress up. There was nothing but skin underneath it.
She straddled him and rode, gently at first and then fiercely, in great big crests and troughs of hip and thigh. His ejaculation came quickly, followed by more tears and her laughter.
She kissed him on the cheek, disengaged herself and whispered in his ear, “Now we’re done.”
Aadit remained tearful and sessile on the barstool.
She turned around and walked toward the seated old man, a feline swing in her hips.
“Was that enough spectacle for you?”
The bearded man took a sip of his drink. His suit had turned a deep purple masquerading as black. “Yes, for now. The people who needed to see it, saw.” He smiled. “And you have your man’s spirit. Two birds, one stone, as they say.”
“Yes. As they say.” She repeated dryly. “So what next?”
“The witnesses are the key. There were twelve of weak faith who will begin to worship the image of Shigidi without even knowing who or what he is. Such is human nature. Such is the nature of belief. When they do, I will ask you both to visit again. They will be the seeds of a new Orisha cult here.”
Nneoma snorted. “Fine. But this isn’t what I had in mind when I offered to help you expand your business to new territory. The Mahādevas will not let you establish a new branch here. Especially not after they find out you killed Shiva’s son.”
The old man frowned and leaned forward in his chair. “And what do you know of spirit-business exactly?” He waved a dismissive hand.
“Killing is nothing but a negotiation tactic. Just do as I say. Business evolves. Jihads and Crusades are simply hostile takeovers, but not all of us can afford such avarice. When Yeshua’s believers stole my worshippers and took them westward to work their fields, did I go to war? No. I negotiated a new joint venture with them. Today, our Santeria operations are a thriving million prayer-a-year company.” He paused briefly.
“Everyone that matters in this business knows that we must ensure business continuity, above all else. If I did not understand this, Sango would have your head on a wall by now. Love, family, sex, pride, rules and laws; they are nothing but tools to further our existence. Understand?”
“Fine. I understand,” Nneoma said, shifting her weight to her left leg. “We do it your way.”
Olorun sank back into his chair and began to fade away like a man-shaped fog in rising heat. “You have no choice in the matter. Now go. I will let you and your lover know when you are needed again.”
Nneoma stood silent as the old man faded into nothing. When he was gone, she sprouted her long, feathery wings and ripped off what was left of her white dress. Then she let out a wild, triumphant scream before diving gracefully down to the streets like an arrow where she embraced waiting Shigidi, engulfing him with her wings and glorious nakedness. Together, they took to the velvet blue sky, twilight beckoning at their heels.
Wole Talabi is a Nigerian full-time engineer, part-time writer and some-time editor. His stories have appeared or are forthcoming in Lightspeed, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Terraform, the Imagine Africa 500 Anthology, Futuristica Vol. 1, Omenana, Liquid Imagination, The Kalahari Review, and a few other places. He edited the TNC anthology These Words Expose Us and co-wrote the play Color Me Man. He currently lives and works in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He likes interesting equations, good stories and scuba diving. Find him on Twitter at https://twitter.com/wtalabi
The author would like to specially thank Edwin Okolo for all of his help with this story.
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