The python will swallow anything whole.
This is all, ultimately, a litany of madness—the colors of it, the sounds it makes in heavy nights, the chirping of it across the shoulder of the morning. Think of brief insanities that are in you, not just the ones that blossomed as you grew into taller, more sinful versions of yourself, but the ones you were born with, tucked behind your liver. Take us, for instance.
We did not come alone. With a force like ours, we dragged other things along—a pact, bits of bone, an igneous rock, worn-out velveteen, a strip of human hide tying it all together. This compound object is called the iyi-ụwa, the oath of the world. It is a promise we made when we were free and floating, before we entered the Ada. The oath says that we will come back, that we will not stay in this world, that we are loyal to the other side.
When spirits like us are put inside flesh, this oath becomes a real object, one that functions as a bridge. It is usually buried or hidden because it is the way back, if you understand that the doorway is death. Humans who have sense always look for the iyi-ụwa, so they can dig it up or pull it from flesh, from wherever secret place it was kept, so they can destroy it, so their child’s body will not die. If Ala’s womb holds the underworld, then the iyi-ụwa is the shortcut back into it. If the Ada’s human parents found it and destroyed it, we would never be able to go home.
We were not like other ọgbanje. We did not hide it under a tree or inside a river or in the tangled foundations of Saul’s village house. No, we hid it better than that. We took it apart and we disseminated it. The Ada came with bones anyway—who would notice the odd fragments woven in? We hid the igneous rock in the pit of her stomach, between the mucus lining and the muscle layer. We knew it would weigh her down, but Ala carries a world of dead souls inside her—what is a simple stone to her child? We put the velveteen inside the walls of her vagina and we spat on the human hide, wetting like a stream. It rippled and came alive, then we stretched it from one of her shoulder blades to the other, draping it over her back and stitching it to her other skin. We made her the oath. To destroy it, they would have to destroy her. To keep her alive, they would have to send her back.
We made her ours in many ways, yet we were overwhelming to the child. Even though we lay curled and inactive inside her, she could already feel the unsettling our mere presence caused. We slept so poorly that first decade. The Ada kept having nightmares, terrifying dreams that drove her again and again into her parents’ bed. It would be the inky hours of morning and she’d wake up in cold dripping fear, then tiptoe into their room, creaking the door open gently. Saul always slept on the side of the bed closest to the door with Saachi beside him, next to the window. The Ada would stand next to their bed with tears falling down her face, hugging her pillow until one of them sensed that she was there and woke up to find her silently sobbing in the dark, wearing her red pajamas with the white-striped top.
“What happened?” A thousand times.
“I had a bad dream.”
Poor thing. It wasn’t her fault—she didn’t know that we lived in her, not yet. Like a child kicking in their sleep, we struck at her unknowing mind, tossing and turning her. The gates were open and she was the bridge. We had no control; we were always being pulled toward home, and when she was unconscious, there was more slip, more give in that direction.
“The dream would twist, getting dark, and the Ada would remind herself of where she was, that yes, she was in a dream filled with horror, but she still had the power to leave.”
The Ada surprised us, though, when she started to enter our realm. There would be a nightmare, ragged breaths of fear as we thrashed around, and then one night, she was suddenly there next to us, looking around at the dream, trying to get out. She was seven or eight and her eyes were young and calculating—she was brilliant, even before we sharpened her. That was one of the reasons Saul had married Saachi; he said he needed an intelligent woman to give him children who would be geniuses.
In the dream, the Ada imagined a spoon. It was strange, just a simple tablespoon, floating vertically. But it was metal and it was cold, and these things made it real. Next to it, all the bile we’d been creating was so obviously false. She looked at the spoon, identified which realm it belonged to (hers, not ours), and woke up. She did this over and over again, snapping out of the nightmares. Eventually, she didn’t need the spoon at all. The dream would twist, getting dark, and the Ada would remind herself of where she was, that yes, she was in a dream filled with horror, but she still had the power to leave. With that, she’d drag herself out through glutinous layers of consciousness until she was awake, fully, rib seams aching. She, our little collection of flesh, had built a bridge all by herself. We were so proud. We watched her from our realm, in those times before we were ready to wake up.
And then, one day, awakening arrived.
It was December, during the harmattan, when the Ada was in the village. Saul always took the family to Umuecheọkụ for Christmas, and afterward, the Ada would go to Umuawa to spend the New Year with her best friend, Lisa. Lisa’s family was a rowdy and boisterous clan, people who held the Ada in their arms and kissed her good night and good morning. The Ada wasn’t used to so much contact. Saul and Saachi were not prone to holding, not like this. So she loved Lisa’s family, and they were the ones who took her to the masquerade ceremony where our awakening arrived.
That night was black as velvet tamarind, thick in a way that made people walk closer to each other, pressing in a pack that moved down to the village square. The Ada could hear the music even before they reached the thudding crowd. One by one, people around her started tying bandannas and handkerchiefs over their noses and mouths before they plunged into the cloud of dust where everyone was dancing and throwing themselves to the music, to the sounds of the ekwe and the ogene.
Lisa handed her a white handkerchief, the cotton falling over her fingers like an egret’s wing. The Ada paused at the edge, her sandals sinking briefly into the heavy pale sand, and she looked on. The quick beat of the ekwe went high and low, low low low, high high, the sound tight and loud. Lisa dipped into the crowd, her eyes crinkled with laughter above the red bandanna wrapping her face. The Ada felt her heart stagger with the ogene. She tied the handkerchief around her face and her feet lifted, throwing her into the dancing mass. The dust was weaving in the air, light against her face, softly scraping her eyes. It breathed on her skin. Sand flew up around her feet and the skin on her back prickled.
The drumming was shaking everything, and the crowd broke apart in mad rushes as the masquerades dashed at people, cracking whips and splitting the air. Their raffia flew wildly around them, the cowhide springing like a fountain from their hands. Their leashes were wrapped around their waists and their handlers shouted and pulled behind them as the masquerades flogged people with a sharp glee. The music sang commands in an old inherited language. It drifted into our sleep, our restless slumber; it called to us as clearly as blood.
Have you forgotten us already?
We fluttered. The voice was familiar, layered and many, metal tearing through the air. The ground pounded.
We have not forgotten any of your promises, nwanne anyị.
The air cracked as we remembered. It was the sound of our brothersisters, the other children of our mother, the ones who had not come across with us. Ndị otu. Ọgbanje. Their earthly masks whirled through the humans and they smelled like the gates, like sour chalk. Masquerade ceremonies invite spirits, giving them bodies and faces, and so they were here, recognizing us in the midst of their games.
What are you doing inside that small girl?
The Ada lifted up her arms and spun around. The people around her suddenly scattered and she ran with them, squealing as a masquerade lunged in their direction. It stopped and stood, swaying softly. It had a large face the color of old bone and a raw red mouth. It was draped in purple cloth and balancing a carved headdress, painted brightly. The moonlight poured over it. We trembled in our sleep, the taste of clean clay wiping through us. Our brothersister tilted its head and the headdress angled sharply against the black sky. It was irritated.
At the sound of its voice, deep within the Ada, deeper than the ash of her bones, our eyes tore open. The masquerade’s handler tugged on the rope around its waist and it spun away. The Ada stood still for a moment before Lisa appeared, grabbing her hands and whirling her in a circle.
They all left a little after midnight, Lisa’s cousins laughing and smashing beer bottles to the ground in a spray of green glass. Back at the house, the Ada untied the handkerchief and held it up, unfolded. There were three splotches of brown, two for her nostrils, one for her mouth. We wish she had saved it, but that is how humans are. Important things slip past in the moment, when it feels sharp and they are young enough to think that the feeling will remain. Later on, the Ada would remember that night with an unfamiliar clarity as one of the few genuinely happy times in her childhood. That moment, when our eyes opened in the dust of the village square and we were awake in both her realm and ours for the first time, it felt like pure brightness. We were all one, together, balanced for a brief velvet moment in a village night.
We’ve wondered in the years since then what she would have been without us, if she would have still gone mad. What if we had stayed asleep? What if she had remained locked in those years when she belonged to herself? Look at her, whirling around the compound wearing batik shorts and a cotton shirt, her long black hair braided into two arcs fastened with colored bands, her teeth gleaming and one slipper broken. Like a heaving sun.
The first madness was that we were born, that they stuffed a god into a bag of skin.
From Freshwater. Used with permission of Grove Press. Copyright © 2018 by Akwaeke Emezi.