Firewater

… but the Sea was for the priests to wash in.

Chronicles II, 4: 6

I was born beneath the ocean waves, or so that’s what they tell me. That I emerged by the light of a waxing moon astride starlit ivory breakers. That I appeared naked, held by neither hand nor vessel. That I floated right up to Ikemesit and almost dispersed her poor wits. That my eyes, too beguiling, too inquisitive, reflected the depths of the watery spirit-veil. That my cries echoed the call of the inuen ekpo gull.

Even so, Ikemesit caught and cleaned me. Scraped me of the water weeds draped like beads about my throat. They say she used a rusty machete, found discarded upon the sandy beach; that with it, she cut the placenta, tied my cord, before applying a hurried concoction of cam-paste to my sea-burned, newborn face. That she and Etima took me from the cockling cove facing the banks of Salt Town, before hiding me in the gaping mouth of a nodulous, whistling tree. 

They searched for my mother for days but never found her. Assumed that her unfortunate soul must surely have descended back to the halls of the Lady of Waters. So my rescuers brought me goat’s milk, once-daily; their intent, that I grew round and fat. Yet, as desired results often stray far from poorly-nurtured intent, so I grew quite the opposite: and over three nights I withered, becoming drawn, jaundiced and sickly, where I should have been ruddy and bright. I have since been informed that it is a wonder I did not die, for the sparsely-administered milk did little to quench the thirst of a newborn babe, particularly one as insatiable as I.

It would be half a market week before Eka Otobong discovered what her husband’s elder daughters had done. She would later say it was no small violence done to me by Ikemesit and Etima: for the tree was known to be the meeting place of witches, had long been frequented by sorcerers who looked for fresh foals upon which to sup. The area was also visited by horse-mounted Akpa, but the bewitchment of the Sea Lady rested strongly upon my brow, for they found me unscathed in the morning upon returning to fetch their periwinkles for afang. They had left their calabashes by the tree, enraptured by their night cockling discovery, forgetting also Etima’s catch of gargantuan snails which by morning had slithered off.

They say it was four days before my cries scattered the senses of Ukeme as she passed the eaves of the miserable tree. She would later say that she thought me only the ghost of an infant lamenting in the heart of the ancient trunk, and was quite shocked to discover that I was thoroughly flesh and blood. That I was hungry and covered in my own filth, sloe-eyes wide in fright, that my poorly tied cord had begun to fester. That she removed me, retied it, cleaning me in a nearby brook, before putting me upon her lactating breast to have suck. That she, like my sisters, forgot cockles and winkles for souping by the gnarled, twisted roots, returning instead to our compound, where my guilt-ridden rescuers were soon to enter confessing all. They told Ekaete they had pulled me from the moon-kissed waters and had just returned from once more searching for my mother upon discovering I was lost.

So Eka Otobong took me to her quarters and kept me, but refused to name me on account of my being retrieved from the ocean. Yet the pet-name of Beauty stuck, on account of my eyes and too-smooth complexion. They say once Ete laid eyes on me, my fire-flecked eyes bewitched him, so he granted me a place, protection as his sea-daughter, his totem of sorts.

As a babe, he is purported to have taken me on night-trading expeditions to the towns on the banks of the Rio del Rey, whereupon my presence secured him increased trade from the whites. According to Ikemesit, Ukeme secretly planned for me to serve as Otobong's edep-eyen, but Ete fought my milk-mother on my behalf.

“For how could one contemplate making a child’s slave of a daughter of the dreaded Water Lady?” he purportedly asked.

It is easy to imagine Ukeme's face as her meticulous plans came to nought. Yet she secretly loved me, though she tempered that love with a stream of peppery words. Otobong warmed to me instantly, for while we had not shared a womb-world, we were bonded nevertheless as we gorged tiny stomachs on milk. We were inseparable until we reached the grading age. Before the stations of our gender and occasion surrounding my birth imposed that we would spend much time apart. Before Ekaete, beneath a perplexing mood, inscribed a double-edged destiny in ndom upon my brow. Before Otobong was initiated into the warrior arts of Ekong. Before the days at Crystal Cove. Before Otobong’s small, muscular body was found in pieces, butchered by Akpa raiders. Before the day I sat as King; the day my troubles began in earnest.

*

The years of my innocence were blessed indeed. Despite enigmatic mutterings concerning the manner of my arrival by the all-seeing, all-knowing Ekaete, I had many hours of joy frolicking about the creeks. Together with Otobong, I explored every inch of the watery groves anchoring Obio Oko. It was by sweltering swampland and marshes thick with mangrove that we wrought elaborate forms of mischief. I would come to be known as the instigator and Otobong, the follower, titles that brought much vexation to our mother. She would often remark loudly upon watching us; “’Tis improper for a boy to be always following the lead of a girl, particularly a girl of no known nation and of questionable birth.”

Her words would invariably be greeted by muted laughter. Yet, while it was clear that our mothers, all seven, agreed for the most part with Ukeme, it was also clear that they took much pleasure in watching the resulting fracas that was all-too-often the outcome of our mischief making. In those days of unknown freedom, I was threatened often with a good knocking, which neither Ikemesit nor Ete would bear.

Ikemesit had taken upon herself the role of my little mother, which I still suspect to be on account of no small guilt from her rescuing me, before almost starving me to a premature bad death. Always with a defensive word, she barricaded me from the oft-earned wrath of my milk-mother, and when needed, extracted me from predicaments with the ease of one lubricated with much palm oil.

Our early days were spent chiefly making trouble for Ama, the white-skinned Nsukka girl who then served as our edep-eyen. Before the fateful regatta in the year I would later come to know as sixteen seventy five, Ikemesit had laughed as she recounted the tale of how, while still crawling, I convinced Otobong in our secret language to place three live lizards into Ama’s afang, only for her to almost swallow one of the creatures whole.

As a result, Ama had come to fear me, and for a time I played to her irrationalities. It was a thing that would change only the week before the regatta given in honour of Etima’s Uworo Nkuho, for after the marriage feast, we would mutter Ama’s name only in hushed, sombre tones. Those were the days I would learn of how wealth is hard bought, how cruel at times the so-called demands of God, yet how we stray, ever pawns, into almighty, hidden hands.

*

The week of the regatta was a week like no other; a week greeted by the speech of a legion of drums which roused the spirit with a shout. The days unveiled a cacophony of colours. Whitewashed walls and earthen-hued bodies patterned in a riot of russet-reds, canary yellows and whites; ukara-blues, palm-greens and blacks. Our compound, though small by later standards, was considered wealthy even at that time. So as the drums rolled out the names of the clans, our slaves rolled out an inexhaustible supply of palm wine. This accompanied the stream of sumptuous dishes flowing from sentinel-like cauldrons standing in the open-air kitchen.

The illustrious had arrived from far and wide, for Ete had notoriously halted the plans of the Akpa. He and four of his brothers had combined forces and driven them out. Since then, his reputation had billowed, like the heady smoke Ekaete was fond of blowing from her seductive ebony pipe. Soon, Ete was known throughout the five provinces – from the land inhabited by the ever-wandering Ododop, to the Guinea Company Towns on the banks of the Rio del Rey. The heads of all provinces save Mbiabo were represented in our compound that week.

*

We were still babes then, though Otobong was five seasons in akparawa, and I, not long entered the nka iferi set. It was with great excitement that we eagerly awaited Etima’s outing from seclusion. Moreover, my excitement was squashed the week before her affianced was due to arrive. Atim, our wretched half-sister, was known for words which fell upon the ears like the shards of a broken clay pot. Not ordinarily one to be brought to tears, I had run, howling, to my milk-mother’s quarters, where she sat shelling beans, ready to pound with salt, onions, crayfish and fiery pepper for akara. I only needed spit out my sister’s name before Mma asked, “What did she say?”

“That I have a patch of white skin upon the small of my back,” I sobbed.

“It is true Nne. You do. It is small.”

“Then all of it is true?”

“All of what is true?”

“That in my previous life I was white like Ama? That I was sacrificed to the crocodile juju that lives in the waters off Parrot Island? ’Tis the reason for my hearing voices when approaching open water? That I will never marry an Obong but one of the whites, that I am destined to be carried off to the land where dead things walk!”

“Call that idiot, sop idem! I will knock those bitter words from her head.”

I did not stay for the scolding that lasted well into the night. Instead, I had found my way to Ikemesit’s quarters, for Etima was generally considered the more beautiful of the two; and though younger, Ete could not afford at the time to put in two daughters, together, for fatting. So since our most senior sister had been given already in marriage, it was not considered a breach of any taboo for Etima to be wedded first.

Ikemesit now had their rooms to herself and spent most of her days beneath the keen eyes of Ekaete perfecting the study of divining, under which she began a prosperous side trade. I did not speak for the duration of the evening, humming instead the melody of the song that I often heard in my dreams and when I ventured too close to the ocean. It was a song Ikemesit said was strung in the language of the sea. Drawing me close, she had whispered, “Nne, I want to show you something.”

She pulled out what looked to be two small dishes. They were made of an ivory etched so finely that until this day I am yet to see the like. As Ikemesit lifted them to face me, I jumped back in alarm. I was startled by the sight of two floating heads. Before me were the living faces of girls, identical, with eyes shaped like those of young lions and ablaze with molten fire.

“A new trick?” I asked.

My sister threw back her head and laughed, exposing large, pink gums. Balancing her chewing-stick artfully between the gap in her teeth, she resumed chewing as she spoke.

“These are mirrors,” she said. “They reveal your reflection.”

“Oh!”

I had never looked upon my reflection before, save in much-rippled water, for I was not known for keeping still, but I stood stationary as Ikemesit revealed the lines of my face, the youthful wisdom hidden amid the fire of my eyes, my slender muscular torso, and finally the small patch of white skin at the base of my back which I gazed upon for an age.

“You were marked by the Water Lady,” she said. “’Tis a privilege to bear the mark of the waters. Remember it well.”

I will never forget my sister’s words or how she smiled as she escorted me back to our quarters. Nor will I forget how the following eve, as the sun dipped into ink-stained sky, Ekaete launched upon me as I left our quarters. Her brow was furrowed and she wore a strange mood; and for the first and only time, I had felt a tinge of fear at the sight of my father’s aged mother.

I will never forget the way she pulled me close after sacrificing an unblemished hen, before extracting a small pot of ndom from her many layers of big-cloth. Nor the way her eyes glazed over, as with the marks of nsibidi, she inscribed my destiny upon my brow. Her accompanying words would ring hollow, seemingly vanishing the instant she uttered them, only increasing in volume in later seasons as I suckled my first babe.

But first, I was to leave my sister’s rooms and enter ours which still bristled with the echoes of chastising words uttered by Mma. As I closed my eyes, the sight of my reflection resurfaced. My mind filled with flames, but the fire-sprites scattered as Otobong whispered to me from his side of the room.

“They say she is an osu.”

“Who?”

“Ama.”

“What is an osu?”

“You who act as though you know everything, you mean you don’t know what an osu is?” I remained silent. Otobong continued after a brief pause. “In Nsukka they have osu. They are slaves for evermore. Many lives ago, they are said to have committed a crime so grave it offended their gods, and were punished by a decree to serve as slaves in perpetuity.”

“But will she be given to the juju off Parrot Isle waters because her skin is pale?”

“That’s what Atim says. That she heard her mother discussing preparations.”

“Preparations for what?”

“For the sacrifices for Etima’s Uworo Nkuho. But Eka Atim said that the sacrifice is really so Ete can draw a greater share of the night trade, that Ama was given as our edep-eyen to attract the blessings of the water.”

“Does Ama know?”

“Does Ama know what?” she asked. Ama had entered our room with a tortoise shell bowl, filled with fragrant corn, freshly steamed.

I leapt from my mat and hugged her tightly, inhaling her musty smell, feeling the heat of her small, stocky body, and realising for the first time that I loved her with all my might. As I embraced my edep-eyen I began to weep. Ama returned my embrace and whispered into my ear.

“Worry not for Ama my dear. I have long wished for an end to this torture. If what they say is indeed true, in my next life I will myself harass the children of my oppressors as the wife of a man that is truly white.”

Her small smile as she left the room betrayed mingled sorrow, relief and elation. I did not sleep that night. Nor did I sleep any night for the rest of the week. Instead, I took to napping during daylight hours and beneath the waning moon I wandered the open-air kitchen, humming my strange sea song.

*

As the eve of the Uworo Nkuho feast dawned, I was filled with an excitable dread. I was  scared for Ama but thrilled for my sister’s happiness, for she had been promised to a big-man of a prosperous, neighbouring ward. That he already had twenty-three wives was considered besides the point - and was oddly the point. To be wedded to a man who could sustain so many bickering women was considered a sign of good fortune. But I shared Ikemesit’s view that too many co-wives entailed one thing alone. Palaver. Nevertheless, we shrouded our concern for our sister’s well-being and prepared to join the merry-making. Yet as the thunderous sound of the speaking drums rolled out the week’s festivities, a knot formed in my stomach.

I was not swayed by the scent of spiced goat and chicken roasting slowly on open-air fires. Nor was I swayed by the aroma of ekpankukwo or afang that usually extracted saliva from my lips. I was not swayed by the assortment of heavily spiced stews strewn with winkles, snails and other treats from the surrounding woods and waters. I was not swayed by the colourful array of fruits, nor steaming piles of fluffed cocoyam, beaten to recall the clouds; nor the rice flavoured with palm-fruit and lashings of freshly pounded coconut.

Ama was nowhere in sight. As the sun’s position signalled mid-morn, I decided to steal away. Knowing I would later want to eat, I helped myself to a platter which I loaded with food before tying with palm leaves and twine. It was then that I chanced upon Otobong leaving our quarters. He was now attired as a foreigner, wearing the strange leggings and cocked hat of the whites. As I made my way over to him, I glimpsed Etima, greatly changed after eight seasons of fatting. She tremored towards the rooms facing the central wooden dais, the platform upon which she would briefly sit as Obong, her every footfall causing a minor cataclysm, yet she had little trouble bearing her newfound weight.

“You mean to tell me that is Etima?” Otobong sniggered as the corpulent figure rolled shining, trembling flesh past the dais. “She was dry and bony as a stick but a few short seasons ago.” Yet all I could think of was Ama’s fate, so I informed him that I desired to rescue her. “But you can do nothing for her. Besides, Ete said that girls are no longer permitted to travel to the coast.”

“And why not?” I scowled. “I have always accompanied Mma on her trade trips.”

“But now even Mma is not permitted to travel unaccompanied.”

“Why not?”

“Because of the ban.”

“Which ban?”

“The ban that says no women should stray towards the winged-canoes without escort. ‘Tis akin to the ban upon the spirit-traders. The pale men have been ordered to stay on their winged-canoes under pain of capture and pawning – or death.”

“But their great bird-boats still dock. Only yesterday I heard Eka Atim say so.”

“Yes, but they themselves are no longer permitted to touch our soil. Ete and the elders say they mislead our women. That they sully the minds of impressionable maidens. So there is a ban.”

“How ridiculous,” I said, determining on the spot that I would take a canoe towards the coast at the first opportune moment, but I betrayed nothing to Otobong. That was the first day I noticed the growing coolness between us, a coolness that would expand into a gulf in a couple of seasons, a gulf that Abasi Atai would never permit us to breach.

Excusing myself under the ruse of using the latrine, I stole instead towards the water and claimed one of the smallest boats destined for Parrot Island. Somehow, I avoided the parasol-topped vessels that would form the main part of the parade. As Ete’s prized ivory-inlaid flintlocks flared their noisy shot, I retreated from the brightly coloured revellers. As I pulled away from the congregated boats, I silently wept for Ama.

I knew my safety was assured that day, for all the wards were joined in truce for Etima’s marriage celebration. The Ekpe lodge had seen to that. Otobong had said that Ete and my uncles brought Ekpe from Isangele, along with Nsibidi, but Ekaete and the elder women laughed, before chiming together as one, “The secrets of the lion have long been known to all that share an affinity with the revered beast. The secrets of the script have been passed from mother to daughter since before records began. It was only yesteryear that foolish men decided to invoke the secrets of Ekpe to enforce their many foolish bans.”

Ekaete proclaimed that since Ete indeed shared an affinity with the lion spirit, he was safe, but the others weren’t. It wasn’t long after she uttered her words that the bodies of three boys from a neighbouring ward were discovered mauled to pieces by the fearsome creature.

*

I was within about ten fathom’s reach of the waters of Salt Town, when a strange feeling of familiarity took hold of me. I attempted to shake it, but it lingered like the stomach-knot which had formed on Ama’s behalf.

Docking in the shallows by a much-overgrown cove, I found the small beach upon which I landed quite deserted. It was littered with fat winkles and oysters and other sea creatures, many of which had discarded exquisite shells. I strolled the beach humming my sea-song, my voice gaining power as it pierced honeyed-slate clouds. It was after whispering a prayer in which I implored for Ama’s safety, that I saw a sliver of smoke escaping from the mouth of a cave nestled upon the beach.

For the first time, I wished for Otobong. But having abandoned my brother I plodded on alone. As I drew closer I jumped back in alarm, for even at a distance it was apparent that the cave had teeth like menacing crystal shards. From its mouth erupted a small stream which flowed into the salty waters of the cove, and upon that, the strangest sight I have yet witnessed. A fire was kindled upon the waves. As I stared at it, a voice called out to me. 

“Beauty.” 

The voice was quiet but it pierced my very heart. I was afraid.

“Who are you? How come you call me by my pet name? And what is it that you want with me?”

“I would that you would live.”

As the voice spoke, my fear increased, yet paradoxically, a calm overtook me. Deciding to approach the stream to inspect the phenomena more thoroughly, I noticed that the speaking flame caressed a small tree growing within the crystal waters. Yet neither bark nor branches appeared to be harmed. The spectacle was at once strange, at once mesmerising.

“Beauty.” 

I took it to be an answer to my prayer for Ama and immediately lay prostrate at the foot of the stream. 

“Get up. There is no need for all of that.”

“Who are you?” I asked as I stood.

“Some would say that I am water, clear. Others would say that I am flame, purifying. Others would say that I am tree, protective, nourishing; yet others would say that I am infinity. My question for you, little one, is this: who do you say that I am?”

My heart fluttered and in response, I uttered the first thought to enter my mouth, that it was coarse to respond to a question with a question, at which the voice laughed. The sound was melodic, cavernous, yet lighter than my tinkling waist bells.

“My question remains, little one. Who do you say that I am?”

“That you are all of these things, that you are none of these things, that you are more. That you are word, uttered. That you are note, sung. That you are voice. That you are the sound within my heart.”

“Because you have correctly ascertained the answer to my riddle, I will tell you beloved, that I am all that I am. I tell you also that I am in you, and you in me.”

“How can that be?” I was perplexed, yet a surety, such as I have never known, settled upon me. “Are you the juju that I was formerly sacrificed to?”

“Do not blaspheme me so. Nor yourself. There is indeed a dragon that rests in the bowels of the ocean, not far from Parrot Isle, but neither I nor you are it. Nor were you ever sacrificed to it.”

“So what are you? And how is it that you claim to be me? For I do not ever recall taking the form of fire, nor a crystal brook, nor a tree.”

“I am the voice of one who brings streams to many a wilderness. I always appear at dire need.”

“But this is no wilderness,” said I, increasingly bewildered. “Or can you not see? Here you are surrounded by watery swamps, cockling coves, by rivers and manifold streams; here land is ribboned with tinkling brooks buttressed by the sea.”

“It is true that here the water flows freely, yet that does not make these shores any less of a wilderness. Here you are surrounded by waters greatly polluted. Here there are fishers of men, women and children too. Here the sacred waters cry out to stave the flow of human blood. If you will take heed of what I tell you and do as I bid, in lives to come I will lead you to a place of unquenchable, clear waters.” 

I considered the covenant uttered by the miracle, but did not have to consider for long.

“What is it that you would have me do?”

“I would have you look in the mirror of my waters and follow my bidding and you will plant a seed which in the fullness of time shall slay a watery dragon and roll back the face of a poisoned ocean.”

“I will do as you bid. I won’t even ask how it is that you say I come to be you. Or you come to be me. At any rate, I know these shores to be filled with the miraculous as surely as I know that I speak now to living flame. I also know them to be filled with phantoms that haunt the very soul. Only tell me this one thing. What becomes of Ama?”

“Her fate is her own, dear child. Worry not over the fate of the dead. For they shall wreak enough havoc at the time appointed. Instead, concern yourself with your own.” As I sulked, the voice said, “If you must know, she has indeed been offered to the dread dragon. And in lives to come she will fulfil her oath, spawning a child who will seek to kill your own. But come nne, what see you?”

I peered into the waters which moved not, though a strong breeze blew, and the sudden desire to sleep took hold of me.

My mind would be awash with images of winged-vessels ablaze, kindled by bottles of potent whiskey and by sticks too tiny for chewing. My heart would swirl with the faintest echoes of a still, quiet voice that spoke of being yoked to soul husbands. I would awake with the images of strange flame-haired babes and look for the tree which I could have sworn had been alight, but neither tree nor fire were anywhere in sight. Instead, I would hear the sound of sad singing emanating from the beach and I would freeze in alarm, for the chords carried upon the wind were identical to those of my own song. Shortly thereafter, beyond the waters of the cove, I would glimpse the remains of a smouldering ship, flames still licking the water as I searched for signs of any survivors.

There were none. Save one.

The creature was strange. Pale. A wisp of a thing. Sickened from lack of sustenance. Collapsing as soon as I drew close. He was covered in tattered cloth, not the rich variety associated with the whites, but in filthy, torn rags.

“Help me miss.”

I set his wounds with a hastily prepared concoction of cam-paste, before retrieving my chop and allowing him to sup. He devoured it ravenously, all the while, his eyes, the coolest blue I have ever seen, never left my face. His lank hair was plastered in sweat to his brow. It was bark-coloured, yet streaked in places with a copper fire. I was fluent in the pidgin of the Portuguese and Dutch, as were all children of our creek.

“Your eyes. Beautiful,” said he. “Your name miss?”

I stared at him but did not respond. He smiled. His eyes, which moments before resembled two clear sky pools, crinkled into warmth. My heart skipped. 

“What is your name?” I asked.

“Johann James Robin miss. Robin for friends. And you?”

“I have no name.”

“Why?”

“Because they pulled me from the sea.”

“Oh. We’re the same then. You and I.”

“We are not the same. Don’t ever presume that we are the same. 

“Okay.”

“We are not the same. If you imply such a thing again I will leave you here to starve and rot.” I wasn’t ready to stop. “You know there is a ban? That pale men are supposed to stay on their winged-canoes?” 

“I know miss. I’m sorry.” 

“If I reported you here, you would be bound and forced to remain captive until one of your own paid comey?” He coughed. He was a mess. “You must rest and recover your strength.”

“I heard you singing. You’re the girl I’ve been dreaming.”

I said nothing as an inexplicable warmth spread throughout my chest, but instead made him a make-shift bed from stray fronds which I assembled towards the back of the crystal-toothed cave. As he slept, I gathered his scattered belongings, which comprised little more than an empty bottle of whiskey, a rusted razor, an oracle of bound leaves, and a battered longboat.

I would discover later that he was a cabin servant, little older than Otobong, but a man nonetheless; that following the death of the cook, his only friend, he had drunk himself into a spirit-induced stupor and had been placed in the longboat by his crew to sober up. What seemed cruel, was in truth strangely fortunate, for he had escaped the inexplicable fire that broke their winged-canoe asunder. As he watched his sinking vessel, he had wished for a speedy death. But death evaded him.

*

I had all but forgotten Ama’s plight; almost forgotten that Abasi, claiming to be one with mortals, can appear as the voices of hearts and as trees growing in the midst of crystal clear streams, whose branches, though set alight, do not burn. 

I would discover upon my return that Ama had indeed been sacrificed, smitten over the head by a weeping Otobong, who with his kill was inducted into Ekong. But the offering had floated instead of sinking, an omen that should have alerted us to forthcoming trouble.

Yet, fickle as it seems, I would quickly forget Ama in the company of Johann Robin, would almost forget that I had indeed conversed with God, for Robin and I would strike up a friendship, as slowly, he recovered his strength. 

For seven seasons I would visit my charge once-weekly to ensure that he remained alive. He taught me his letters; that they named two of our seasons for one year, and years by numbers, but I refused to teach him my own: for I did not fully trust him, although by that time he had my soul.

 *

It was Ikemesit who discovered me, two moons after they found Otobong’s butchered body dumped by a sacred grove. She visited with me one evening as I was plumped in the fatting house. For having been newly betrothed to the same suitor who had taken Etima, I resisted with all my strength, but being that I was adopted, I had no say in the matter.

“I have never revealed this to any soul,” she said. “You must swear that I have your strictest confidence.”

I was afraid, so I swore. I swore by the name of beloved Ukeme, my mourning milk-mother. I swore by the memory of the soul of Otobong, my butchered dead brother. I swore by my life before taking a dreadful oath in the name of she whose unseen fingers bore me aloft from her vast watery sepulchre. I swore that Ikemesit's secret would never spill from my lips. When satisfied that I was bound by my words, my sister continued her speech.

“It is on my account that Ete lobbied for the ban. I met a man. A stranger. Pale as the noonday sun with eyes that strangely remind me a little of your own, eyes that flashed with fire. The mirrors with which you espied your water-mark were one of his gifts in wooing me. But his words rang hollow and for all his promises, all that was left was a tainted, deserted vessel. Yet, I am one of the lucky ones, for I never bore him a son. Ekaete says that they have been ruining maidens for seasons unnumbered.” 

She seized my shoulders, her cheek flashing with a tear illuminated by dancing fireflies. She had never looked more beautiful yet more burdened with sorrow. 

“Do you understand? I know that you care for him, this sea-creature, that he fills you with delight, but his kind will only ruin you. I did not pull you from the waves and feed you those four days to have you ruined prematurely by a wandering ghost. He will not stay long. Those phantoms never do.” 

She loosened her grip and wiped her tear, before taking her leave.


I never asked her how she knew, or indeed how much she knew. For even I was not to know at the time that her words had been uttered too late. For he had long ago stolen my heart. Marooned it within his own. We were bound, in this life, in our lives before, in our lives to come. Our lovemaking was sultry, frenzied, raw. And his seed silently sprouted in my womb. And on the day I was due to sit as Obong, disguised by four seasons of fatting during which he had paid me nightly visits, our secret would be betrayed. 

I was not to know that even as Ete called for “a pound per ounce of flesh,” that as I stood as my worth was weighed and met; in copper and irons, corals and bronze, my arms bedecked in manillas, calves coiled in etung; that my waters would breach. That later that night, from my womb would slip upon a wave of bloodied water, the strangest babe. Pale like the sand of Crystal Cove, eyes the colour of the inlet; a babe with a shock of silken wildfire for hair. 

I was to be cast out, named akpara. Was destined to search, hopelessly, for my phantom in the faces of the strangers upon the lifting of the ban, but my heart would grow cold, for I would not find him. So I would grow to despise he and all his kind, until many seasons later, when he returned to our shores to claim his child, chilly stare rekindling the embers of my heart. Yet, sweet Ikemesit would assist us, in spite of being shunned, becoming honorary edep-eyen to my flame-haired sea son.