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Spirit Folks

Content Note: Child Abuse

My fingers danced in the air as the embers faded. Only the tell-tale scent lingered which was why I chose to partake outside in the first place. The ledge framing my bedroom window was little more than a concrete slab, but it was wide enough to sit on, to escape the confines of the house.

“Are you still there, silly?” J’s disembodied voice echoed from my phone. She was my best friend. I missed her, a lot.

“Yeah, I was almost done. Got a little distracted.” I studied the night sky as if I could tell the difference between the Ghanaian array of stars and the ones back home. No, this was my home now.

“Don’t get too distracted. I don’t want you falling off your roof.”

“I’m careful. I’m always careful,” I said.

“Good. You know how I worry.”

“You should talk. You’re the one who…”

My bedroom door slammed open, banging into the wall, sending reverberations through my back.

“Where are you? I know you’re around here,” Momma screamed.

My heart squeezed in my chest like it was too scared to beat. I swatted the air as if that could chase away the cloying aroma of incense better than the night air. Climbing inside my window, I raised my hands as if the police had burst in with a warrant.

“What is this?” She held up a bottle of Malibu. I had been drinking from it to get me in the right head space. And to dull the vague hurt that always seemed to darken my spirit, my emi. I thought in moving here—to a new country, getting a fresh start—all the pain would be left behind. Now I suspected that pain followed me because that was my life, that was what I deserved. A destiny I could never escape.

I slowly lowered my arms to shut my window and to slip my phone into my pocket before she noticed it.

“Don’t try to be slick,” she said. “I know what you’re up to.”

“Momma, let me explain…”

“I don’t want to hear your explanations.” She made air quotes around the last word. “I don’t want to hear your lies. Your words are…dangerous. You’re too young to be partaking in magic.”

And there it was. Out in the open. I practiced the science of Aje.

“Momma, it’s not that big a deal. I’m almost eighteen.”

Silence yawned between us.

The air conditioner units thrummed in a brittle wheeze, the only concession to the effects of climate re-shaping, but at least it wasn’t the staccato cough of the air purifier units back home designed to filter the air from the excessive pollution.

My fingers itched, anxious to attempt to carve out another spell. I was still working things out for myself. The alcohol, the incense, they were all experiments, really; but my mother was having none of it. We’d had this argument before. How magic was immoral, sometimes illegal, but the issue cut deeper for her. As if the very idea of me partaking hurt her. But she was different tonight. She was on one, practically tweaking. A thin line of sweat ringed her forehead, her hair a damp matte along it. Her light complexion deepened, I don’t know how else to describe it. It was like a shadow came over her, her face contorting into something dark and anxious. And hungry.

“You will never amount to anything.” The words were nearly inaudible. Momma’s hands smooth and strong—her wedding ring wore a weary groove into her finger—slowly slipped her belt loose from her pants. “You are something I hadn’t bothered to scrape from the bottom of my shoe.”

As if I caught the scent of a nearby predator, I froze. My mother never spoke like that. She had a temper and definitely could talk her share of shit. But she was never…cruel. Her face told another story. Ancient and angry.

“Momma, what are you doing?”

“What I should’ve done long ago. Teach you respect. Remind you of your place.”

The first lash of the belt slapped the bed. My arms flailed trying to stop her attack. Momma moved in herky-jerky movements, a terrifying frenzy I hadn’t seen before, as if she struggled with herself. Her arms whirred. The belt slashed the air, came at me from cutting off my escape routes as I scrambled across the bed. Herding me only irritated her more. She grunted as she crawled after me. The next blow narrowly missed my head but sent the lamp toppling off the bedside table. It shattered along the floor. My mother studied the broken shards before turning her hateful gaze back to me. Her eyes full of fury. Blaming me. She lunged after me again. The bedsheet tangled my foot, tripping me, causing the belt to slap where I had just been.

“Momma! It’s me!” I cried out.

Hot tears streaked my face. No recognition in her eyes, she grabbed for anything within reach. A book. My artist wood set. A cup. Caught in her maternal maelstrom, she hurled them. I ran for my closet. Ducking inside, I pulled the door shut, praying the sigils etched into the frame would hold.

“Momma, please!” I pleaded.

Her words collapsed into inarticulate curses. She scratched at the door, occasionally throwing her full body against it. The wood cracked but didn’t buckle. I held onto the handle hoping for the strength to weather her temper. Soon, her assault began to ebb until her footfalls stomped out of the room. But I held onto the door handle, my weight clung to it until I fell asleep crying.

The closet door eased opened. The rays of morning light smacked me across my face. I visored my hand over my eyes to make out the figure looming over me. Momma. I scrambled to the back of the closet.

“Get dressed. We’re leaving in ten.” Turning, she closed my bedroom door behind her.

Feeling every bit numb to the world, I began to pack a bag. We’d been here before. Last time was because I tried to…hurt myself. Life had become too loud. Too painful. Overwhelming. I’d lost so much. I thought I saw things. My parents checked me into a hospital. After last night’s episode, I figured I was due to visit Ghana’s version of a mental wellness facility. Hesitating before I committed to trapping myself in the car with her, I studied her face carefully. Whatever was in her last night had passed, though I knew it still lurked in her somewhere. She refused to heal because she refused to admit that she was hurt. Her pain revealed itself in her anger, each outburst a cry for help, but it shouldn’t have been on me to recognize. Nor should her misery be weaponized against me. Still, I knew better than to expect an apology.

“What hospital are you sending me off to this time?” I closed the car door, not hard enough to be considered a slam. I didn’t want to set Momma off again. Crossing my arms, I stared out the window while she drove.

“Look, you can save your words. You’re not going to guilt me. I made, I always make, the best decisions I can under the circumstances. Going to a hospital is a waste of time. I thought it’d be good to spend some time together.” She reached over to sweep the hair from the side of my face.

I flinched at her touch.

She withdrew her hands opting to keep them to herself. Her phone rang. Her face twisted up like she smelled spoiled fruit, but answered it anyway. “Your daughter has been at it again.”

Like a perfect wind-up toy, he sprang, so loud she didn’t need to put him on speaker. “She has no business partaking. Especially at her age.”

Parents believed it was possible to keep secrets in a family, but children always knew more than they thought. Like how he was younger than me when he first partook. The practice was almost a family tradition. My mentor once told me that our people brought the old ways with us from when our people first left the Alkebulan shores as part of the holocaust known as the Maafa. Hiding our traditions in plain sight, even co-opting the master’s religion to do so. Handed down, parent to child. Occasionally grandmother to granddaughter, skipping a generation. Leaving the passed over feeling some sort of way. Unloved. Unchosen. Resentful. I pitied Momma.

“I’m right here,” I said.

“I’m so disappointed in you,” my father said. “We try to put safeguards around you. Raise you with opportunities we never had. And you keep finding new ways to let us down. I’m almost glad you no longer visit me.

Momma had an excuse. My father, not so much. Our homecoming to Ghana was meant to bring the family closer. My sisters had long moved out, but my eldest one—Selamault, who never reaches out, like she’s tried to scrub her history—studied here as a part of the Thmei Institute. And J left. All I have are her occasional phone calls. It hurt too much for anyone to talk about. My father moved out not too long after we moved to Ghana. The change in scenery was not enough to keep them together. Back home, he hid his practice, accepting the stigma attached to it by his steeped-in-church family. He never could escape that sense of shame. He carried his pet demons with him like his favorite security blanket. I refused to let his words hurt me.

Tears trailed down my cheeks anyway.

Memory, like time, wasn’t bound. The next moment I remember began as I held my phone out like I was taking a selfie to give J different angles so she could get the full effect of my outfit. “What do you think?”

“I know you spent a solid hour getting ready,” J said.

“Beauty comes at a cost.” I smiled, unable to remember the last time I did that. J always brought that out of me. “I wish I could see you.”

My back to my bed, I gathered everything I’d need for the ritual. I hated the way J went away and they now only had the phone. This model wasn’t manufactured anymore. These days people simply linked. I don’t even know how to charge it.

“You’re missing out. I need to get this phone fixed. I’m doing good to talk to you on this old thing.” J’s voice grew distant, thick with regret. “I hate that I left you.”

“I’ve gotten used to being left to find my own way. Alone.”

“Never alone.”

“I wish you were here.”

“Me, too, silly.”

J leaving, my parents’ marriage, the move, my mentor entering and then abandoning me, my life here getting so complicated, change so quickly, and I had so little control.

“You going to stay on the line?” I hoped my voice didn’t crack sounding too needy.

“I hate that I can’t be there with you, silly.”

“I know.”

Sliding my window open, I shrugged my backpack higher over my shoulder and slipped out of my room.

The walk took over an hour. Few were allowed near the ruins of the Castelo de Sao Jorge da Mina. Elmina Castle. One of the original slave forts, it was the last glimpse our people took with them before they were shipped around the world. Learning about it was part of my orientation to Ghana. Receiving a scholarship from the Pan-African Coordination Committee, to come study in Alkebulan, I followed in the footsteps of my eldest sister, Selamault. She was long out the house by the time I was born. By the time I neared the age of ascent, J was moving out. I’d been encouraged to pursue my passions. Partaking was it.

The woods took on a sinister aspect at night. By day I wandered their paths often enough, whenever I needed to get away. They called to me; some unseen tether drew me to them. My ears perked to alertness at every sound. The night brought out their own predators.

“You there?” I double-checked, cradling my phone close to me.

“Yeah, I’m here. I thought you needed me to be quiet. I didn’t want to distract you.”

“I appreciate that. I do need to keep focused. Make sure nothing sneaks up on me.” I found a clearing in the shadow of the prison fort. I laid out the items I brought with me for the ritual.

“Why here?” J asked.

“This place has power. I can feel it in my bones.”

Honestly, I didn’t know what I was doing. I had a mentor, the Ban mu Kyidomhene, but I was determined to figure things out on my own. She walked with me for a time, but one day informed me that the next leg of my journey I had to walk alone. To go down the timeline of my hurts to find healing. That translated to me being alone, which was fine. That was how it always was. People only let me down. Or left me. A gray parrot fluttered overhead, landing on a nearby branch startling me before it took off, again. We had been studying them and other animals of the area. It was the least of the creatures I worried about. But the Aje called.

Lighting my incense, I laid my phone in front of me, crossed my legs, and closed my eyes. Some practitioners could partake as easily as breathing or sleeping. I operated on instinct, by what felt natural for me to do. It was like I was aware that there was this—I’m not sure how to describe it—stream all around us. And I had to figure out how to be carried along by it. Tap into it.

“This reminds me of a story, well more of a legend, of a creature called an abiku. Some parents believe that they were sent, born into a family to terrorize them. Supposedly, these spirit children would choose a rich family who would squander their fortune tending to those children’s needs.”

My fingers itched, more anxious to hold J’s hand again rather than perform a ritual. But that was what I wanted to do more than anything, have her back with me. “If my parents think that about me, someone needs to send a memo reminding them that we aren’t rich.”

“Depends on how you view wealth. Dreams, hopes, possible futures are all invaluable.”

“Whatever. Is there such a thing as abiku parents?” I set out an old box and opened it.

When we were at our old home, before we came to Ghana, J and I found the box of photographs one day in the back of Momma’s closet. A small box, forgotten, buried under clothes. Random dusty pictures and a broken Bible, its pages detached, no longer bound. Like someone cleaned out a room, erasing their past. We spent an afternoon sifting through them. There was a forbidden thrill, to handling the old pictures. Granny-ma so young and beautiful, caught in mid-laugh, finding hints of me in her face. Her beaded evening gown shimmered as she danced. Grandpa so confident, despite his poor choice in facial hair (the too thick mustache clearly a mistake of the times). A red scarf draped over his black suit. A hat perched low on his head, shading a mischievous smile. Both of them so elegant and dapper, ready to take on the world. There was an intimate shot of our parents smoking chiba, lost in a moment. Just the two of them totally absorbed in the other. No room for anything, or anyone, else. Me and J sat on the edge of the bed, lost in our giggles, studying our parents, seeing them as people we knew so little about. This became a regular ritual for us, sneaking into our parents’ room, exploring the past and learning who they used to be.

After what was left of our family moved to Ghana, after my father left, I found the box again and brought it into my room.

I opened my emi to the voices of my ancestors, those I had lost, imagining a link from them, the past, to my present. And I tied that link to one that ran from my head to my heart to something deeper. The language of my soul, my sabhu.

A tendril slithered along my heart.

Chancing a peek, I cracked open my eyes. A thin green line hung in the air, an illuminated scar in reality. A groan rumbled from within it, as if from across a distant chasm. The edges of the line blurred. My mind could only picture steam escaping from a broken lid. The seam bulged, the way fabric might if something pushed on it from the other side. It continued to etch the space in front of me. I couldn’t stop its growth.

“Is everything okay?” J asked.

“I don’t…think so.” Stammering, I strained though I didn’t know what I fought against. The crack in space had its own gravity and I was caught in its grip. Inexorable. Inevitable. It threatened to draw me in. “I…can’t stop it.”

A parrot rustled the branches overhead. A woman strode into the clearing. Red tail feathers had been woven into her hair. The sides of her head shorn low as if that would stop the spread of gray. Despite her long hair being a ghostly brownish-gray, I’d have guessed her age as early thirties. Gold elekes ringed her neck, bright against the deep-set sepia of her skin.  The dangling sleeves of her dust-covered, black robe formed a draping curtain when her arms met. She reminded me of the Ban mu Kyidomhene, except somehow both older and younger. I couldn’t help think of her as some sort of retired hippy. She circled the light once, her head cocked in curiosity. Large, brown eyes bore into me as if absorbing everything about me in a glance. Her high cheekbones gave her face a regal quality. She licked her fingers and ran them along the seam in the air, snuffing out the light the way someone might extinguish a candle. I hurried to collect my talismans and incense, though there was no hiding their heavy scent. I hadn’t decided whether or not to be afraid.

“Who are you?”

“Nehanda is the name I have chosen.”

“Okay. I’m…”

She held her hand up, cutting me off. “You do not know who you are yet. You are still figuring that out.”

She strode around the edges of my clearing. The parrot flew over to land on her shoulder as if assuming its duty as rear guard.

“What…are you?”

“You know what I am. Some people refer to my kind as the Owners of the Sacred Birds. The Eleye.” The woman locked her gaze with me. Her eyes were kind. I saw echoes of myself in them, the person I wanted to be. “Some call us the Elders of the Night.”

She was of the order of the Iyami Aje. A title of respect for a woman considered to be Aje, one who wields the sacred power. I didn’t know if I was supposed to bow, kneel, or genuflect. Mild paralysis would have to do.

“Why did you come to Ghana?” she asked with an edge to her tone like she already knew the answer and only waited for me to admit it.

“To start over.”

“Is that all?”

“No. I mean part of it was the invitation of the Homecoming.”

“But you and your family didn’t have to come. Not everyone chose to accept Ghana’s offer of citizenship.”

“I don’t know. It was like this…call I felt the need to answer. Like there was part of me, part of our family, missing and it could only be found here. Like we had this connection we carried with us wherever we went, but it needed to be…”

“Renewed?” Nehanda arched a knowing eyebrow.

“Yeah, renewed. Does that make sense?”
“Perfect. Without knowing your ancestors, you are lost. The land holds the power of the people. The ability to heal souls. When you reach out to your ancestors, you begin the journey back to wholeness.”

“My mother thinks that I’m too young to be practicing magic.”

“You are awfully young to be pursue Aje.”

“Whatever.” I dampened my tone to take the edge off any hint of disrespect. I would not want to speak out of turn, especially not to a sacred mother. Magic made me feel included. Part of something bigger. And older. I searched for the kind of sisterhood I should have had with my own kin. My brain did too much, my anxiety prowled about with an insatiable appetite. Life, relationships, current events, it was all so much and I had so little power. Whenever I practiced, it lightened my mood. Relaxed me, like I dove into a seething pool. Things slowed down. I grew fascinated by magic, its history, how it worked. But I didn’t know how to explain any of that.

“It’s a mother’s job to be over-protective. To shield her child from things.”

“Momma doesn’t get it. I don’t care about the risk.”

“After all she’s lost, that idea probably terrifies her. She’s got thirty more years of experiences, hurts, and tragedies she’s seen and wants to spare you from. Show her a measure of grace.”

“Momma’s not scared of anything. She does the scaring.” I tried to make a joke of my words, but her attack was still too fresh in my mind and my smile faltered.

Nehanda leveled her eyes at me. “You are not responsible for the emotional well-being of another adult. Kindness, yes. Empathy, yes.”

“Do you have children?”

The look of hurt, longing, and regret on Nehanda’s face made me feel bad for asking. “I know of strained relationships. I have one with my eldest sister. I also know that when you have a bar of soap and you’re afraid it’s going to slip away from you, what does your instinct tell you to do?”

“Grip it harder.”

“And what does it do?”

“Slip out. Faster.”

“Such is the way of parents and their children.” Nehanda examined the ground. Kneeling, her robes puddled beneath her, she scooped up my phone. I hadn’t realized it was still there. She turned it over in her hands, lost in some distant memory, before handing it to me. “But that’s no excuse for how she came at you. She’s a grown ass woman responsible for her own feelings, dealing with her own pain, and using her words.”

I began to tell J that I’d call her back, but the line had gone dead.

Nehanda ran her thumb along my forehead then across it. “You are in a critical part of your journey to become a healer. The phase we call the ukuhlanya. The madness.”

“It feels like I’m going crazy. Like I don’t know what to hold onto. What’s real.”

“That’s the way of walking through your past and sifting through the history of traumas and hurts.”

“Can’t I…quit?”

“That’s always your choice. One your mother would certainly prefer. Not everyone has the discipline or the moral aptitude to walk the path. There are those who are corrupt. Who want power or wealth. Or revenge. Now which are you?”

“I just want whatever haunts my family to go away.” It was like something preyed on my mother’s pain and history of hurts. I recalled her tortured face as she came at me, as if she fought against some part of herself.

“That will require healing.” Nehanda locked her eyes on mine. “I see your potential, too. You are a conduit. Untrained in the ways of who you are and what you can do. I’d be honored to walk alongside you.”

“Are you asking me? My permission?”

One glance in Nehanda’s eyes and I knew I was understood. She was a real teacher, making deep things accessible and keeping it real. It made me pay greater attention in a different way. She respected me, my boundaries, and treated me like my own person. She saw me. In her eyes, I wasn’t just a disobedient child.

“First, your body is an altar. You deserve reverence,” she answered. “You are your power. You are sacred. No one comes to the sacred without their permission.”

A tree branch snapped behind me. Fearing that my parents had found me, I spun around and scooped up my things in the same movement. But the treeline was still and silent. When I turned back, Nehanda had disappeared.

It was easier to avoid being home, especially when no one noticed anyway. My home itself stirred my anxiety, the thought of being trapped within its walls with nowhere to run. Or hide. They kept a room with all of J’s things. Nearly a recreation of her old room. A shrine to pain and loss. My bedroom seemed too large, or maybe that was me attempting to wish myself out of existence, making myself as small as people made me feel. Sitting on the corner of my bed, I stared at my phone, willing for J to reach out.

Even the sunlight seemed to barely penetrate the window, not quite strong enough to brighten my room beyond looming shadows. The same sort of impenetrable distance, the familiar loneliness, I felt from my friends back at my old school before we moved to Ghana. They’d grown distant, started pulling away as if they had sensed something different, something alien, about me. Unclear about what had happened, how the rift started, I worried about how much of it was in my head; teenage drama made manifest. Whenever I called one of them to get into some of our usual “Friday night shenanigans,” no one answered. Only to find out the following week that they had been hanging out. Without me. If I did manage to catch one of them to make plans, I was blown off or forgotten.

Then J stepped up.

I never asked what made her suddenly became nice to me, like she’d just noticed me for the first time. All I cared about was that she’d come back into my life. My best friend. A funny way to think about an older sibling. Both of mine occupied a different space, fell into a wholly different orbit than me, but J had come back around.

That seemed so long ago.

Sliding off the bed, I dropped to my knees to retrieve the box under my bed. Like a worn deck of cards, I flipped through the photos. One photo drew my attention. I’d seen it before, Granny-ma with her daughters in a clearing. The set up was familiar to me: they partook. But Momma was nowhere to be seen. Another image had my father burning his ceremonial implements like its own ritual. Momma looked on, pleased.

“What are you doing?” The light of the hallway haloed Momma, reducing her form to half shadows as if the dark bled away her body.

Dropping the photo, I kicked the box under my bed as I stood up. “Nothing. Just thinking.”

“Sulking is more like it.” She baited me.

“Sorry, Momma.” I apologized out of reflex, used to having done something wrong in her eyes, having disappointed her somehow. Lowering my gaze, I felt trapped by my mom’s vision for me. To become a traditional member of the community, a scientist or artist, someone she’d be proud to show off to neighbors.

“You can’t just do whatever you want. Can’t just come and go as you please.” The wan light wasn’t from the hallway. The corridor was a series of staggered doors. The first was my room, right off the stairs. The furthest room down was my parents’ room. In between was J’s. The light emanated from J’s opened bedroom. “I want you at home where it’s safe.”

I didn’t know how to respond. Anything I said would have been taken wrong. All her rules sprang from her need to control me. To not lose me. But I refused to negotiate with terrorists.

“She won’t be happy until you are locked away, where she can keep you to herself. That’s why Selamault left,” J’s voice whispered from the phone. “That’s what you’ve always believed.”

J was the smart one. She was the one meant to be successful. She was the one my parents poured their hopes into. She was the one they wanted. I was nobody. I was just an ordinary girl. I wrote awful poetry, stayed out too late. I hung out with the wrong people, barely studied, and never performing to my full potential in school. But I loved my parents. I never understood who the two people who once roamed these halls were, but I was bound to them.

Momma took on the aspect of a black and white or sepia tinged photo, a moving portrait of a person locked in pain. Her lips parted, a movie star ready for her close up, as if wanting to take a long drag from a cigarette. “Look at yourself. What’s wrong with you? You are so selfish.”

The evening air smelled of loam and sea breeze, of ancient land and doors of no return. I thought how furious Momma looked. All her life Momma was surrounded by people who partook, yet she claimed I was wrong for choosing to do so. Because Aje locked her out. Kept her from a closeness with Granny-ma. Threatened to steal my father from her, but when she beat Aje, forced him to give it up, he left anyway.

The pain opened a crack in her.

“I sacrificed so much for you. I gave you everything. I can only dream about what I could have achieved if…” Her eyes red, almost as if she’d been drinking. Or crying. Again. Her face damp as if caught in a fever.

“If what?” My throat tightened. My stomach wrenched in a sudden knot. A cascading dread crept down from my neck along my spine, filling my insides as it went. The answer to the question already known, but I dared her to fill the pause with more hurt. I braced myself against the floor, both steeling myself and preparing to dodge whatever came next.

“This is not how it was meant to be.” J’s voice changed. Deepening and aging with each syllable until by the end of the sentence, she sounded like Nehanda. She appeared in all white, though translucent. “There is no divide between the spiritual and the material world. Find your inner balance.

Opening my emi—with a breath, as easy as falling into a stream—I sensed an unfamiliar spirit shadowing Momma. It fed on her grief, her loss, her fear.

Focus on the activity at hand. Be fully present, drawn into the moment through meditation and mindfulness. Begin with a ritual cleansing of the space. Introduce yourself to your ancestors. Make an appeal for good things for their descendants. Speaking their names out loud.

Placing the old photographs out as if setting up a game of solitaire, the pictures formed branches, a series of descending limbs leading to me. Traumatic events written into and passed down in DNA, connecting us through time to one another. I flipped the picture of Momma smoking, her reckless youth, experimenting and figuring herself out. I placed a picture of J next to mine. My insides ached, having been forgotten or not even thought of as they couldn’t escape the event horizon of their own grief.

Hear the ceremonial drums. Let the dance into your heart.

I imagined large, sonorous drums covered with goat skin heads. My heart fluttered, a bird’s wing taking flight, learning a new dance step. Others joined in step with me, emboldening me to face the memories.

I called J on a Friday night because I got off work at 9pm and wondered if she wanted to get into the usual Friday night shenanigans. She didn’t pick up her phone. I called again, but gave up, assuming she might be at work and not wanting to intrude on her securing her bag. I thought about how much closer we’d grown. How she risked showing me her sweet side, that vulnerable side sisters often hid from each other. And how much I appreciated her.

The next time I called, the police answered. They told us about her car accident. Momma collapsed into my father’s arms. He was barely able to hold her up through his own grief, as if they had lost their only child. Or at least the only one that mattered to them. I stood there, uncomforted and alone.

The anger chipped away at me, eroding like relentless water. I couldn’t keep the hurt in. I could keep trying to stuff it down and pretend it wasn’t there. The moment pressed in. It threatened to poison me as it had my parents. It needed to be let out. I refused to be dragged into the gravity well of Momma’s hurts, her anguish. She stalked the room, the photographs like a barrier keeping her at bay. The anger spread about her, filling each step, wild and escalating. She breathed heavy.

Footfalls echoed down the hall, quickly approaching. My father burst into the room as if he’d been summoned from wherever he laid his head these days. With a mad snarl, his head canted toward me at an odd angle, no recognition in his eyes. Flecks of spit flew out as his head whipped back and forth. The muscles in his face rippled and contorted, his loose flesh caught in a wind blast.

“You have the nerve to cast spells in our house?” Their voices joined in unison.

I raised my hands, crossing my arms in instinct. My fingers gesturing, as if signing in a language older than the human tongue for an unseen guest. The scent of sage cut through the air. My eyes locked with Momma’s, determined and defiant. I spoke to the spirit that slithered within her spirit, which had already all but consumed my father. “Bitch, I am the spell.”

First listen. Now do.

My hands went numb. Momma threw her head back as an inchoate cry of pain released. She screamed and threw herself to the ground, dispelling the demon of grief. Her face cracked, her demeanor buckled under the strain of weight. My father thrashed about beside her before he collapsed, a marionette with his strings cut, landing next to her.

A tear trailed down my face.

The light from J’s room faded.

“It smells like sage in here.” Momma didn’t fly off the handle in an eruption of rage. Her hair gray. Her body hunched over, she seemed so small. She scrubbed her hands, working an itch beneath her skin.

“I burned some in a cleansing ceremony.”

“Just do it safely.” Nodding, she respected my boundaries. More like she acknowledged my magic use without blowing up about it.

“Yes, Momma.”

“What? You look like you want me to say something.”

“I’m sorry,” was not enough. My tongue felt bloated. A pressure built in my throat but I was unable to form any more words. It would have to do…

“…We carry these scars. We carry these songs.” The Ban mu Kyidomhene’s voice became a tether drawing me back to her. “Meld into a communion of love, the vibration of the Universe. To be and become unconditional love. Without fear. Without judgment. To share that love with all that you touch.”

“Is it over?” I asked.

“You tell me, Nehanda. Part of enduring the ukuhlanya well is having a vision of things to come. To walk through your pain and learn what it means to harness your own power and determine your own future. Walking through our story, with its traumas and hurts. To heal, one must find healing.” The Ban mu Kyidomhene allowed the silence to sit between us like a welcome companion until I spoke again.

A tear trailed down my face. “Aje is a stream…and I am water.”

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Maurice Broaddus and Rianna Butcher

A senior in high school, Rianna Butcher is a budding Afrofuturist and reader of historical fiction. She loves to express herself authentically and creatively, having won the Fortnitely Essay Contest (2020). This is her first published sale. You should check out her Instagram at @theriannab

A community organizer and teacher, Maurice Broaddus’s work has appeared in places like Lightspeed Magazine, Black Panther: Tales from Wakanda, Weird Tales, Magazine of F&SF, and Uncanny Magazine, with some of his stories having been collected in The Voices of Martyrs. His books include the sci-fi novel Sweep of Stars; the steampunk works, Buffalo Soldier, and Pimp My Airship; and the middle grade detective novels, The Usual Suspects and Unfadeable. His project, Sorcerers, is being adapted as a television show for AMC. He’s an editor at Apex Magazine. Learn more at MauriceBroaddus.com.

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