Feb 10 2011 9:30am
“The Go-Slow” was first published in the mixed original-and-reprint anthology The Way of the Wizard (Prime, 2010), edited by John Joseph Adams. About the author of today's story, he writes “Nnedi Okorafor is the author of the novels Zahrah the Windseeker, The Shadow Speaker, and Who Fears Death. Her book for children, Long Juju Man, won the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. She is also the winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for Literature and the Carl Brandon Society’s Parallax Award, and has been a finalist for the NAACP Image Award, Andre Norton Award, and the Essence Magazine Literary Award. Her short fiction has appeared in Strange Horizons, Clarkesworld, and in anthologies such as Eclipse Three, Seeds of Change, So Long Been Dreaming, and Dark Matter: Reading the Bones.”
About the story itself, Adams writes: “Africa is a less common setting for fantasy stories, but there are some notable works out there for readers who are interested in the continent. Among the best known are the adventure tales of H. Rider Haggard, including She and King Solomon’s Mines(starring the character Alan Quatermain, who also appeared in Alan Moore’s graphic novel series League of Extraordinary Gentlemen). Charles Saunders has written a series of sword and sorcery tales starring African characters, beginning with the collection Imaro. Octavia E. Butler’s Wild Seedbegins in ancient Africa and follows the lives of two immortals as they attempt to come to terms with their unusual abilities. Alan Dean Foster’s Carnivores of Light and Darkness follows an African tribesman who sets out on a quest to rescue a princess and who faces off against all manner of magical obstacles. And Lion’s Blood by Steven Barnes is an alternate history in which Africa is the most powerful continent on earth.”
Adams concludes by remarking that “In addition to her interest in Africa, another of Nnedi Okorafor’s passions is strange creatures. Her work is full of wild and colorful animals, such as the very unusual birds in ‘The Go-Slow.’”
It was Nigerian style gridlock. The worst kind of traffic. It was a carnival of vehicles from cars to supersize trucks, nose to ass for miles, oozing, spewing, dribbling exhaust into the weighted heat under the hot penetrating African sun. Only the okada were on the move. The motorbikes snaked clumsily between cars and trucks, with their one, two, even three passengers hanging on for dear life. The okada dodged opportunistic hawkers and occasionally scraped the fenders of vehicles. They always kept right on going.
The go-slow was especially sluggish today and Nkem was smoldering with irritation. All he’d meant to do was drive from one part of Owerri to another, a matter of miles. Instead, for the last two hours, he’d been stuck behind a smoke-belching truck and beside a rusty van full of choir members from some fanatical church. He’d turned off his car an hour and half ago, despite the heat. If he didn’t die from inhaling the truck’s noxious fumes, he was going to go mad from the women’s high-pitched singing. Just then, the women started yet another verse of “Washed in the Blood of Christ.”
“God Dammit,” Nkem shouted, slamming his hands down on the steering wheel in frustration. Several of the women stopped singing to glare at him. He considered giving them the finger or cursing at them with such fury that they’d either think he had Tourette’s syndrome or been possessed by some ungodly spirit, but then he imagined how appalled his mother would be with him. She was always in his head at the wrong times. “The goddamn church can kiss my ass, man,” he muttered. “Psychos, all of them. The crippling force of this country.”
But he said nothing to the women and he kept all his fingers wrapped around the steering wheel. He gnashed his teeth. It was amazing how slowly time moved in certain situations, especially ones of deep annoyance. Go-slows were like getting stuck in time warps. He shielded his eyes, looked into the sky and spotted a large eagle soaring by. Leisurely, free, ruler of the sky.
“Goddamn bird,” he muttered.
He’d been on his way to a good fuck. He deserved it; he’d finished shooting his latest film, No Boundaries, yesterday. He owed himself the distraction and he wasn’t going to get it from his wife. Besides, what he wanted was a destructive distraction. He’d met the girl, Agnes, at a club four months ago. Of course, she’d been ecstatic to get a phone call from Nigeria’s sexiest actor. She was ready and waiting for him at a hotel twenty minutes away.
Nkem smacked the steering wheel again and pulled at his budding dreadlocks. Why had he taken this way? At this time of day? The go-slow was always bad here. There was no rhyme or reason. It wasn’t the beginning or end of the work day. There were no especially large potholes. If it was an accident then there must have been an accident here at the same time every day. There were simply a lot of vehicles that came through here at this time. And I knewthis, he thought. His blood pressure rose from just thinking about it.
Two hours of his life wasted. He picked up his cell phone and then put it down. Agnes would wait. She’d wait all day for him. Any woman would.
“Fuck it,” Nkem grumbled. He rolled up the window, started the car and cranked up the air conditioner. His Jaguar guzzled fuel, but if he ran out, what did it matter? No car was going anywhere anyway. He sat back and shut his eyes as the refreshing, cool air blew against his sweaty face. Closing the window, combined with the roar of the AC, made the singing of the traveling choir in the van beside him significantly more bearable. He leaned back, moaning with the pleasure of the icy-cold air and relative quiet. He shivered and laughed to himself, amazed that he could feel any pleasure at all in a situation of such grand displeasure. Life was complicated like that sometimes.
He opened his eyes just as the truck in front of him belched out a fresh plume of black greasy smoke. He laughed again and thought I’m going to die out here.
That would be right in line with the way he felt. He was running to Agnes because he needed to pound something. He wanted to revel in the badness of the act and the sweetness of her flesh. Fake people and fake bullshit, he was surrounded by it. And he was slowly growing convinced that he wasn’t for this world.
Nkem looked out the window. To his left was a busy market from which colorfully-dressed hawkers emerged to sell items like bagged plantain chips, chin chin, and cashews, skewers of spicy beef suya, and tiny plastic bags of cold “pure” water. But out of the corner of his eye, he spotted something beyond the market—something large and white and heading toward him. He blinked, wondering what it could possibly be. Too large to be a bird. A car maybe?
Whatever it was was coming fast. He slowly turned his head toward it. His eyes grew very, very wide: A large, white long-horned bull was galloping right at him. There was no time to get out. No time to run. This was it. The crazed beast was going to smash right into his side of the car and impale him with its sharp horns. Then Nkem spotted the animals’ eyes; they were a milky white. Every hair on Nkem’s body stood up. He took in a sharp shocked breath. He hadn’t seen this since he was a kid. Since one of them had last tried to kill him.
Nkem tried to jump into the passenger seat. Finally, a shout of wild horror escaped his mouth as the steer bore down upon him.
But at the very last moment, the steer shook its head and changed direction. SCREEEEEE! Its left horn scratched hard across Nkem’s window. The sound was worse than running one’s nails across a chalkboard. It was a wonder that the glass didn’t shatter. “Awo!” Nkem exclaimed, clapping his hands over his ears. After veering away from his car, the beast trotted between the other vehicles, across the street and into a patch of trees on the other side of the road.
Nkem slowly sat up, staring at the deep foot-long scratch in his window. He’d nearly died like this three times as a kid. When he was three a group of hens had tried to peck him to death. He still remembered how the chickens had all had milky eyes and been shaking their heads like they had an itch in their skulls that they could not scratch. Thankfully his mother had been nearby. That night every one of those chickens was killed, cooked and eaten. No one said anything about the chickens having weird eyes.
When he was seven, a mad milky-eyed goat had tried to butt him with its horns. Nkem had only escaped it because he was a fast and quick runner. Like the chickens, this beast also had been shaking its head. The last time was when Nkem was twelve years old. He’d been walking home alongside a busy street when a crazed, milky-eyed horse bearing an empty saddle had come running at him.
The horse shook its head violently and, a few feet before reaching Nkem, galloped into the road right in front of an overcrowded bus. The bus ran over the horse and then veered and smashed into a truck just in time for them both to careen over the bridge down the road. There were mangled bodies all over the road and in the bushes. In the small river that the vehicles had splashed into, more bodies floated and people screamed for help. Nkem had just stood there, physically untouched but mentally touched deeper than he’d ever been.
This was the defining moment of twelve-year-old Nkem’s life. Just before it all happened, Nkem had been thinking about his growling stomach. He hadn’t eaten for days. His parents had bought him school books which meant days without food. He was the insignificant seventh son of a poor yam farmer and a crippled mother and all these people had just died because of him. Because the horse would rather run into the street than obey whatever had temporarily captured its brain.
The gruesome scene of the resulting accident had been such a visual spectacle. So impressive that he’d forgotten his hunger. This moment made him yearn to go into film instead of doing medicine. He never learned where the horse came from or where its rider had gone. But aside from everything else, he never forgot the horse’s completely white eyes, not blind, but occupied. The very look he’d just seen now, twenty years later.
He turned the car off, got out, and ran his fingertips over the scratch. They came away coated with grated glass. The scratch was deep, as if the animal was actually pushing as it turned, purposely scraping his window. The women in the car beside him had stopped singing and were staring at Nkem as if he were Lazarus himself. The man in the truck in front of him leaned out. “The Lord protects you, o! Dat animal de craze!”
Three shabbily-dressed and winded-looking boys with sticks came running between the cars. “It went that way!” one of the choir women said, pointing at the patch of trees. The boys nodded, too breathless to respond as they ran in the beast’s direction. Nkem slumped in his seat with a relieved sigh, vaguely wondering how much it would cost to replace the window.
* * *
An hour later, the traffic thinned and began to move. Nkem didn’t care. The image of the insane white-eyed steer was branded to his mind. He kept thinking about the way it was shaking its head. Nkem’s urge to fuck was gone, not that he wanted to return to his wife back in Aba, either.
He drove three fast miles before he came to yet another patch of “go-slow” congestion. As he decelerated, he launched into a string of Igbo and English curses. He had such a terrible headache. He shouldn’t have bothered leaving his hotel room. It would have been better to relax on his balcony, with a glass of cold beer and a good book. He laughed loudly. He didn’t want that either. “I don’t know what I want anymore!” he said to himself. What he did know was that he wasn’t going to get sucked into yet another go-slow.
Before the cars came to a full halt, he spotted a break in a patch of palm trees. A side road. Did he dare? There had been a terrible storm last night. Was the dirt still wet? It was a hot day. The sun was high in the sky, so most likely not.
“Fuck it,” he mumbled and pulled the car onto the dirt road. As soon as he did, he wished he hadn’t. What if he got stuck in some mud? Last thing he needed was to really mess up his car. But he didn’t want to turn around, either. He was always making impulsive errors of rebellion like this. It was how he found himself walking down the aisle—his family had had the nerve to object and that made him marry her that much faster.
The dirt road was wide enough for two cars and it was fairly smooth. After five minutes of driving, he had yet to encounter any mud spots. Miraculously, the road seemed to run right alongside the highway. Nkem was sure that eventually there would be an opening for him to get back onto the main road. The forest flanking the sides of the street looked dense and mysterious, the highway visible on the other side about an eighth of a mile away. He smiled to himself; he was moving while the traffic was stagnant. The story of his life. He pushed his car to move faster.
As he sped on, he again noticed something in his peripheral vision. “Ah ah! What in hell is going on today?” he whispered.
Running along the left side of his car was a large, ostrich-like bird with shaggy black feathers that made him immediately think of a masquerade, the kind that danced and was made of packed raffia. Nkem was going about thirty miles per hour and the bird was easily keeping up. The speed at which it was moving caused its soft, fine feathers to flatten as it ran. It turned its head to look at Nkem, and when it did, he saw its small, red eyes flash like jewels. Clear eyes. Good. At least there’s that, he thought.And it wasn’t shaking its head either.
Nkem looked away from the creature only to find yet another bird approaching from the right. “Chineke!” he whispered then returned his eyes to the road so that he didn’t swerve off to the side. And that was when he saw yet another one standing in the middle of the road staring right at him. Even from afar, for some reason, he could see right into the bird’s eyes. They were a glowing brown color, like Chocolate with the sun shining through it. Nkem heard a ringing in his ears, his heart danced in his chest, and a terrible, intense brightness momentarily blinded him.
WHAM! Whump whump!
Nkem felt the impact as if he himself had been run over. All the air left his lungs and everything went white just for a moment. Then the pain was gone. Somehow he was able to get his foot to hit the break. His tires bit into the road’s dirt and he came to a silent stop. From nearby, he could hear the slow, slow traffic of the highway.
No time to consider the situation. The other birds were coming toward his car. He glared at them then turned to look at the body in the middle of the road. A heap of feathery meat. Definitely dead. One of the birds ran up to his window and tapped it with its short but strong black beak. Tick, tick, tick, just below the scratch from the steer’s horn. Nkem let out a short breath and sat back for a moment.
“Since when are there goddamn ostriches in Imo State?” he wondered, leaning his head back and looking up at the black roof of his car. He considered calling his friend Festus, who was an amateur birdwatcher. He grabbed his cell phone then put it down, knowing he’d sound like a lunatic if he told Festus any of this.
One of the birds brought its head closer to the window. “What do you want, bird?” he asked. It ambled off. Nkem turned to the dead creature again, his leather seat creaking as he strained for a better look. Whatever the fuck they were, what were they doing here? And if they could run that fast, why stand in the middle of the fucking road and get run over?
An idea came to mind, and Nkem pinched and tugged at his short beard. He laughed to himself. Should he do it? “Why not,” he said. He had an old sheet covering the bottom of his trunk. The boy he’d once been, the one who never wasted an ounce of food because he never had food to waste, was alive and well within him, despite his now lavish lifestyle. Why waste good meat? He laughed again. No, he wasn’t going to go see Agnes. He would go see his mother who lived an hour away. She’d appreciate this huge amount of meat.
Nkem backed up to the dead bird and, leaving the car running, slowly got out. All the loitering birds raised their long-necked heads at attention.
“You all,” he muttered. “Stay back. Stay back.”
The birds kept their distance. Some of them, he couldn’t tell how many, started making a loud booming sound in their throats. It almost sounded like deep drum beats. That is creepy, he thought. He looked down at the dead creature. This one was bigger than the others and looked somewhat different. There was a bright blue tint along its broken neck and deep red shadowing above its eyes. Its long neck was plumed with fluffy white feathers, and the top of its head was crowned with three long black ones. It was an attractive beast.
Thing’s going to be heavy, Nkem thought, but he was tall and lifted weights daily—he was a strong guy. Even if the bird weighed more than a hundred pounds, he’d still be able to get it into the car’s trunk. But goddamn, what a huge bird! It would feed everyone in the village for days. He bent down and scooped his arms underneath it. His white silk shirt would be ruined if the bird was dirty or oily, he realized, but then thoughtFuck it, I can afford another. He lifted. It was heavy, easily over a hundred and twenty pounds. Something fell to the ground from between the bird’s thick feathers as he lifted it. It looked like a small piece of ice.
The bird’s head hung limply, like a piece of boiled cassava, and bumped against his leg. Nkem glanced at the other birds, hoping they didn’t take notice of what he was doing. There were now at least ten of them standing around, blank faced, turning their heads this way and that, eying him.
Nkem placed the dead bird in the trunk then knelt down and scooped up the thing that had fallen from the bird’s feathers. Some kind of gemstone? He turned it over and held it before his eyes. Quartz, maybe. He put it into the pocket of his jeans and got into the car.
For about two miles, the huge wingless birds ran beside the car on the dirt path as he drove. It was oddly exhilarating. He almost felt like one of them as he pushed the car to drive faster and, for a while, they kept up. Eventually, his car outran them, leaving them in the dust.
About a mile later, dead bird in his trunk, he got back on the highway. He was free and clear.
Or so he thought. Ten minutes after returning to the highway, Nkem pulled over after hearing a repetitive thumping sound coming from the back of the car. “How can I have a flat tire?!” he groaned. But as he pulled off the road, he began to wonder if it was something else. The thumping wasn’t the rhythmic thud-thud-thud that a flat tire typically makes. As a matter of fact, the thumping was quite erratic.
There it was again. He rolled to a stop and listened.
Shit! he thought. It was coming from the trunk. The bird was still alive. Even as a kid, he’d never liked wringing even a chicken’s neck. Now he’d have to wring the neck of a gigantic half-dead mystery bird.
THUMP! THUMP, THUMP!
The front of his car was already slightly dented from the impact, and now the damn thing was going to dent his trunk too if he didn’t do something about it fast. He jumped out of the car and walked around to the back, then stood looking at the closed trunk, his knuckles on his hips. The afternoon sun beat against his neck and sweat trickled down his armpits.
He could see the metal of his trunk dome up each time. THUMP THUMP! “Okay, let’s do this,” he said, and quickly ran his finger over the sensor on his key to pop the trunk. The trunk flew open and out leapt a figure, graceful as an ostrich, shaggy feathery coat undulating with every movement. Nkem jumped back, nearly screaming. He instinctively raised his fists, ready to battle like hell.
A woman. His eyes had to be deceiving him. But he didn’t dare blink. She was tall with strong, long legs and she wore a dress that resembled the bird’s feathery hide. A woman. Not a giant bird. She dug her foot into the dirt, keeping her arms close to her sides.
“What do you think you are doing?” she demanded, in a hard, deep authoritative voice. “Do you think you can fight me, now?”
The bird-woman was taller than him and looked to be about thirty years old. She had strings of chunky red glass beads and white-brown cowry shells woven into her thick, tightly-braided hair. Her lips were painted dark with black lipstick and her entire dress was made of silky bird feathers. Her beaded braids clicked and clacked as she awkwardly walked around him.
“What are you?” Nkem finally asked, his fists still up.
“What is wrong with you?” she asked.
Nkem lowered his fists. “N . . . nothing.”
“Why didn’t you leave me to die?”
“I thought you were dead,” he started to say, then paused, catching himself. Why was he acting like this woman was the bird he’d run over?
Before he could say more, they came out of the bushes. One, two, ten, sixteen big birds! I guess they didn’t stop following, he thought. They surrounded him like a group of strange curious women.
A car driving by blew its horn. “Nah woooooow!” the driver exclaimed out the window, staring. Several more cars slowed down to look.
“Chineke!” someone else shouted.
A man held a cell phone out of the passenger seat window. Nkem could even see its camera lens adjusting to capture him in perfect high definition focus. “Snap it, now!” the driver said. “Snap it and send, o! Then broadcast live!”
“Look at that!”
Up close the birds had a bitter, grapefruit-like scent. They were all making that low, booming drum beat noise now and the woman was looking at them thoughtfully. Then she looked at Nkem and said something that made his heart flip: “I wanted to die,” she whispered, then moved close to him. “I . . . I led some to freedom but too many to death. I should die for not saving them all.”
Nkem blinked, suddenly far too aware of all the cars and people around him. People would certainly recognize him; he was a celebrity, Nigeria’s “Sexiest Man Alive.” With so many witnesses, could it be long before the paparazzi showed up?
“Get in the car,” he said.
She looked at him like he was crazy. “These are my friends.”
“Just get in! Let them follow.”
Nkem wasn’t sure if this would deflect attention from him, but it was better than just standing there. He got in the Jaguar and opened the door for the bird-woman. She slowly climbed in, folding her long legs and keeping her eye on Nkem.
He felt ill but at the same time, utterly exhilarated. This was something new. This was unexpected and insane. “Who are you?” he asked as he pulled the car onto the street in front of the rubbernecking traffic. He kept to the outer lane of the street so that the herd of birds could run alongside the car. “What are you?”
“Ogaadi,” she said, looking out the window at the running birds. “That is my name.”
Nkem glanced at her but didn’t say anything else.
“It is 2013,” she proclaimed.
He frowned, looking at her. “Yes.”
“Chey! How time flies. Felt more like no time was passing at all.” She opened the window. “I am an amusu, I admit that. My uncle initiated me when I was ten. What was I supposed to do? Say no?!” She glared accusingly at Nkem.
“Uh . . . I didn’t . . . you’re a witch?”
“I listened to my uncle,” she continued. “He taught me great things. He was the real thing, sha. He taught me how to eat poison and live, force plants to grow, how to cause my father to become rich in the stock market. Juju is not all bad, you know. But then my . . . my mother and my sister . . . ” She swallowed hard. Nkem glanced at her with a frown as she closed her eyes and clenched her fists. He turned his eyes back to the road, feeling a shiver creep up his spine. “What happened to your mother and sister?” Nkem carefully asked.
“They died. And I don’t know why! Some sort of flu,” she said, after a moment. “I didn’t do it!”
Nkem remained silent, waiting for her to continue.
“My . . . my uncle was wild with grief when they died,” she said. “He had to blame someone, so he cursed me. He was so close to all of us.” She took a deep breath. “Maybe ten miles from here, just outside of Owerri, my uncle had a farm, raising emu.”
Emu, Nkem thought. That’s what they’re called.
“He changed me into one and threw me in with them,” she continued. “Twenty years he left me there.”
Nkem was having a hard time concentrating on the road. The damn emu herd running alongside the car wasn’t helping, nor was the growing crowd of gawkers on the road to his left. He tightened his grip on the steering wheel and took a deep breath. Nonsense, he thought. This is all nonsense! Maybe someone slipped a mild sweetie into my breakfast or something. Maybe one of the cooks hated my films. It was a possibility. Such a thing had happened to another actor some years ago. But the strange thing was that Nkem believed every word this woman said. Somehow he just KNEW all that she was saying was true.
“Twenty years I hid and avoided my uncle,” she said. “Business was good for him. Owerri’s a good place to sell emu meat.” She glanced out the open window at the running emu. She lowered her voice. “People like it. Most don’t even know it’s emu. They think it’s beef. My uncle thought that I had long ago been slaughtered and sold as meat like the other birds. But he taught me well. I had ways of hiding in there. But I could not escape; there was an electrical fence.”
Nkem felt another chill. “Last night—did the storm do something . . . ?”
“To the fence, yes,” she said. “It was struck by lightning. The minute I saw our chance, I got all the emu to stampede. The fence was still sparking and many of us were killed. I . . . I didn’t know that would happen. It was terrible.” Tears welled up in her eyes. “So, you see, when I saw you speeding toward me, I thought fate was providing me an opportunity. I wanted to end my life . . . ”
Her words touched him in an odd way. Although her story was fantastic and strange compared to Nkem’s, on some basic level, how she felt was how he felt too. He wasn’t of this world. Maybe he didn’t want to die but he wanted to leave this life of his behind.
“The sacrifice must have broken my uncle’s juju,” she said.
As they drove, more vehicles around them slowed down. Soon, Nkem found he could barely drive faster than twelve miles per hour. Neither Ogaadi nor the rest of the herd liked this. The birds began angrily making that strange drum beat sound in their chests. Ogaadi grew more and more anxious as she looked at the crowd of gawkers.
“Why do these people do this?”
“Come on,” Nkem snapped. “Who wouldn’t come and look?”
Up ahead, the traffic stopped in what looked like another very annoying bit of go-slow. Suddenly, Ogaadi looked at Nkem with bulging eyes and hollered, “You’re working with him!”
“Eh? Who? What?”
“He can stop everything! I know his ways!” She suddenly grabbed at the steering wheel.
“What are you doing?” Nkem screamed.
They narrowly missed two cars as they whipped to the right, careening off the road. Nkem heard the hiss of grass as they rolled into the foliage and thankfully came to a stop without hitting anything. Ogaadi opened the door and leaped out; the emu, meanwhile, did the opposite and lunged at the car, pecking and kicking. Nkem’s mind was in a muddle. “Stop it!” he screamed, jumping out of the car.
Nkem was shaking so badly that he fell to the ground. He got up and clumsily ran at one of the emu. He tried to push it away from his car but it was too heavy and strong. It snapped its beak at him and he jerked his head back just in time to save his nose. “What is this? Oh my god what is all this?!” he shouted, pulling at his hair.
Arms suddenly encircled his waist and pulled him backward. “Don’t you bring harm to my people!” Ogaadi hissed in his ear as she dragged him away from the car.
They tumbled to the ground. Nkem tried to roll away but she held him there. With all his might, he kicked forward with both his legs, bucking himself out of her arms. She came at him again and next thing Nkem knew, he was grappling with the bird-woman in the grass.
“Stop it!” he cried, breaking free of her at last.
“He sent you!” she screamed. “You think I’m stupid?” She lunged at him and they fell to the ground again. Nkem was sweating profusely as dirt mashed into his locks and shirt. He was beginning to panic. Ogaadi was immensely strong. She rolled him over, straddling him with her long legs and holding his arms above his head. He was helpless.
“What is wrong with you!?” he bellowed, looking up into her wild face. Stinging sweat dripped into his eyes caused them to tear up. He blinked them away.
Like the birds, she smelled strongly of grapefruit and she too was sweating. She was looking into his eyes with her “chocolate in front of the sun” eyes as she breathed heavily. Her face began to relax into a stunned frown.
“He didn’t send you, did he?” she asked.
“No!” Nkem said, and they both fell silent.
“Isn’t that Nkem Chukwukadibia?” he heard someone say.
Nkem and Ogaadi both looked toward the road. Cars had stopped and people had gotten out to watch the spectacle. No one came to help. Nkem wasn’t surprised. He and Ogaadi were yards into a grassy area. The place could be full of snakes. Nkem cursed and feebly tried to kick at one of the birds, despite Ogaadi sitting on him. The bird was so focused on pecking his vehicle that it didn’t notice.
“Oh God,” he moaned, giving up and laying back. “My life is such shit.” He looked at the sky, begging it to fall on him. There was the damn eagle again, probably watching the whole incident from above. Ogaadi just looked down at him, disgusted.
“I hate weakness,” she said.
“I don’t care what you hate!” he snapped.
“Weakness doesn’t suit you.”
“What do you know about me?” He shoved at her. “Get off me, goddammit!”
As if he’d personally insulted it, one of the birds turned to Nkem and stared at him. Nkem looked back at it frowning. It made the deep booming sound in its chest. Then it shook its head. Its eyes were white orbs.
“Oh . . . oh shit,” he whispered as the bird lowered its head and started angrily strutting toward him. Nkem eyed its three-toed long-nailed powerful feet as it came at him. Perfect for stomping, raking and disemboweling a human to death. He resumed his escape efforts, frantically wriggling and thrashing. “Get off of me! Biko! Look at it! Its . . . ”
Ogaadi didn’t budge as she pensively watched the approaching emu. She held up a hand. “Leave her,” she said to the emu. The bird shook its head and then clumsily sat down. Nkem gasped as the bird’s eyes cleared, regaining their deep red color. He felt prickly, as if he were on the verge of understanding something very, very important. He heard blood pulse in his ears and sweat trickling down the sides of his face.
Ogaadi looked down at him and leaned close to his face.
“What did you do to it?” he asked. “Did you see its eyes? Something in the eyes . . . ”
She sniffed him. “I . . . I can smell it on you,” she said. She frowned. “You don’t belong here.”
“What?” he whispered.
She leaned closer, bringing her face close to his, their lips nearly touching. He didn’t move. This close, she smelled sweeter, more like the inside of a grapefruit tree’s flower than the actual grapefruit. She sniffed his breath again. “Ogbanje,” she whispered. She sat straight up. “You?”
He wanted to speak but his throat felt heavy and useless.
“Don’t you even know?” she asked.
He slowly shook his head. He felt a mosquito bite him on the leg and more sweat trickle down his back. “How? . . . ” He shut his eyes for a moment, trying to collect his thoughts. “I nearly died three times as a kid for three different reasons, animals, crazy animals,” he said, his eyes still closed. If he looked at her or the damn emus or the gathering crowd, he’d lose his train of thought. “My . . . my . . . my mother used to make jokes but . . . ”
“Always seeking to return to the spirit world,” she said, vaguely. “Yes.” She nodded. “Now it makes sense. You are no coincidence.” Suddenly, Ogaadi reached out and felt Nkem’s pocket.
“Hey!” he said, slapping her hand away. “What are you—”
“What is this thing in your pocket?” she asked, poking at it again. He slapped her hand away and she slapped his hand hard. “Stop it!” she snapped.
“I’ll get it!” He reached in and pulled out the piece of quartz. But it wasn’t transparent as it had been when he first found it. It was gold, pure gold. She snatched it from him and held it close to her face. “What the—!” she whispered. Then she stared at him as if seeing him for the first time. She touched her tongue to the golden shard and humphed. “Where did you get this?”
“It fell off you when I picked you up,” he said. “When you were still an emu, a dead emu.”
“What did you do to it?”
He rolled his eyes.
She looked down at him, disgusted again. “You?”
Behind them, the crowd had grown to more than thirty people, watching, snapping photos and broadcasting with their net phones, and commenting to each other and online.
“What is that?” Nkem asked. “Why’s it gold now?”
“Is this some sort of joke? You’re not a child,” she said. “I’m supposed to have a child.”
Nkem looked at her blankly. “Uh . . . I can’t . . . I mean . . . ”
“I’m supposed to get a child!” she shouted. She slapped him hard across the face.
“Hey, stop it!” Nkem shouted, trying to buck her off him. If she did that again, he didn’t care who was watching, he was going to beat the hell out of her . . . once he got up.
“I’m . . . sorry.” She looked at the gold stone again. “I didn’t mean to. You?”
“Me what?” He pounded his fist in the dirt and winced as his back ground against a stone. “Fuck! Get off me!”
“Ogbanjes seek freedom,” she said, not budging. “Always seeking freedom. My uncle was one, too. That’s what I sensed about you. If I could find him . . . and I will, the first thing I will do is make him very, very small and imprison him in a very small iron cage.” She clenched her fist. “You’re an ogbanje, too. If animals have been trying to kill you, they are possessed by your spirit friends who want you home. They sense your weakness. They can always sense when one of you wants to die.”
There it was. He was an ogbanje.
He’d been hearing it all his life but only now did he really take it in. And as he let it sink in, it was as if his entire life started to make sense. I was a lucky kid, he realized. They’d been trying to kill me.
The “friends” of ogbanje children were rarely true friends. They were spirits who’d been his companions in the spirit world. And they were envious and territorial beings who ached to experience the physical world for themselves. Since they could not, they didn’t want him to enjoy life, either.
So whenever he was weak, they would try to pull him back into the spirit world. When the chickens had attacked, he’d had malaria. When the goat attacked, he’d been deeply depressed because his dog had died that morning. When the horse attacked, he’d been weak from not eating for two days. Since he’d found his calling, the day of the spectacular accident, he could not remember when he’d last been sick, depressed, or deeply distraught. It had all been good. Until today.
Nkem glanced at the crowd. Then at the emus. Then at his beat-to-shit car. “Jesus.” He licked his lips. He couldn’t believe what he was thinking but there it was.
He and Ogaadi spoke at the same time: “You want to leave your life for a while,” she said, as he said, “Can . . . can you change me?”
Again, they spoke simultaneously. “I can,” she said, as he said, “You can’t make me do anything.”
She held a hand up. “Listen for a second,” she said. “When we reach a certain age . . . ”
“People like me, amusu,” she said. “We take on one we will teach. We have a stone that changes when we meet our student.”
“And I’m your ‘student’?”
She nodded. “The stone changes to gold when it is touched by the student.”
He laughed hysterically. “You’re barely older than me,” he said. “Look at you.” He gazed up at her. Her skin was smooth and her thighs were firm and muscular and she smelled like grapefruit and flowers. Suddenly he had to get her off him. He glanced at the crowd. There had to be close to fifty people now. He sat up but she didn’t move. “We need to get out of here,” he said.
She climbed off of him and they both stood. All Nkem had to do was look at the crowd and his growing erection disappeared from whence it came.
“I thought you wouldn’t be so . . . . old,” she said.
“Hey, I’m only twenty-five!”
“Students are usually only five or six! I was only under that spell for twenty years!”
“Maybe time works differently for birds,” he said, then frowned, wondering where he’d come up with the idea.
She turned away from him. “Twenty years trapped and I have no time to be free before a student is thrust on me. Nonsense,” she mumbled.
He heard a woman chuckle and say, “I wonder what his wife will think of this. Na wow.” He wanted to pick up a stone and throw it at her.
Ogaadi looked at the woman, bent down, picked up a stone and threw it at the woman. It landed right at her feet. “Chineke!” the woman exclaimed as she jumped back and bumped into a man beside her. Several people beside her all exclaimed at the same time, “Heeey!” But none of them moved to leave.
Ogaadi made the deep booming sound in her chest and all the emu stopped pecking at Nkem’s car and instead ran at the crowd. People screamed and ran, losing shoes, net phones, and purses. They hopped in cars, SUVs, and trucks and screeched away. Others ran down the road pursued by the large birds. Soon Nkem and Ogaadi were alone.
“Don’t mind them,” she said.
He chuckled. “You don’t know who I am. All of Nigeria will know about this in an hour.”
She waved a hand. “Nonsense.” She looked him up and down. “So did you mean what you said?”
Nkem walked over to his car and ran his hand over the scratches and dents. No one would believe this. Even with all the pictures and live footage. The emus had even cracked the glass of two of his back windows and windshield. Still, his wife would be on the war path. He turned to Ogaadi. “Can you protect me from my spirit ‘friends’?”
“Only if I am there.”
Well, I’ve escaped them four times so far, he thought.
“What exactly . . . ”
“I can’t tell you until you accept,” she said.
He looked at the now empty road. “How long will I be . . . gone?”
“That depends,” she said with a sigh as she looked at her jagged nails. “You’ll return to acting in your movies when I finish with you and your movies will be . . . something else.” She paused. “You said you needed some free time. I could use some, too. Do you still want that?”
She laughed and nodded. “Ogbanjes are all the same. Irresponsible as hell.”
Even before the word escaped his lips, he felt his body changing. Pulling in on itself, shifting, breaking. It hurt but not in a terrible way. He felt like sobbing but soon he was not able to do even that. But on the inside, he cried; he was leaving all that he held dear behind: his wife, his family, his career, the goddamn gossiping crowd. He was leaving them all behind. He was leaving the road full of congested traffic to sneak down a side road. For a while.
Ogaadi’s voice sounded sharp and full. “You come back to me when I call you. Then we’ll get started.” She laughed. “Today is a good day. We’re both free! But beware of your spirit friends.”
When Nkem flew into the sky, it was like flying over a fence. She’d turned him into an eagle. He’d been afraid she’d turn him into an emu. She must have read his mind. The eagle was a creature he’d envied since he was a boy. They made meals out of chickens and easily soared above even the most insane goats and horses.
She was a powerful amusu, indeed. He was so elated that he opened his beak and shrieked with joy. He flew higher and higher. And then Nkem flew away.
Copyright © 2010 by Nnedi Okorafor