One life. One choice. One sacrifice.
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Soul of the Deep by Natasha Bowen, out from Random House Books for Young Readers on September 27.
To save those closest to her, Simi traded away everything: her freedom, her family, and the boy she loves. Now she is sworn to serve a new god, watching over the Land of the Dead at the bottom of the ocean.
But when signs of demons begin to appear, it’s clear there are deeper consequences of Simi’s trade. These demons spell the world’s ruin… and because of Simi, they now have a way into the human realm.
With the fate of the world at stake, Simi must break her promise and team up with a scheming trickster of a god. And if they succeed, perhaps Simi can also unbreak her heart along the way, and find herself again.
Folasade watches me still, but I look away. There’s no use in going over what has been agreed. When I promised Olokun I would serve him in return for his help to defeat Esu, it was the right thing to do.
It is the right thing.
If Olokun hadn’t helped me bind Esu, then the trickster would have gained more power, using it to control orisas and all humankind, bending them to his will.
“What does Mother Yemoja think? Of me being here?” These are questions I have asked myself, and my stomach roils as I say them out loud. Does the orisa think I’ve betrayed her once again?
Folasade tucks the pearl back in my curls, letting her fingers trail down my cheek. “She mourns you.” I nod, sorrow darting through me. “You know that she admires your bravery and sacrifice. She just wishes…”
“What?” I say. I swallow the pulse of my heart as it rises in my throat. “What does she wish?”
“That things could have been different.” Folasade’s fingertips brush against my collarbone, her eyes holding mine. “She worries over the pain of your choice. The darkness that you live in. And so do I.”
I pull back, taking a moment to blink away my tears, thinking of the determined metallic gaze of Yemoja. The ferocity of her love in creating Mami Wata, and the devotion and care she shows to humankind.
“She says that she understands your choice. That you will always be her daughter. No matter what.” Folasade moves closer to me, her scales violet blue. “She asked me to tell you that she hopes one day you will be able to come back to us.”
“I thought she might be angry,” I whisper. I hold a hand to my heart, relief flooding through me.
Folasade shakes her head. “Mother Yemoja is furious only over the loss of you.” She peers out of the empty window, shuddering. “But this is not where you belong. You were not made for burials and prayers over bodies.” Folasade purses her lips as she faces me again, leaning forward, cupping the sapphire around my throat, the one that matches hers, the one that all seven Mami Wata wear. “You should be with us, gathering souls.”
I snatch my necklace away from her touch. “Don’t you think I know this? That I wish I could still see the sun, Mother Yemoja—” My voice cracks and I pause for a moment, the shiver of my chest shaking more words free. “I had no choice but to seek Olokun’s help, Folasade. Kola would have died. Bem, the twins, all of Oko—”
“Just as you had no choice when you saved Kola from the sea?”
I draw back, hissing as if she has burned me. She might as well have. “I would never have left anybody to die! Not if they could be saved.”
Silence grows between us. My outburst is swallowed by the gloom of the wreck, but I still can’t look at Folasade.
“I know you wanted to help,” says Folasade finally, her voice softer now. “I know you did what you thought was best, but—”
“No!” I say. “I’m sorry that I’m not able to do what Yemoja created me for, but she has six others still. I won’t be made to feel guilty. Not after everything I’ve done and all I’ve given up. It’s a shame that Yemoja understands but you don’t.” Pushing past her, I yank open the door, shaking with the grief I normally keep carefully tucked away. “If you’ve come here just to tell me everything I have done wrong, then you should leave.”
As I swim back through the ragged hole, the splintered edges catch against my shoulder. I wince but the scratch only takes seconds to heal, and then I am rushing through the water, pushing my way toward the reef.
“Simidele! Wait!” calls Folasade behind me. “I’m sorry. I came to give voice to Yemoja…”
But I don’t listen. The months of being this deep crush against me and I press a palm against the thump of my heart. Seeing Folasade was a welcome relief, but now her presence and her criticism shape the ache that stretches across my chest. I need to get away. From the deep and the reminders of my failures. I swim hard against a sudden current, upward, cresting the rock barrier in one smooth motion. I push away thoughts of Olokun and the repercussions of nearing the limits of his realm and I go farther than I have before, leaving the cold and darkness behind. If I can just see the brighter blue, even an illusion of sun…
I need to see light.
I soar through the sea feeling as if my chest will burst. The tops of the waves are in sight, spires of sun fractured by the sea, just as Folasade grabs my arm. She yanks me to a stop, spinning me to face her, my curls clouding the water between us. I swipe at them, jerking my hair out of the way, turning my head to where the water is lighter, warmer. It is so close.
“Simidele, please. I was sent to ask you—”
A boom interrupts her, and Folasade’s hand slides from my skin as we look up through the layers of water above us. The surface has been split open and shapes both large and small pierce the waves. Shards of wood plunge into the deeper water, followed by the curl of bodies and trails of blood. Men, their hands clawed and limbs slack in death, sink slowly, cradled by the current. The sea swirls around them, dragging them down, welcoming their corpses.
I swim forward, stomach lurching at the sight of stained wrappers that did not protect the men they draped, at crimson-soaked wounds and unseeing eyes.
The cloud of blood spreads in the sea. Blackened edges of wood continue to rain down, leaving a broken hold above, the remnants of a ship that has seen war and death.
I look up as the vessel begins its inevitable descent, my heart tightening at the memory it brings. The flood of life lost and the flare of death in its pinkish smear. Reaching a hand upward, I pause.
They are all dead. But it is no longer my task to gather their souls, to take them to be blessed by Yemoja before releasing them to the Supreme Creator. I look to Folasade, at the lines and twist of her mouth, which echo the horror on mine. She starts forward, hands outstretched, eyes fastened on the nearest man. The slice of an arrow wound in his throat shows how he lost his life. His hair waves in the water, tight curls loose from rows of braids.
Folasade turns to me, eyes wide, hands trembling. “There are too many.”
As the man sinks closer, I pull her away, closer to me. “Wait, look.”
His breastplate gleams in the muted light, but we can still make out the symbols stamped into the leather. Eight slash marks with concentric circles on top, each whorl representing a different warlord, the emblem of the only warriors who can rival orisas.
Iku, Arun, Ofo, Egba, Oran, Epe, Ewon, and Ese.
“The ajogun,” I whisper.
Excerpted from Soul of the Deep, copyright © 2022 by Natasha Bowen.