Read our interview with Akwaeke Emezi.
We came from somewhere – everything does. When the transition is made from spirit to flesh, the gates are meant to be closed. It’s a kindness. It would be cruel not to. Perhaps the gods forgot; they can be absentminded like that. Not maliciously – at least, not usually. But these are gods, after all, and they don’t care about what happens to flesh, mostly because it is so slow and boring, unfamiliar and coarse. They don’t pay much attention to it, except when it is collected, organized and souled.
By the time she (our body) struggled out into the world, slick and louder than a village of storms, the gates were left open. We should have been anchored in her by then, asleep inside her membranes and synched with her mind. That would have been the safest way. But since the gates were open, not closed against remembrance, we became confused. We were at once old and newborn. We were her and yet not. We were not conscious but we were alive – in fact, the main problem was that we were a distinct we instead of being fully and just her.
So there she was: a fat baby with thick, wet black hair. And there we were, infants in this world, blind and hungry, partly clinging to her flesh and the rest of us trailing behind in streams, through the open gates. We’ve always wanted to think that it was a careless thing the gods did, rather than a deliberate neglect. But what we think barely matters, even being who we are to them: their child. They are unknowable – anyone with sense realizes that – and they are about as gentle with their own children as they are with yours. Perhaps even less so, because your children are just weak bags of flesh with a timed soul. We, on the other hand – their children, the hatchlings, godlings, ọgbanje – can endure so much more horror. Not that this mattered – it was clear that she (the baby) was going to go mad.
We stayed asleep, but with our eyes open, still latched on to her body and her voice as she grew, in those first slow years when nothing and everything happens. She was moody, bright, a heaving sun. Violent. She screamed a lot. She was chubby and beautiful and insane if anyone had known enough to see it. They said she followed her father’s side, the grandmother who was dead, for her dark skin and her thick hair. Saul did not name her after his mother, though, as perhaps another man would have. People were known to return in renovated bodies; it happens all the time. Nnamdi. Nnenna. But when he looked into the wet blackness of her eyes, he – surprisingly for a blind man, a modern man – did not make that mistake. Somehow, Saul knew that whatever looked back out of his child was not his mother, but someone, something else.
Everyone pressed into the air around her, pinching her cheeks and the fatty tissue layered underneath, pulled in by what they thought was her, when it was really us. Even asleep, there are things we cannot help, like pulling humans to us. They pull us too, but one at a time; we are selective like that. Saachi watched the visitors flock around the baby, concern sprouting in her like a green shoot. This was all new. Chima had been so quiet, so peaceful, cool to Saachi’s heat. Disturbed, she looked for a pottu and found one, a dark circle of velvet black, a portable third eye, and she affixed it to the baby’s forehead, on that smooth expanse of brand-new skin. A sun to repel the evil eye and thwart the intentions of wicked people who could coo at a child and then curse it under their breath. She was always a practical woman, Saachi. The odds were good that the child would live. At least the gods had chosen responsible humans, humans who loved her fiercely, since those first few years are when you are most likely to lose them. Still, it does not make up for what happened with the gates.
The human father, Saul, had missed the birth. We never paid him much attention when we were free – he was not interesting to us; he held no vessels or universes in his body. He was off buying crates of soft drinks for the guests while his wife fought us for different liberations. Saul was always that type of man, invested in status and image and social capital. Human things. But he allowed her name and it was later, when we were awake, that we knew that and understood at last why he’d been chosen. Many things start with a name.
After the boy Chima was born, Saul had asked for a daughter, so once our body arrived, he gave it a second name that meant ‘God answered’. He meant gods answered. He meant that he called us and we answered. He didn’t know what he meant. Humans often pray and forget what their mouths can do, forget that every ear is listening, that when you direct your longing to the gods, they can take that personally.
The church had refused to baptize the child without that second name; they considered her first name unchristian, pagan. At the christening, Saachi was still as thin and angular as London while Saul’s stomach was curving out a little more than it used to, a settled swelling. He wore a white suit with wide lapels, a white tie lying on a black shirt, and he stood watching with his hands clasped as the priest marked the forehead of the baby cradled in his wife’s arms. Saachi peered down through her thick glasses, focusing on the child with a calm seriousness, her white hat pressing on her long black hair, the maroon velvet of her dress severe at the shoulders. Chima stood next to his father in olive khaki, small, his head reaching only up to Saul’s hands. The priest droned on and we slept in the child as the stale taste of blessed water soaked through her forehead and stretched into our realm. They kept calling a man’s name, some christ, another god. The old water beckoned to him and, parallel to us, he turned his head.
The priest kept talking as the christ walked over, scattering borders, dragging a black ocean behind him. He ran his hands over the baby, pomegranate water and honey under his fingernails. She had fallen asleep as Saachi held her and she stirred a little under his touch, her eyelids fluttering. We turned over. He inclined his head, that foam of black curl, that nutshell skin, and stepped back. They had offered her to him and he would accept; he did not mind loving the child. Water trickled into her ear as the priest called her second name, the god’s answer, the one the church had demanded because they didn’t know the first name held more god than they could imagine.
Saul had consulted with his senior brother while picking out that first name. This brother, an uncle who died before we could remember him (a shame; if anyone might have known what to do about the gates, it would have been him), was named De Obinna and he was a teacher who had traveled into those interior villages and knew the things that were practiced there. They said he belonged to the Cherubim and Seraphim church, and it seems that he did, when he died. But he was also a man who knew the songs and dances of Uwummiri, the worship that is drowned in water. All water is connected. All freshwater comes out of the mouth of a python. When Saul had the sense not to name the child after her grandmother, De Obinna stepped in and suggested the first name, the one with all the god in it. Years later, Saul told the child that the name just meant “precious,” but that translation is loose and inadequate, both correct and incomplete. The name meant, in its truest form, the egg of a python.
Before a christ-induced amnesia struck the humans, it was well known that the python was sacred, beyond reptile. It is the source of the stream, the flesh form of the god Ala, who is the earth herself, the judge and mother, the giver of law. On her lips man is born and there he spends his whole life. Ala holds the underworld replete in her womb, the dead flexing and flattening her belly, a crescent moon above her. It was taboo to kill her python, and of its egg, they would say, you cannot find it. And if you find it, they would add, you cannot touch it. For the egg of a python is the child of Ala, and the child of Ala is not, and can never be, intended for your hands.
This is the child Saul asked for, the prayer’s flesh. It is better not to even say that her first name.
We called her the Ada.
So. The Ada belonged to us and Ala and Saachi, and as the child grew, there came a time when she would not move on all fours, as most babies do. She chose instead to wriggle, slithering on her stomach, pressing herself to the floor. Saachi watched her and wondered idly if she was too fat to crawl properly, observing her tight rolls of new flesh as they wormed across the carpet. ‘The child crawls like a serpent,’ she mentioned, on the phone to her own mother, across the Indian Ocean.
At the time, Saul ran a small clinic out of the boys’ quarters of the apartment building they lived in on Ekenna Avenue, Number Seventeen, made out of thousands of small red bricks. The Ada got a tetanus injection at that clinic after her brother, Chima, handed their little sister a piece of wood with a nail stuck in it and said, ‘Hit her with this’. We didn’t think she would do it so we were not concerned, but he was the firstborn and she surprised us. We bled a lot and Saul gave us the injection himself, but the Ada has no scar so perhaps this memory is not real. We did not blame the little sister, for we were fond of her. Her name was Añuli. She was the last born, the amen at the end of a prayer, always a sweet child. There was a time when she used to speak in a language no one but us could understand, being fresh as she was from the other side (but whole, not like us), so we would chatter back to her in it and translate for our body’s parents.
Early in the mornings, before Saul and Saachi were awake, the Ada (our body) used to sneak out of the apartment to visit the neighbors’ children. They taught her how to steal powdered milk and clap it to the top of her mouth with her tongue, flaking it down in bits, that baby-smell sweetness. After a few years, Saul and Saachi moved the family down the street to Number Three, which had more bedrooms and an extra bathroom. Eventually Number Seventeen was demolished and someone built another building there, a house that looked nothing like the old one, with no red brick anywhere.
But the red bricks were still standing when Saachi potty trained our body, using a potty with a blue plastic seat. The Ada was perhaps three years old, half of six, something. She walked into the bathroom where the potty was and pulled down her panties, sitting carefully because she was good at this. She was good at other things too – crying, for example, which filled her with purpose, replenished all those little crevices of empty. So when she looked up and saw a large snake curled on the tile across from the potty, the first thing our body did was scream. The python raised its head and a length of its body, the rest coiled up, scales gliding gently over themselves. It did not blink. Through its eyes Ala looked at us, and through the Ada’s eyes we looked at her – all of us looking upon each other for the first time.
We had a good scream: it was loud and used up most of our lungs. We paused only to drag in hot flurries of air for the next round. This screaming had been one of the first things Saachi noticed when our body was a baby. It became a running joke in the family: ‘Aiyoh, you have such a big mouth!’
Since Chima had been such a quiet child, no one had expected the Ada to be so loud. After Saachi fed Chima and bathed him, she could leave him in the playpen and he would just play, calmly, alone. When our body was six months old, Saachi took us to Malaysia, across the Indian Ocean, flying Pakistan Airlines with a layover in Karachi. The staff gave her a bassinet to put us in, but we cried with such force that Saachi slipped the Ada some chloral hydrate to make her shut up.
Back in Aba, Chima used to stare at us in awe because our body would scream any time we didn’t get what we wanted. There are limitations in the flesh that intrinsically make no sense, constraints of this world that are diametrically opposed to the freedoms we had when we used to trail along those shell-blue walls and dip in and out of bodies at will. This world was meant to bend – that’s how it had worked before our body slid through rings and walls of muscle, opened her eyes, filled her lungs with this world, and screamed our arrival. We stayed asleep, yet our presence shaped the Ada’s body and her temperament. She pulled out all the buttons on the cushions and she drew on the walls. Everyone had gotten so used to the mischief and the screaming that when the Ada was staring at the snake, frozen in fear and projecting her terror through her mouth, they paid no attention. ‘She just wants her own way,’ they said, sitting around in the parlor, drinking bottles of Star beer. But this time, she didn’t stop.
Saul frowned and exchanged a glance with his wife, concern flitting over their faces. He stood up and went to check on the child.
Now, Saul was a modern Igbo man. His medical training had been on scholarship in the Soviet Union, after which he spent many years in London. He did not believe in mumbo-jumbo, anything that would’ve said a snake could mean anything other than death. When he saw the Ada, his baby, with tears dripping down her face, blubbering in terror at a python, a wintered fear clutched at his heart. He snatched her up and away, took a machete, went back and hacked the python to bits. Ala (our mother) dissolved amid broken scales and pieces of flesh; she went back, she would not return. Saul was angry. It was an emotion that felt comfortable, like worn-in slippers. He strode back into the parlor, hand wrapped in bloody metal, and shouted at the rest of the house.
‘When that child cries, don’t take it for granted. Do you hear me?!’ The Ada huddled in Saachi’s arms, shaking.
He had no idea what he had done.