First, was Isi.
In the forests of the Jardim Tunduru, the scent of jasmines wafting on a breeze, wrapping the air in a sweetness. The rosemary, the basil, the sage, a cascade of fragrance so sharp, it cuts into the morning dew. That was Isi. She was the warm smell of your mother’s house, of freshly baked bread, fir trees, and the meadows where the goats once grazed. She was the places you hid as a child, the wardrobes, a tang of tobacco and old smoke trapped in the shelves. And she was more. The colliding aroma of salt and stone as the oceans met the mountains, the stench of bodies stacked after a war. The catching of it all, bold, consuming, lightning in your nostrils, that was her. Isi was the first breath drawn…she was the last, and Abali erased her like she was nothing.
He had stormed the Jardim, burning it to the ground. The rabbits, their fur ash with soot, had braved the flames to huddle alongside the antelopes in the Tembe river. With Isi guiding them, some of the forest creatures made it out of the carnage, the same could not be said for the trees. Crackling in the fire, the moisture in their leaves resisted for a while; in the end, they too became ash. The smell of burning bark drowning her, Isi watched as columns of thick grey smoke blotted the sky, the forest—her home, a charred memory, and all she had left was fury. With each breath, it raged.
Face to face with Abali, she found a figure draped in shadows. It pooled on the earth where he stood, warping and twisting about him. Brandishing our father’s ax, its steel glistening in the fire, Isi broke through the smoke, at him. In tendrils, the shadows lunged from around Abali, moving like phantom fingers and materializing into solid dark spears. Dodging and weaving through the mass of sharp-edged blackness, Isi edged forward. When a spear flew too close, slicing her arm, she did not stop, she moved, on a journey, like rain. Leaping into the air, she brought her ax down on Abali, and as through a ghost, it phased past him, striking earth. Isi looked up and two figures wearing Abali’s form stared down at her. From the two came a four, and from the four, a hundred. Abali multiplied on, a legion strong. Unbowed, Isi conjured a fetor; toxic as it was putrid, and she struck, the wretched smell ripping the clones from the inside out. Yet, the more she slew, the more they grew. One spirit against an army of darkness, Isi fell.
“Where are the others?” As his spawns collected back into him, Abali’s voice, which had started as a hundred raging storms, ended, a wind caught in the trees.
“How—how are you here?” Isi made to stand and collapsed back into the dirt. Racing across her skin, the lacerations from the spears weren’t healing. Imbued with dark energy, they festered. “You were bound for all eternity—how—?”
“Where are they?”
Pain seething through her, Isi picked herself up, and this time, she stood.
“You will fail.” She searched the shadows for the eyes lurking within, and when she found them, she held them. “You failed before…you will fail again.”
“Tell me.” Abali streamed his hands through her braids. “What memory do you have of me?”
Eyes shut like in prayer, Isi whispered to the skies, “Uda, brother, night gathers.”
As the words left her lips, Abali took hold of her. Reaching into her face, he peeled off her nose. In his hand, Isi became incense and scattered to the wind.
— # —
We did not remember, but we knew. Of Abali, who sought to cloak the world in shadows. For our father’s light stood in the way, Abali waged war on him. In a battle spanning lifetimes, our father, Nkpuru Obi, aided by The First Ones, imprisoned Abali, his shackles fortified by the very life force of The First. With others like Abali waxing ever stronger and bent on destroying him, our father split his soul, and we were born—the five, the one. But this we did not know, as their worship trickled, their temples turned to rubble, The First Ones crept into the earth and slept. In their slumber, Abali broke free.
— # —
I willed my eyes open. Unstirring, my body stayed, like a boulder had rolled over it. I could see the moon and her craters, the other worlds dancing round the sun. The stars, billions of miles away, came into a focus. They weren’t twinkles anymore. Trembling fingers grazed my skin and I heaved, remembering to breathe, my limbs remembering how to move. I turned to find Uda staring at me, and I remembered.
“Isi,” I said, “I dreamt—I saw her—”
“I heard her.” Uda looked away, into the horizon. “Night gathers.”
Squeezing into each other, we sat in the cold. In all the centuries we had walked earths, we never knew death, and loss was a distant thing. The feeling in my chest, like my heart was cast in bronze, I did not understand it. And there was something, a wave, washing over me, and when I tried to stand, it came for me, again and again. A tear ran down my face and Uda caught it, bringing his forehead to mine. On his face, I saw all he wanted to say—but couldn’t. So we sat, in the night, in the shards of what could only be our grief.
We had not seen Isi, not in a while. Father’s soul-splitting demanded we stayed apart, ensuring we were never destroyed all at once. For as long as one of us endured, we all did. Isi may have perished, but she’d return, perhaps in a millennium, a different life. We weren’t certain, but the roses still held their fragrance. We knew we’d see her again. And in that knowledge, we knew Abali wouldn’t stop until he killed us all.
Despite what the splitting insisted, we lived together, Uda and I. Centuries ago, he had called to me, his voice an ailing song, pain etched into words. I followed it to the spirit city of Nnewi—our birthplace. Uda had been its keeper. From the city gates to the streets, up to the Temple of Names, bodies littered the grounds, blood tracing down their ears.
Hidden in the old crypts, I found my brother.
“Anya—I—I didn’t mean to—they wouldn’t stop—the voices—they wouldn’t stop,” he cried, hands clasped over his ears. “Anya make it stop—please—make it go away.”
A thunderbolt. When you were eight and the rains poured for a month. Your nana’s singing, a spell putting you to sleep. The hush after the rains fell their last. Dawn, calling. Your brother’s laughter as he swung from an udara branch. A flutter of sparrows. The snap of the branch. A silence. Your father’s unheard prayers, then he went to war and died screaming. Your child’s first words, their last. Hearing it all, was to hear my brother, it was hearing Uda.
I had taken him with me, back to my home in the Manjero valley. The voices followed—of the living, the dying, the gone. They came in his sleep, in his every waking moment. But this time, he had me. The illusions I planted in his mind gave him glimpses of peace and, while the façade eventually faded, for those fleeting quiet moments, Uda was grateful.
Only a matter of time before Abali found us, we fled the valley. I could not see him, not entirely. Abali blended into the dark corners of existence like a shadow on an ill-lit street. Our sister, Mmetuta, had become keeper of Nnewi in Uda’s stead. Though abandoned, the energy from our birth still lived in its trees, in the rocks, in the places where the rivers tore. Mmetuta had taken up the mantle of preserving it. To her, we headed. She would have been the first to know of Isi, she would have felt it, the death, and all the suffering that came with it, like a spider on her skin. Miles and miles apart, I could feel her hand in mine, knowing, comforting.
The last of us, Detu-ire, was to join us in Nnewi and there we’d take our stand against the darkness. Banding together made finding and eradicating us easier. But we were without a choice. Alone, none of us could rival Abali.
The road to Nnewi was daunting to Uda. Journeying through cities and villages, the noise, the people—hives of bees nesting in his head. So we moved in the cover of night. It calmed Uda, but it slowed us. It calmed me too. I wasn’t as precarious as Uda, but I could see everything, everyone. Their souls, their yesterday and fragments of their tomorrow. I could see the tiniest ant in the deepest burrow, the sun like it was blazing right before me. And before a raindrop hit the earth, I saw it. It took its toll on all of us, what we carried within. As one, as our father, we had been stronger. Apart, our strength also became our weakness. For Uda, it wasn’t just a weakness anymore, it was torture.
We all gathered at the end of each century. It was unwise, us being together, but on that day, the pain and the loneliness faded away. And Uda would sing, like a bird that found the wind. His voice, the soothing of a babbling stream, strong, like racing chariots. With Isi, Mmetuta, Detu-ire, and I, all of us, together, Uda came alive. Camping around a fire, the stories would fill what little space was between us: stories of the mortals, some erratic sprite Detu-Ire had fallen for, up until they tried to kill him, Mmetuta and all her wars, Isi…and her forests. Reclused in the valley, Uda and I never had much to tell, so we listened, we laughed and we were content. Now, we were gathering again, to battle, and without Isi.
Halfway across the shallow pass of Nkata, trudging behind me, Uda let out a gasp. It was a silent thing, and it shook the hills. Hands over his ears, he caved to his knees, head bobbing to and fro. I ran to him.
“Anya.” Uda folded into me. “Detu-ire, he screams…” He tightened his hands around his ears, any tighter and he’d crush in his skull.
My sight traveling through miles of cities, oceans, and wastelands, I went to Detu-ire. When I found him, I found shaded hands clamped on his jaw, forcing his mouth open. Detu-ire flailed, and he tore, and it wasn’t enough. Reaching into his mouth, the hands ripped out my brother’s tongue. They let go of him, and Detu-ire clanged to the ground, a steel corpse, mouth ajar.
Abali heard me. Out of the shadows writhing around him, he stepped into the light. I had seen a thousand lifetimes, watched the first of men crawl out the mud. I had seen all facets of existence, all things mighty and small. Never had I seen a thing like Abali. His skin, a starless night, his hair, locks of clouds sprawling to the floor; and in his eyes, fire was catching. With the texts of the dark religion spiraled in ethereal whorls across his body, Abali was a myth burning alive. We retained not a sliver of father’s memories, so we had never seen him, his true form. And without the memories, the words spoken to mold us were lost to the ages, and without the words, we could never merge back into one. All we knew of our past life, The First Ones told us. Still entrapped by his being, Abali lunged at me and I scampered back, my sight racing fast into me as I fell into Uda’s arms.
“Detu-ire?” Uda asked, a sadness shrouding him. He knew.
“We must hurry.” I stood, gazing into the void. “I see—I see him now.”
It was worse. I not only saw Abali, he saw me. Every pebble, color, and path I saw, he saw too like he was carved into me. With him watching us through my eyes, the journey to Nnewi became a nightmare. And there was Detu-ire. Isi’s death had come in a dream, his I had seen. I relived it, over and over, my mind coming undone. Detu-ire was good. He was kind. He had dwelled amongst mortals, not as god, but as friend. Their corn he gave the taste of sunlight, and the wine, an emotion brewing on the tongue. Detu-ire was the sting of salt and the burn of pepper. When famines ravaged, he sweetened the bitter kola and turned the grimness of the cacti broth to the savor of chicken soup. It was the only way the children could keep it down. The waterfall flowing into our home in the Manjero valley, he made to taste of peace, a gift to Uda.
Like I had been for him, Uda became my anchor. Pulling me up when the visions were drowning me, leading the way when all I saw was Abali. At long last, we got to Nnewi, Abali half a day behind us.
“He is coming.” I slumped into Mmetuta’s outstretched arms.
“Let him come.”
— # —
On the stones of our birth, we stood, Mmetuta, Uda, and I. We stood, we waited, and Abali came.
“There is death in this place.” His words drifted into the temple. “Can you hear it?”
Like in response, Uda screamed, a shrill piercing scream.
“What is it!” Mmetuta asked, wild-eyed. In her hand, a diamond orb hung from a chain, her armor, forged from a star.
“He is not alone.” The clattering of Uda’s teeth rang across the halls like the clapping of school children. “He brought them—he brought—all of them.”
Abali had seen Uda’s torment through me, and he wielded it against us. Pulling the strings of death on the very grounds where my brother had wiped out the clans of Nnewi, he resurrected their voices, their suffering, and Uda could hear it all.
“Murderer! Murderer!” Uda clawed at himself, cracks zipping across the temple pillars as his cries pulsated louder.
Mmetuta knelt, taking his face in her hands, “Nwanna’m dere du, be still brother, feel no more.” With that, Uda went quiet, a lake. “It’s just us now.” Mmetuta turned to me, swinging her chain till the orb at the end became a blur. “Come, take vengeance with me.”
When a horde of shadows charged into the temple, Mmetuta muttered into her weapon, a curse, and she charged back. Unlike with Isi, the shadows she slew didn’t multiply, they faded into nothing. She badgered on, a mammoth through fields of grass. Mmetuta was formidable. While we had lived in solitude, she had scoured the realms, hunting those who posed a threat to us. They said father had been revered. Mmetuta? Mmetuta was feared.
A second horde came ramming through the southern temple gate. Light building in my hands, I rose to the ceiling. The light was but a glowing ball, but to Abali, it was ten thousand suns. Scorching his many shadows, it banished them, until Abali was all that remained. Mmetuta attacked. Wherever he went, her orb followed. Every step he took, she took, destroying his dark spears before they could form, the light I carried, overwhelming him.
“Enough!” Abali caught the orb in his fist. Liquefying it, the molten metal poured out from between his fingers. “Ignorant things, you know nothing of—”
Mmetuta reached forward and grabbed him.
A dagger’s tip on your neck. The scalding flames that took half your village. Sahara’s burn and the frostbites of the Antarctic. The blisters when you walked six miles to fetch drinking water. Childbirth. The rush of a lover’s kiss, prick of a rose thorn, the rough of bark. Slipping into a spring you found buried in the woods. Warm sand between your toes, ocean wind in your clothes. Your nana’s hands weaving your hair. Your thumb squeezed in the palm of your little girl. Mmetuta.
When her touch met Abali’s skin, she damned him with the pain of a hundred men burning at the stake, leaving him bare and screaming.
“Anya!” Mmetuta called to me, fastening her grip unto him. Black veins branched from her hands to her neck, up to her face. “End it!”
The light in my hand lengthening into a javelin of pure starlight, I flew to her, the tip aimed at Abali’s heart—if he had one. Piercing the base of his chest, I stopped, for in Abali’s eyes, someone was staring back at me.
“Who—what are you—”
It happened in a heartbeat. Spears emerged from Abali like spikes on a porcupine, stabbing holes into Mmetuta. I cowered back. Pushing her off him, he ripped off Mmetuta’s skin and, as her bones rattled to the ground, Abali rose. He bridged what little distance separated us, and I just stood there, my body a shiver. When he grabbed me, his fingers going to my eyes, there came a muttering, like glass being scraped on stone.
Abali spun around to find Uda, aquiver, frothing at the mouth.
“Hear me!” Into Abali’s face, Uda shrieked with the longing of all those who spoke, shredding him to pieces. “Run,” he said to me, collapsing to the ground, as the high walls and the pillars began to crumble and fall. “There is no defeating him.” He pointed to the sable pieces of Abali latching back unto each other.
“No—no—I’m not leaving without you.” I hoisted him up.
Pressing his hand into mine, he drew a long, worn, breath. “I am spent.”
“I can’t, I can’t—”
“It’s alright,” he smiled, something I had not seen in forever. “It’s alright. Go.”
Through the falling rubble, past Mmetuta’s bones, out the temple, and into the empty city, I fled. I looked back at the caving building, at the granite, and the statues of The First Ones tumbling to the ground, and I cried.
Dim and fey, a shadow kindled from the wreckage. Abali. Cradled in his arms, my brother. I had watched Abali put an end to three of my siblings, I could not do it again. So I ran, and I flew, and I swam and, in a stolen place where dawn met dusk, I rid myself of sight, severing my tie to Abali. If I couldn’t see, he could not see through me.
— # —
“And is Abali still searching for Anya?” The girl asked.
“These stories, who told them to you?”
“Where is he?”
“It was a long time ago.”
“Well, I haven’t heard of these people, Abali, Uda, Mme—Mma—” I imagined she was itching her head, “Mmatata?”
“Mmetuta.” The girl repeated. “My nana says you’re not human.”
“Yes, and so does the entire village.”
“I should go.” I listened to the scuttle of her feet as she stood. “Will you be here tomorrow?”
The girl would return tomorrow, and she wouldn’t find me. I was never long in a place. After the battle of Nnewi, I roamed worlds, hiding, hemming into crowds. From traveling with the Fulani through the grasslands of Niger to climbing the Taurus mountains with the Sarikeçililer, I waned, bits of me, memories, wilting away. I told the stories to remember. But it wasn’t enough. Without my abilities, in time, I’d be a husk, wandering till infinity. A steep price, one I was willing to pay.
Decades into my self-exile, moving with a caravan in the Kalahari, mind half-lost, I heard it,
“Anya, Nwanna’m—Child of my father.
My skin has morphed from bronze to gravel to glass.
In darkness, I am bound,
in echoes, I wither.
Nwanna’m, do not forget my name,
do not forget the black of my hair,
or the brown of my eyes,
For in this melody, I may fall.
In the desert storm, wind and sand thrashing at me, I still picked out the voice. Uda. But he had perished, I saw it, I saw it. I needed to know, and so I reached…
Brown of dunes. Azure wings of hummingbirds deep in The Congo. Mint jades daring to bloom. Winter’s frosting melting off grass, emerald grasshoppers chirping on and off. The burning radiance of autumn leaves. Crystal ponds, and the speckled trouts at their bottom. Spring and her rainbows dousing the Binibi peaks in colored fire. Northern lights. Rings of Saturn. They all flooded in, and I let it consume me. I remembered Uda and the rhythms that lived on his lips; Isi, her hair the smell of plants growing; Detu-ire, and the goodness that was his soul; Mmetuta, fierce and true. I remembered them all. Eyes scouring, I found my brother deep in the holds of Zanabu. He was a pale thing, like death lived in the lining of his skin. A million souls poured around him, singing, screaming, whispering, laughing, wailing.
“I will not stop,” Abali said, latching once again unto my vision. “In anguish, I will keep him, till time eternal. “Come and see.”
To Zanabu, I went to see. Marching into its strongholds, its demons crawled out, screeching. A glare and they scattered into their pits. When I came before Abali in the tombs of the forgotten, it wasn’t victory I found in his eyes. Again, like in Nnewi all those years ago, something, someone else was looking at me.
“Where is my brother?”
His shadows gave way, and from within himself, Abali spat out Uda, and I caught him, letting him fall into me. There we sat, in each other, as we did in the valley.
“What has he done to you?” Seeing Uda the way he was, broke me.
“I am sorry I called.” Uda’s voice was leaving him. “They wouldn’t let me sleep.”
“It’s alright.” I kissed his cheek. “You can rest now.”
My body wracking with sobs, I removed his ears, and in my arms, Uda’s body broke into a hymn, and he was gone.
“Here’s your trophy.” I threw the ears at Abali.
“Your turn.” His hand went to my face, and I held it.
“This is not the end of us.”
He moved the braids that had fallen over my face. “You have his eyes,” he said, and he gouged them out.
— # —
We awoke. Isi, Mmetuta, Detu-ire, Uda, and I. We awoke, panting, afraid, and one. Behind the intricacy of the old texts on his face, behind the cowries spotting the silver of his hair, we saw him, eyes fogged with tears. “Abali.”
“Obi’m—beat of my heart.” He knelt to the slab where we lay, his head on ours. “Forgive me, for the pain I caused. You did not remember me…”
We remembered now. Two souls, pure energy given form. The First Ones, unsure of what our combined might would unleash, imprisoned one, the other, us, they ripped apart, and fed lies.
“They will awaken, The First Ones, they will come for us.”
“And when they do, we will be here.”
Abali’s lips touched ours and from the ends of our hair to the soles of our feet, we felt it, electricity. We tasted it, seawater and guava seeds. His heart, a gentle thudding against ours, we inhaled his skin; burning coal. Parting his lips from ours, in his eyes, we found love staring back at us.
“We want to see you, all of you.”
Into the moon, we soared. In its glow, we saw him, the one we had loved since the dawning of time. We saw him, and we were whole.
© 2022 Somto Ihezue
About the Author
Somto Ihezue is an Igbo writer, filmmaker, and wildlife enthusiast.
A Nommo Award-nominee and Winner of the African Youth Network Movement Fiction Contest, his works have appeared or are forthcoming in Tordotcom: Africa Risen Anthology, Fireside Magazine, Omenana Magazine, The 2021 Year’s Best Anthology of African Speculative Fiction, Africa In Dialogue, and others.
He is a recipient of the Horror Writers of America Diversity Grant and an Associate Editor at Cast of Wonders.
He tweets @somto_Ihezue