Cast of Wonders 467: They Shall Find Home Once More
They Shall Find Home Once More
by Chelsea Obodoechina
The body is hidden beneath the yam plants. I did not see him the first couple of hours I toiled in the field, reaping the potatoes and cassava while watering the rest. I hesitated to draw near the yam plants, knowing they were slowly rotting in the ground, the once fertile soil growing black and knotted and putrid. The other farmers till the fields around this patch of land because to touch it would mean certain death. Many of us have been lost because of it.
I skim the sick land to uproot vegetables whose roots may have been poisoned. That is when I come across the boy.
I am almost on top of him when I notice his body, my foot nudging his side. I startle and scuffle back upon seeing him. I rub the sweat from my eyes, squint, and focus in on this unexpected visitor.
He lies on his back, draped in a colourful but foreign robe of greens and yellows, complete with a blue sash. Upon his forearms are black and white beads. His face is a picture of peace: eyes shut and lips slightly parted. Black, thick veins line the insides of his arms and web across his bared, bony chest.
Around him, the crops that once struggled to grow past the sick earth flourish as if ready to be plucked, fresh and ripe.
The boy still breathes, so I fetch the extra robe that used to belong to my grandson and wrap him in it before I haul him to my hut on the outskirts of the fields. By the time I have set him on my cot, he is stirred back into wakefulness, his chest heaving and eyes wild. He paws at himself and pulls out a small white book from the sash around his waist before bringing it close to his heart.
“Sula kwet nakra…!” Something along those lines. I only vaguely understand Sizzling Tongue, but my exposure is purely from hearing travellers from the eastern provinces speak among themselves.
“Boy,” I say, hoping to reach him through the fog of panic. “Boy, can you hear me? Can you understand me?”
He babbles something incomprehensible, then catches sight of his arms. He balks, cries out.
“Sheba!” he screams. “Sheba, tuka nah!”
No matter how I try to approach him, he is too distraught for me to come near. He rolls in the cot, sobbing and whimpering in pain. I try to offer him some of my food—boiled cassava is all I have on hand—but he does not attempt to eat it. The sickness has cramped his stomach and makes him gag at the smell of food. Every time I try to wipe away his sweat, snot, and tears, he jerks away from me, his entire body shaking.
The other farmers gather at the entrance of my home, peeking in but not daring to cross the threshold. They heard the boy’s screams and were curious enough to drop their tools and investigate. One of them, Ife, takes a look at the boy and casts me a scornful look.
Ife is private, so he gestures for me to step out. I lay a wet cloth by the boy’s cot, hoping he will use it to clean himself. Instead, the boy turns away from the crowd at the entrance, his book held close to his chest.
I meet with Ife and we pull away from the group of curious onlookers before Ife says, “Get that boy out of your house. Burn the body and his book.”
Ife likes to be brisk and pointed in his language, but I still bristle at his order. “What is the meaning of this?”
“He is cursed,” says Ife. “Did you not see the white book he clings to? You have invited a Demon Whisperer into your home.”
A Demon Whisperer? I glance back at the hut and see the farmers prattle among themselves. No one else seems to suspect this boy is what Ife claims.
“Where did you find him, Ezichi?” he asks.
“Near the sick land.” I point toward the distance, the general direction where I stumbled upon his lifeless body. I neglect to mention that the land looked replenished when I recovered him.
“He was feeding the sickness,” says Ife, his eyes flashing. “Trying to spread it to the rest of our crops so we may starve and die.”
Ife insists once again that I must get rid of the Demon Whisperer. I reluctantly concede and shoo him and the other unwanted visitors away. When they finally get back to work I examine the boy, who has fallen silent since my return. He clutches the white book, no bigger than his hand, the pages within a shadowy black. Upon its front, in dark lettering, something is written. I cannot read it.
“Grandmother,” he says to me, speaking my language. He may be a heathen, but at least he knows how to address his elders. Ife’s warning rings in my ears as I squat next to the boy. “I am going to die.”
This is obvious to me, so I do not respond.
“The sickness in your crops is now within me,” he says. This is more of a shock. I ask him how he did such a thing. “I must have… misspoken an incantation o-or misperformed a ritual. The sickness was siphoned from your crops and redirected into my veins. I only wanted to help, but this…”
He tapers off, his voice failing him. His hands shake as he presses the white book to his chest and shuts his eyes. Tears twinkle on his long lashes and he purses his lips to abate his sobs. The fear of death is present within him, as it is in most youth, but he tries to appear braver and older than he is.
A beat of silence. Then, he takes his book in one hand, presses his lips to it, and proffers it to me.
“Please, Grandmother,” says the boy, his stare raw and vulnerable. “Deliver my White Grimoire back to my family. You may find them in Oduduwa. Please. Let it come to no harm.”
“Is it not cursed?”
“Please,” he whispers. His hand trembles, the bony fingers digging into the cover with a vice grip. Wisps of memories tickle the back of my mind: the face of another boy, feckless prayers whispered into the dark.
“Who is your family?” I ask. “Where can I find them?”
“Everyone,” he says, “and everywhere. They live secluded in shadow, but if you shine the light of Sheba upon them, they shall answer.”
By morning, the boy has perished.
Despite the warnings of Ife and the other farmers who were notified of the Demon Whisperer’s presence, I rewrap the boy in the clothes of my late grandson, carry his body outside the field, and bury him. The process is long, involved, and torturous. Maybe thirty years ago I would have done this with more ease, but no longer. I labour for the entire morning and, when I finish, my vision is riddled with the pinpricks of stars.
After a short rest, I return to the fields where I see the farmers burning the salvaged crops. Now that the earth is free of its toxins, they had uprooted all the produce that had been recovered by the Demon Whisperer and threw them into a pit far from the untouched crops, where they lit a controlled fire. Ife is among those with torches as he bellows for the evil to be dashed away from their land. I watch the pillars of smoke spiral into the air. I would have been part of this spectacle a few months ago, before the crops sickened so many of our young.
With the white book tucked into the pleats of my dress, I begin the hours-long trek toward the city of Oduduwa in hopes of finding the nameless boy’s family.
The search was fruitless in the first month. One day every week, early in the morning, I entered Oduduwa’s walls and wandered the packed roads, searching the bustling markets and the narrow alleys between terracotta buildings, and peeking into various businesses and restaurants. I retreated to the farm in the afternoon where I would tend to the fields, ignoring the patch of gutted earth where I first found the boy. Without announcement, that patch of land has been quarantined; no one is to set foot there lest they wish to fall prey to demonic influence.
I am unsure of the truth and I do not have the confidence with which to speak on the matter. All I can rely on is the memory of the boy, the arresting desperation in his eyes when he realized his fate was sealed. Even if he was a Demon Whisperer, he was still a boy. And his little white book weighs heavily upon my hip when I hold it in the folds of my clothes.
I squat under the canopy between market stalls to take a short break from the sunlight and regroup my thoughts. My wanderings have led to nothing but sore feet and an aching back from travelling so often. Oduduwa was a league away from my home, so the journey took a good part of the morning to complete. Manual labour is a part of my life, having worked on the land of my mother and father since I was able to walk, but my body protests louder with every passing year.
I watch passers-by shuffle up and down the street, eagerly busy with some chore or activity. A merchant fidgets with the clay wares he has on display, a lady balances a jug of water on her head and a basket of vegetables and bushmeat under her arm as she makes her way home. Children run through alleyways, screaming, laughing, and shoving. City life has always overwhelmed me; nothing can stay still here for very long except, perhaps, that statue standing erect across the street. I stare at it, and soon realize that this is no statue but a woman of flesh and bone, her eyes upon me.
Our gazes do not move from the other. The woman stands still near the alley, almost shrouded in darkness.
The words of the boy echo in my mind.
They live secluded in shadow, but if you shine the light of Sheba upon them, they shall answer.
I hope I am doing this right. After a cursory glance at my surroundings, I unfold one of the pleats of my dress and reveal the white book by my hip. The stranger raises her eyebrows only a touch, then reaches into the sash around her waist. She flashes the white book at me, its cover cutting through the darkness around it.
With a meaningful glance, she retreats further into the alley. I hastily hide the book back into my dress and follow.
I have never been to an inn, so I am unsure what to expect. There is very little activity. A few people are gathered at a table outside the front door, speaking in hushed tones. Their eyes gravitate towards me with a burning intensity as I walk in after the female Demon Whisperer.
The innkeeper is happy to see this young woman and greets her like an old friend, or perhaps a very loyal client. He quickly has his wife prepare some food for us as we take a seat at a low table.
The Demon Whisperer calls herself “Tirunesh”, a name I must repeat a few times to get right. She does not call herself a Demon Whisperer but a “doctor”, for her specialty is to rid lands of demonic infections. She used to work in the eastern provinces, but a widespread hunting campaign drove her and her ilk toward Oduduwa and other western cities.
Our hot plates of fufu and egusi soup are served by the innkeeper’s wife. A small bowl of water accompanies our dishes. Tirunesh thanks her and we are left alone again.
“You are not a fellow doctor,” says Tirunesh, though she does not sound accusing. “Might I ask how you found this sacred text?”
She must be referring to the white book. I recount to her what transpired back in the village.
The woman hums, processing what I said. She holds out her hand. I fumble for the book and turn it over to her. She does not open it but passes a palm over its front cover, her eyes fluttering shut. The book appears to thrum with light under her fingers, but when I blink the glow is gone.
She opens her eyes. “I do not know him,” she says, “but he is family. Thank you.”
She pushes aside her plate and reverently lowers the book to the table. Her eyes transfixed on its cover, she says, “For the boy to trust you with his White Grimoire was an incredible honour.”
I do not know if I should feel honoured. I have only heard this and that about Demon Whisperers, mostly from other farmers. Demon Whisperers are bringers of disease and famine. They will take demons into their bodies and sow discord into the land.
This nefarious image does not coincide with the boy who laid in the field of healthy crops, the sickness tearing him from this plane of existence overnight. It does not coincide with this young woman who gazes with such adoration upon this tiny white book.
Tirunesh slides the grimoire across the table, jarring me from my train of thought.
“Grandmother,” she says, “I suggest you keep it.”
My response is automatic. “I cannot read.”
“No?” The woman’s somber expression lightens. “Would you like me to read it to you?”
Ife would have hollered at me to get myself away from this witch, to inform the authorities and have her burned for her transgressions. I have lived long enough to know that some traditions are in place to keep communities safe.
But this illusion of safety has long been ripped from me, ever since my grandson succumbed to the very disease plaguing our land. And when he cried out for me in his painful delirium, his small hands shaking in my grasp, I could only watch as he was dragged to the underworld, kicking and screaming.
My mind flickers back to the healthy crops in the field, the ones that were once lost but were miraculously provided a second chance. I am unsure by what means, but the White Grimoire calls upon a power that is beyond the mortal coil.
If it could bring back those crops from certain death, perhaps there is more to it than I can fathom. I take the book into my hands. Tirunesh’s smile widens, her glee unmistakable.
She pulls out her copy of the White Grimoire and peels it open to the first page. “Let us start from the beginning…”
Perhaps I should be embarrassed for learning to read at this age and in this profession. A farmer has no reason to read when there is soil to turn and fertilize, crops to water and uproot, weeds to remove and four-legged scavengers to ward off.
Such expectations did not stop me from visiting the small inn at least once a week, where Tirunesh would wait for me to begin our readings.
Tirunesh read from her own White Grimoire as I slowly, painstakingly followed. It proved to be incredibly difficult a task; all the words were nothing but white squiggles on black paper. I would have to beg Tirunesh to slow down to a crawl as I associated every sound with a written word. To make it all the more challenging, it was in Sizzling Tongue, so I would stumble through pronunciations and ask for meanings behind certain words.
On some weeks, Tirunesh would have the patience of a sage, pausing after every word and checking to see if I understood, or if I wanted a break. On others, she tried to rush through, sentence by sentence, as I struggled to keep up.
When I would return home, I tilled the fields, readying the healthy earth for the approaching rainy season, and muttered under my breath the White Grimoire’s prayers of healing, the incantations of warding, the recipes for bushmeat over an open fire, and the Shebatic hymns which crackled with sharp intonations and soothed with low hums. I did this from sunrise to sunset for many, many days.
Ife has been watching me closely. He knows the boy was removed from my quarters, but the way in which I disposed of the body is a detail I staunchly refuse to tell him, even after two months of pestering.
“You burned the body, didn’t you?” he asks. “I heard that you dragged him out of here wrapped in old clothes.”
“Eh?” I ask, at once frustrated with the lack of privacy. “Who told you that now?”
“A friend saw you—”
“Oh, a friend?” I cannot believe what I am hearing. “Does this friend have a name?”
“That is hardly important.”
“We are neighbours and you cannot say who has been talking about me?”
Ife scans me, his face severe in its silent reproach. “We have known each other for many years, Ezichi. I knew your husband, and our children and grandchildren played together, once upon a time. I want to trust that you did what was right.”
“Yet you interrogate me like I am a stranger.”
“Only to ensure everybody’s safety,” he says. “At the very least, I want to make sure you burned that accursed book. That is the source of his power; leaving it unattended would attract demons to our land and finish us off. Do not try avoiding answering the question this time.”
Before I can reply, a twinkle of light flashes in the corner of my eye, pulling my gaze in that direction. Ife, annoyed at my sudden distraction, looks toward what has stolen my focus.
“What is it?” he asks.
Hovering just above the ground, burning bright against the muted colours of dusk, is a shapeless light. It contracts and expands, waxing and waning with the tempo of my breathing. A tendril of itself reaches out to me, through Ife’s belly and toward my hip. The sun sets, plunging the world in darkness. Stars glitter dully, flickering into existence all around me.
“Ezichi!” I snap away from my trance and flash back to the present. The mysterious light and the stars are gone. The pinkness of dusk has returned. Ife stands before me, his belly devoid of light and his face creased with worry. “What is going on?”
He didn’t see it, then. It was just me.
“I’m light-headed,” I say as I begin to pull away. “I will turn in early. Goodnight.”
“We are not done—!”
“Good night, Ife.” I turn my back to him and commence the long walk back to my house. It is only now I realize how far removed it is from those of the other farmers.
I rub the soreness from my shoulders and the soles of my feet, then retreat to my cot where I quickly tumble to sleep. Where the void of dreamlessness would be, there are tiny lights sparkling along a dark and limitless tapestry, glowing so numerously they resemble grains of sand.
They hover toward an unknown destination, slowly inching further and further into the infinity that lies beyond, their procession determined and uninterrupted. One speck of light remains and grows bigger and bigger still. My eyes widen when I discover that it is not growing but drawing closer at an alarming speed. I throw my hands up to shield myself from the light for fear that it might engulf me or enrobe me in flames.
I startle awake. I do not remember doing so, but the White Grimoire is gripped tightly in my hand and held flush against my chest.
Tirunesh is unsurprised to hear of my haunted vision. Seated near the back of the inn, where her fellow doctors debate the efficacy of the recipe for foot fungus antidote, we engage in hushed conversation.
“You have studied the White Grimoire for a very long time,” says Tirunesh. “Every doctor must write the grimoire of Sheba by memory. The process involves tethering a bit of our soul to every stroke of our inkless reed pens.”
“Then this lettering…” I open the White Grimoire and show her the white scrawl along its dark pages. “This is…?”
“Yes,” says Tirunesh. “His soul. He has given himself to the divine words of Sheba willingly, as I have. As every one of us has.”
The notion is vaguely uncomfortable to me. It is like I am carrying something deeply personal and I feel treacherous for keeping it hostage.
“That is why he asked you to bring the book back to his fellow doctors,” says Tirunesh. “To die alone would mean to have the grimoire be abandoned, unused. To die among strangers would mean having our grimoires burned as an insurrectionist text where…”
Tirunesh’s façade of calm cracks at the edges, her lips pursed and eyes narrowed. With fingers curled into fists, she mutters, “Where the soul is incinerated as well.”
“Like death, then,” I say. I cannot help but think that maybe it is good, to be freed from a prison of shadow-coloured pages.
“No.” Tirunesh’s voice is raw. “It is a fate worse than death. They are banished into purgatory where they cannot feel the light of Sheba. An unimaginable horror.”
The boy’s terror at seeing the black veins under his ochre skin, the screaming and crying when he saw me. His fear was not of death, but something worse. My mind conjures the image of Ife and the farmers burning the healthy crops, the acrid smoke clogging the air with ash and soot.
“And you trusted me to take care of his soul?” I ask.
“I have witnessed much cruelty in my life,” says Tirunesh, quieter now. “I have fostered children abandoned by their villages, tended to the sick who were quarantined and forgotten. All who are weary and hurting will find their way to the word of Sheba.
“However, with our persecution, many doctors have been slain in my homeland,” Tirunesh says. “We live in secret, but, even here, the moment our grimoires are discovered, we are beaten, our souls burned out of existence. Your merciful action made me hope for a better future.”
This is quite the leap of faith for a stranger. I was raised to be wary of the kindness of outsiders, to live for myself and my family alone. However, when the earth poisoned the crops and shaved off a considerable part of my life, I was left with only myself. Myself, and memories of what it felt like to share a home and to be cherished.
Tirunesh takes out her White Grimoire and asks if I am ready for lessons. I consider the white cover of this book I have spent many days and nights internalizing, the black pages holding the soul of a young boy whose name I have never known. A boy I finally have the power to protect.
I tell Tirunesh I am ready. We start from where we left off and the lessons continue, renewed in their conviction.
I drift back into the dreamscape, only half-expecting to be returned. The lights are where I last saw them, moving sluggishly, unhurriedly toward the beyond. The one light lingers in front of me, pulsing with the beat of my heart. It expands, but I try not to shield my eyes or shrink away.
Eventually, the light begins to warp and twist. It grows long, gangly limbs, tapers its middle into a slim torso, and forms a head proportionate to its new body. The small, frail shape is limned by a cool starlight, the features unrecognizable but familiar all the same.
“Grandmother,” says the light. He reaches out to me. I stare at his hand, then cast a doubtful look around me. “You are not dreaming. You are really here.”
I ask where ‘here’ is.
“The other side,” says the boy. His face takes shape and I blink and squint, my eyesight bleary. I only now notice that the light around him not only outlines his body, but it crawls with text. It is the text. My eyes catch the words from the Prayer of Deliverance.
O Sheba, Our Fairest Lady of Earth and Void,
Let the souls of your children return to thee,
They shall find home once more in thy embrace—
“When the sun rises over the eastern mountains,” I read, proud of what I have learned. The boy clasps the beads around his forearms and bows three times in thankful respect.
“I thought you died,” I say when he stands upright.
“I did,” he says. “My soul resides in the White Grimoire. The one you have so dutifully engrained into your consciousness.”
“It seems I have forced you to live within this old body,” I say, partly amused by this series of events. “You must be sorry to have given me your most prized possession.”
“On the contrary, Grandmother.” His smile creases the corners of his sparkling eyes. “As long as my book survives, so do I. And as long as you keep my book, I will never be alone.”
The stars shine brilliantly as they hover past us. Deep into the darkness, the lights of the many souls return home as one, their White Grimoires preserved somewhere in the world, probably by someone they have rightfully considered family.
“Since we will be sharing this body,” I say, “I would like to at least know your name.”
The boy releases a small laugh. “I suppose so.”
He hesitates, parts his lips, and speaks his name into the light.
About the Author
Chelsea Obodoechina is a Sociology graduate student and university teacher’s assistant. When she is not studying or working, she is writing speculative fiction. She has work forthcoming in Analog Science Fiction and Fact magazine and the Unfettered Hexes anthology by Neon Hemlock Press. She lives in Montreal with her family.
About the Narrator
Hamdalah Lawal is an audio narrator & VoA with expertise in vocal deflections & tonal variations especially as peculiar to her present demography. She is a lover of cats, sunsets, and books. When she is not studying for her Microbiology degree, she is either making African food or listening to excellent podcasts about food & lifestyle. She is on twitter as @Lhamdalah.
About the Artist
Alexis is a multiclass disaster-human living with her husband in Cincinnati. When she isn’t prepping art for Cast of Wonders, designing pins for pin-y.com, or yelling about TV into a mic for Bald Move, she dabbles in a revolving menu of hobbies and art projects. To list them all would be sheer madness. Like any good bisexual, she has a lot of jackets. You can find her on Twitter @alexisonpaper.