The Plague Collector

~2700 words, ~14 minutes reading time

The first time you take the plague into yourself, the wind is present, but it stands unbreathing, still, as Oke Ala takes form and shows herself. All things on earth, as such as those under her rule, cease their affairs; even time stutters to a halt.

The moment the heft of your thumb and index finger presses against the wilted, yellowed ugu stalk in the garden behind your mother’s house, you draw Oke Ala’s curse into yourself, and it doesn’t consume you.

Ala kindles from her rest, hews a body for herself from the earth’s crust and appears before you. Your mother’s garden is a sickly tale, void of form, void of hope. Its colors blur into a waning song sung by a fading voice, and that voice pleads a lost freshness. It is not heard, and it doesn’t need to be heard, for its desolation is evident. The locusts in the garden do not know death, the canker reproduces unrestrainedly, and the caterpillars never blossom into butterflies. The smell of rot and disease swell into your nose, but it doesn’t nauseate you. You were born into this disease, and you do not know any other fragrance but that of decay.

In that moment, the sky wears dusk. The garden freezes, unhearing the buzzes of wild insects with which it is swathed. You look into the garden, chills carve crisscrosses into your skin, and your eyes glint with a salient light as they behold Oke Ala standing fifteen meters away from you in the center of the garden. Your fingers clutch the stalk. She is mighty, tall, and thick; her skin is the black of rich loam; her hair is full, darker than the silence of the night, braided at both sides of her head; innumerable golden rings occupy her earlobes, gleaming with hues alien to your eyes; and her lips shine red like a bleeding dream. You marvel at her greatness, but no speckle of fear is found in you. 

You break a twig, your lips curling upwards into a quarter moon, and you stretch out the twig to her. You do not see the twig turn green and moist, nor the stalk, which you still hold in your left hand. But, Ala sees it. She sees you take the curse from the stalk you touched, but her anger is not aroused. She takes pleasure in you, for she knows you and the history of your birth. She does not take the twig from you, but she marks you as hers and calls you Nkem.

You cry when she disappears . The buzzes return to the garden, time breathes back into motion, the skies doff the dark veil, your outstretched arm clasps the twig still, and you long to see her again. Your cries heighten and your mother runs out to meet you. She stumbles when she sees the shoot of dark green leaves gleaming adjacent to browned leaves. She creeps to you, bewildered, and wraps her arms around your shoulders. Your cries still. You look up at her; there is something in her gaze: a joy of sorts laced with fear and blended into uncertainty. She takes the restored stalk from your hand, breaks it off from the wilted vine, and leads you back into the house through the zinc door in the backyard. The mud walls glare at you, your mother glares at you, and the heat circulating in the room glares at you. You look out into the garden, but Ala is still gone.

Your mother asks you what happened to the leaves—why they turned green. You gasp at the sight of the green leaves and lift your hands to your face. Your hands are yellow, like the plague. You scream. Your mother retreats, pointing to your hands. You try to scrub the yellow away. Your mother doesn’t help; she doesn’t even touch you. She keeps away from you all day. The yellow stays, and you are alone. Loneliness whispers in your ears for the first time. That night, the fever comes, and you are still alone.

When the morning comes, you’’ve sweat the curse away. The fever breaks, and the yellow leaves your hands. You call for your mother, but she isn’t in sight. You slump on the raffia mat, exhausted and worn. Your mother appears with a basin on her head. She lowers the basin; full of wilted leaves. Your eyes meet hers, and you shake your head.

“No, mama. No,” you say. But her gaze is firm, rigid with mischief. You crawl back onto the wall, but she lifts a branch of leaves, drags you forward, and forces the branch into your hand.

You cry; your hands burn and turn yellow as the plant turns green again. Your mother sings softly and sways her hips in a dance. You curl up in a corner. The walls scorch you, and the fever returns, but the earth doesn’t come to a halt; time carries on with its business, and Ala is silent. You reach for her with your heart. You feel nothing, you hear nothing; Ala remains silent. The first strands of hair fall from your head, you scream, and your mother dances on.


The days blur into months, and months trickle into years. It doesn’t take long for you to become a wonder. An impoverished wonder. The skeins of your life—frayed—are tethered to death more than they are to life. The yellow is resident on your skin now; the fever wears your flesh like fitted clothes; and the sight of hair is a mockery to you. Mother has taken you from house to compound to settlement to community. You’ve taken the plague from herbs, vegetables, roots, tubers, and even trees. Wherever you go, you bring life; you give color, but you lose yourself bit by bit. Slowly, you are morphing into a carcass.

You watch your mother blossom into royalty at the expense of your life. In a previous lifetime, she meant the world to you, and you to her. She waited awhile before you were conceived. It was a bitter wait. She married her childhood heartthrob, but years passed and she bore him no children. In those days, the rain fell in its season, the sun blushed the skies each rising day, and the harmattan winds crept in when they were called forth. The bougainvillea snaked up the walls and bloomed with flowers; the trees towered above the ground, and the leaves were soft and green. Everything was fair.

In those days, the people—prosperous, their bellies full, and their bodies supple—grew complacent in their worship of Oke Ala. They turned to Ọnwa for she was fair and shone brightly against the night sky. They poured libations to her when her form was complete and her beauty was at its peak. They painted their bodies white with clay and sang her songs made for Ala, named her names meant for the goddess of the earth. The stench of their sin reached Ala, and she spilled venom from her pores and poisoned the crops. Yet, the people did not turn; they did not repent; rather, they hated her.
Ọnwa challenged Oke Ala to a brawl for smiting her worshippers. Ala grew enraged and crushed Ọnwa’s jaw, and her beauty was lost. Ọnwa’s light waned and quenched, to return after a hundred seasons when her healing was full.

The people’s mouths were filled with dust and their bellies with ash. The grasses, too, were plagued. Food was made out of rotten livestock, dead from starvation. Hunger and desperation pervaded the earth. Cows and goats went wild and devoured their owners.

Fearful things happened, yet Ala’s wrath was not assuaged. Hence, she held back the rain and drank the streams. A land once replete with streams and sweet rivers was dried of all water. Deep wells were dug, and sick children were meat for algae soup.

Your mother, overwhelmed with much distress and sorrow, bore herself to Ala’s deserted shrine. Ala’s seats were broken, her treasures were looted, and the golden cauldron raised up on the roof had no fire. Your mother tore her clothes and pleaded her case. She begged for a child to soothe her sorrows and bring comfort like rain for her parched heart. Ala took pity on her for Ala is merciful, and she molded you into mother’s womb and breathed into you.

Your father passed away five days after holding you for the first time. He was overcome with much illness, and he would not seek Ala for healing. His kin took his body away and, after a while, returned with a portion of his torso for your mother.

Her strength was weak, and she knew hunger: its breadth, its height, and its depths. She took the meat, boiled the body of the love of her life, and blessed his cadaver with heat, old spice, and charred oil. She ate him and had her fill. It hurt her, what she’d done, but she reckoned herself sensible for what use was his body beneath the earth? 

Thus, her soul found pleasure in you; her sighs morphed into songs, and every sound you made was more pleasant than the twittering of oscine birds. You brought the zest of life with you, and inside your home—within those mud walls, roof covered with fire-thirsty thatch, floors glazed with stones hewn from obsidian and held together with clay—a light shined that was much more than rays of sunlight; that light was the very breath of the sun, and that light was you. So, she called you Anwụ. But your mother forgot Ala’s kindness and would not offer praise. Ala held her peace, waiting for the set time to reveal herself to you.

So you grew before your mother, and she loved you until you became something more than a child, something of an enterprise, something usable. Indeed “something”. As she loaded you from place to place, her coffers ever increasing in weight, the image of the woman she once was became more elusive. 

Three years pass, time and labor stitch you into an echo, a label of nothingness. You look at your mother’s face—painted, plump, pretty—but the woman you’re staring at is no one you’ve ever known, so much so that if you hold her in place and whip time backwards until it gets to the point before you turned the first stalk green, the woman before you will dissipate, for she never existed.


The second time Oke Ala appears to you, Mmụọ brings his cup for you to drink from. The stench of death oozes from his cup, but his tongue drips with honey, and he bids you drink of his cup, boasting of the lightness of his yoke and the weightlessness of his burden. He will usher you into your rest; all you need to do is drink.

Your mother’s ambition leads her to the king. She reckons that if you can take the plague from the crops, then you should be able to take the plague from the flesh too. 

She searches for the number of times she felt an ailment as little as a headache since you were born but can think of none. It must have been your touch! Keeping the disease and sickness at bay. 

Thus, she brings you to the king with a promise of renewed vigor and prolonged life. News of your wonders spread abroad. It doesn’t take much to bring you to the king. Persuasion is as easy as a desperate, dying king. Thus, she brings you to him with a promise of renewed vigor and prolonged life.

You behold the king’s state, and you see your destiny. It has been death all along. You know this will be the end. You’ve slipped away piece by piece, green by green, since that day.

You want to speak a word—to say thirsty; to say water—but you’ve spent the last three years unspeaking, and you’ve forgotten the shape of words against your lips. But you need water for your chafed throat, and you need the wind, a calm touch, rain clouds emptying themselves, something warm against your skin, something to make you feel again; you need the chirps of locusts, the shuffling of roaches in the dark, the stillness of a virgin dawn; you need a hymn of liberty, a dance of belongingness, an ovation of victory, and shouts of healing. But the wind is dull, the air is stiff, and music is a dream, and the locusts are home, and home is gone.

The king’s throne is unoccupied. He sits on a mat, his back resting against the wall on the right side of his mahogany throne. His crown sits on the left arm of the throne, bespangled with brown cowries and iridescent stones. The palace is wide, and the white walls are covered with symbols, engravings, and drawings of the stories of your history. Ala’s statue stands eight feet high on the left side of the throne. Her statue has no head, and a cracked vase packed with dried grass is in its place.

The palace is sparsely populated with guards, servants, and nurses. The guards are bare-chested, clothed with lion hide skirts, and machetes in their hands. The servants and nurses are in long white robes, their bodies covered from neck to feet. 

The stench in the room is alive and haughty. The king’s legs are spread out on the mat. The soles of his feet drip dark brown fluid, crawling with maggots. A large, wide gash runs across his stomach from side to side; his bowels are exposed, and two nurses pull worms as thick as adult lizards out of his bowels with wooden tweezers. Maggots stick out of the entirety of his scalp; his head is full with a semblance of ripe age, and the strands of maggots shake and snake.

The king’s plague is heavy, and you’ve been brought to take it away.

Your mother leads you to the king. She pays obeisance and retreats. It is impossible for the stench in the room to get worse, but closer to the king, the smell worsens. One of the nurses whispers to the king, making known your presence. The king blinks his eyes open, and yellow mucus pours. He shuts them and groans in response. You wonder if he saw you. You place your hands around his chin, silence strolls into the room, and the air stiffens—expectant. 

Your mother did not know the extent of the king’s rot; did she know, she’d have never brought you here, and that, not for your salvation but, for the preservation of her legacy. 

You draw corrupted air into your lungs, your hands on the king’s chin, and in an instant, the maggots are drawn from his head.

Gasps break the silence, and a lash of pain slices your spine. Your knees buckle, your hands slip from the king’s head, and you fall.

Finally, you drink from Mmụọ’s cup. The light fades from your sight, and the world rolls away. 


Ala lays you beside a brook. She’s cleansed you of the plague, and your strength has returned. You behold her, and your joy is full. She speaks to you, not in the tongues of men but with the voice of the earth. You hear her, and you understand, for you hold her zeal in you. She calls you daughter, and you called her mother.

She washes your eyes with milk, and the intricacies of the earth are revealed to you. You see every atom, every molecule, every excited ion. The world bares itself to you, and you master the wind, the light, and the seas.

Ala tells you her names and shows you her might upon the earth. She calls forth food, it appears, and you eat. She fashions new mountains and hills and names them after you. She gives you new names, teaches you songs, and shows you the poetry of the gods. 

No darkness resides with Ala for her love is light and it burns brighter than hate, and her light casts no shadows.

Your soul seeks no vengeance for the wrongs that befell you, and you dwell with Ala. She gives you a seat beside her throne, and while the world of men languishes, you blossom and shine. She blesses you with a light greater than the sun’s, and you shine before her. And your light is perfect.

Tom Okafor is a Pushcart-nominated daydreamer who bends dreams into stories. You can find some of these dreams at A Coup of Owls Press, Ibua Journal, Cosmic Daffodil, Metachrosis Literary Magazine, and elsewhere. Reach him on Twitter @ tomnotes1

Photo by Jesse Gardner on Unsplash

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