~2100 words, ~14 minutes reading time
We knew that something had slipped when we first began to hear. Through the thick oak, mahogany, stainless steel and marble. Through wardrobe doors and bathroom tiles, cement and mirrors, behind paintings of imposing, straightfaced, humble, smiling, arrogant, friendly men and women wearing usobo and etibo, isi agu and agbada, three-piece suits and ball gowns and knight’s regalia, in watery silk boubous, pretty pastel lace sleeves brushing creamy Italian leather, coral heavy on their necks, beaded velvet wrappers tied tight, tips of towering gele cut by picture frames, white gold weighing down their wrists, platinum hugging diamonds in their cufflinks.
We do not yet know what covenant has been broken, or what debt has been left unpaid, but we feel something slacking. Some binding that has kept us suspended somewhere has loosened and we are dropping slowly back to awareness.
Through the solid and secure doors of their safe and secret places, whispers trickle into our once-blocked ears and words crawl out our ever-open mouths…mouths which for decades, weeks, months and nights have only known the crisp fresh taste of dirty money. In all this time, all we have known is the voices of the ones who hold the keys to our stomachs. They would speak the commands that had been handed to them in clasped hands, in brown envelopes, in bowls of blood, in the lines of tortoise shells and the scattered patterns of babies’ bones, and we would feel a weight congeal in our stomachs, pushing up our throats, our mouths widening impossibly as the money scraped our dry tongues and brushed past teeth to fall into the brass bowls, steel suitcases, wooden trays and calabashes at our feet. The gathering and the pouring, that was all we knew. We were bowls fetching wealth from realms unknown and spilling it into waiting hands, to be used for what we did not know.
What is a wayward girl, but a vessel, something waiting to be emptied?
Ask our mothers and our boyfriends and our best friends and our pastors. They will tell you the bitter truth. They have never spared their tongues. They have never let their hands rest from pointing at us in warning, pulling their ears in admonition, slapping dangerous habits out of us. But we refused to hear, and now they have washed those hands of us. And now we cannot hear. Except that we are starting to…
We hear phone calls and whispered conversations. Covert arrangements. We learn the language of power. It is sharp and poisonous, syrupy and sweet. It demands and it delivers. The core of it is hidden, and that is why we understand it well. Secrets see each other clearly in the dark.
We overhear motives and justifications and dismissals and denials. We hear well-cooked lies and raw truth, and a potent mix of the two. These keyholders of ours are skilled in secrecy. We overhear the mundane as well. Children coming to parents for reassurance and investments, lovers quarrelling and coming together again, teeth and hair being brushed, snores and the rustle of sheets. We hear lives being lived even as ours are forever still. We do not feel pain or loss. The time for that has not yet come.
We hear schemes being plotted, betrayals brewing, unfaithfulness scheduled and then the unfolding of the aftermath of all these things. We hear their greatest strengths and weaknesses laid out to us in their own voices and the voices of those who know them best. We turn these things over in the darkness and throw them away. They are useless to us.
After the whispers come the memories.
We had forgotten ourselves, of course. As we said, a vessel must be emptied. But gradually we are remembering. We remember hating akamu, loving pap, being indifferent towards ogi. We remember loving fathers, strict fathers, dead fathers, we do not remember ever having fathers. We remember mothers and their tears and their screams and their cold looks and their biting disappointment. Their forgiveness and their sweaty hands and their damp loving eyes, their deep life-changing hatred, unquenchable and inexhaustible, as if drawn from a well within themselves.
We remember rain. How it watered a patch of scentleaf we grew in our childhood so well that it washed away, how the accompanying thunder made us grip the waist of the bunkmate whose bed we climbed into one night in JSS2 and how her hand on our back warmed our whole body, making us sweat. We remember how rain washed away our tears as we ran from our boyfriend’s house after finding him with another girl, how rain capsized our father’s boat at Bonny, leaving our mother to fend for seven children alone. It was raining when our mother slapped us and dragged us out of her house by the ear, breaking a pink plastic hanger on our back and telling us she would kill us when next she set eyes on us. The spit of our Keyholders splashes on us as they fervently recite their requests, it takes us back to how rain feels on skin. When they leave, we replicate the feeling as we start to cry.
We had forgotten our eyes as well, forgotten how to see, in this deep unending dark. We have forgotten so much. Maybe soon we will remember our names.
We recall warnings. Yes, most girls are vessels, but some girls are warnings on legs. A warning is an important tool to mould a girl. They were pressed like patterns onto our skin, written on the tablets of our hearts, so they would never be erased. We know those girls as well as their stories. Oftentimes, the two things are different.
We think of Joy and her bright pink hair and her pregnant belly, Munirat and her straightlegged gait and her empty ring finger, Uju’s high voice and the poster with her face and the number to call if she was found, Rukky’s loud laugh and her funeral.
We know that we are warnings now as well as vessels. We are omens, but of what we do not know. What will we call down, and on whom?
We are recalling how we got here. How we were called and compelled and convinced and coerced and captured. We see in our mind’s eyes, a car taking a wrong turn, a driver ignoring our screams, a knife pulled out of a glove compartment. We see the bus with five friendly faces, two of them women (we always made sure we checked for women), a bus stop passed even though we called out clearly, louder each time until a scream was climbing up our throat, that we had passed our destination. We are taken back to the job interview, a soft peach chiffon top tucked into a decent black skirt, past the knee with space between fabric and skin, a shoddy building, a man with dull shoes and a shiny tie and a smile that spread too wide. We feel the phantom itch of mosquitoes biting our legs, gutter water splashing on us, people looking away from our extended hand, until one woman took it and smiled at us, taking us home, giving us rice and stew and a place to sleep.
We think back to waking up, on a cement floor, on grass amidst trees, in hospital beds with the bitter smell of antiseptic and the sickening scent of mango air-freshener, in trucks with sacks of sugar breathing in syrupy air. We remember ropes around our wrists, and realisation.
We see the men and women and some who could be either or both, faces white with chalk. We feel knives with red-wrapped handles sliding down our stomachs, sour concoctions being forced down our throats, incantations spoken over our heads, our blood dripping into bowls. We glimpse the shadowed figures circling us, feeling their hunger radiate over us like heat from a consuming fire. They stared at us but they did not see us clothed in white wrappers stained with tears and blood and snot and piss. They did not see our rage and fear and despair and resignation. They did not hear us curse them and their bloodlines, promise silence if they let us go, sob out names of lovers and mothers alike, ask impassively what this was even for.
They saw only bodies. We were laid flat on the dirt-packed floor, trays on which their fortunes would be carried to them. They were impatient and anxious, doubtful and so, so sure. We were not the first things they had sacrificed. They had given up loving mothers with round faces and warm eyes and soft hands, reliable husbands with wrinkles from smiling often, shining gap-toothed children (both living and possible) and smart joke-cracking girls like spines of joy. They had given up too much to look the deliverers of their dreams in the eye, to find something moving there by mistake.
We remember opening our eyes to darkness, the places in the pits of our stomachs where we used to draw anger, hold tears, where butterflies used to flutter and fear used to hide, now filled to swelling, with naira, dollars, euros, pounds.
After the memories, comes the sadness.
It comes with stillness. Not the statue-standing of dispensers which we are accustomed to, but the freezing weight of despair, of loss. We know now what we were, what we can never be again. We feel ourselves being drained, over and over again, filled only to be taken from. We did not belong to ourselves. With time, and all we have is time, we realise that we have never belonged to ourselves at all, even out there in the light, we used to be vessels of a different kind. For mothers’ dreams, for lovers’ hopes, vessels of punishment and of caution. We have been practising all our lives for this. Now we are delivering.
After the sadness comes the anger.
One day instead of paper, we find our stomachs filled with fire. It is spreading as if our blood is fuel. It is roaring up our throats, and it is sparking one last wave of memory. We are recalling our names. Daughter and Efosa and Corper and Ashawo and Baby Girl and Emediong and Bastard and Sweetheart and Ezinne and Sunshine and Presido and Evelyn and That Girl.
And just like that, we are no longer standing still, we are lying in wait. When the Keyholders come, we grasp them by their soft, smooth bloodbathed hands, and we watch their eyes widen and pop, their mouths expand to call for help, we feel their blood pulse and hear their breath quicken as they struggle.
We laugh as we step past them, out of the darkness and into the light. And then we turn on them. We tear our nails into their softest parts, their stomachs and cheeks, their inner arms and eyeballs. We are biting and ripping and clawing through skin and flesh and bone, cracking marrow and licking blood off our lips. We are dancing to screams in rhythmic jolts, tearing an arm from a socket to drum it on a stomach, digging thumbs into eye sockets to press out sweet screams.
We are rushing out of crevices like a colony of fire ants, swarming as one, stinging as many. We look around at the palaces in which our prisons were contained, and they turn our stomachs. We are the ones who built it all. These crystal chandeliers and the silk embroidered cushions, the pearlescent marble tiles and gold-trimmed everything…all of it is built on our bent backs. We are so disgusted by the overindulgent beauty that bile rises inside us and pours out of our mouths. It burns all that it touches, and we make sure it touches everything. It reduces rainbow-threaded carpets and stainless steel and cement and iron rods to a burnt black nothing. We are taking back all we have given.
We know our name now, and it is not mercy. We are pouring like water. We are flowing like blood. We cannot be contained.
Gabrielle Emem Harry is a Nigerian speculative fiction writer. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Strange Horizons, Solarpunk, Omenana, Kenga and PRIDE: An Anthology of Diverse Speculative Fiction. Her favourite stories are the ones that feel like dreams