She lunged through the door and nearly ran into the coal-blackened walls of the kitchen. Her face was smeared in mud, trailing giggles.
“Why are you running inside the hut?! Demon child.”
“I’m sorry Ma’ami. Akin was chasing me.”
“You mean you’re still both involved in your underage love games?” Abike’s tongue was literally in her cheek as she pulled on her daughter’s feet.
“The gods forbid! Love games? I’m not even a thousand moons old yet.”
“That’s true, but your breasts just started peeking through your wrappers, I wonder why he still keeps chasing you…”
“Haba! Ma’ami!! Don’t go and say that one when you’re talking to Mama Akin in the market o!”
Abike smiled to herself, and wiped her face as her daughter tied herself up in knots over nothing.
“See this basket,” She handed over a small basket woven from bamboo — bleached white as bone and filled to the brim with steaming golden-red bean cakes that still popped from how hot they were. “Take it to your grandmother’s hut. You have to go now, remember you’re passing through Irunmole, and it is not called a spirit forest for no reason. I’ll give you something, but still, you have to be cautious.”
“But we’ve been to Yeye’s hut more than once, and nothing interesting happened.”
“We’ve only been over in daylight. Look, she’s sick and needs this akara as soon as possible.” She rose from the smooth black stone that served as her stool and put her hands into the dry leathery grass of the roofing that insulated the low hut.
“Where did you get that?!”
Her mother was unfolding a rectangular shawl of thick red aso-oke. The thread looked soft as water and glimmered like molten iron.
“Shhhh.” She looked towards the door for passing ears and eyes before draping it over Asake’s untidy patewo and slim cocoa shoulders. “Your grandmother made this in her early days of her career as a seamstress for Ogun. It will protect you against anything.”
Asake heard threads of panic and fear color her mother’s voice, and her brain began to swirl – wasn’t Irunmole where Akin, the boy from Ala vanished into after he had become a faun? Wasn’t that also where Wura, the Sculptor’s golem child had vanished into forever while she had screamed in the throes of labor? When she spoke her voice was thick with identical worry.
“You’re scaring me, Ma’ami. If..if…you’re so scared why don’t you just go there yourself?”
“My body has known the touch of a man, Asake. You are but a few years into life, and your soul is still unblemished. It is necessary that you deliver this to Yeye.”
“But Akin touches me everytime we play tinko.”
Abike felt the ghost of a smile tug at her lips at the unblemished purity of her daughter’s thoughts.
“When you’re older you’ll understand. Now run! The sun is setting fast and your grandmother is very sick. The moon must not rise before that akara touches her lips!”
She ran her palm over her daughter’s forehead and held her to her chest.
“Be good child. Answer to no voices.”
So Asake set out into the spirit forest of Irunmole, in a strange hood of bloodred aso-oke, with a basket of sizzling beancakes under her arm, her mother watched her vanish into its black shadow. Just as the sun kissed the horizon and turned clouds into gold and ochre swirls, she whispered a fervent prayer to Olodumare.
The sound of Irunmole was ambient. Like time had slowed, and the shadows that the trees and leaves and trunks made were shrines from another place. A place where chirping crickets and tree joints made a ghostly choir, where a wrongly-timed crow’s caw could sound like damnation and where the earth was clammy to bare feet like dying flesh. Dank heat rose from the ground in moist waves carrying rich fragrances — of efo tete; dark like beer with its deep purple blossoms, ginger; tart and sweet and musky, ewuro; bitter as loss itself and pineapple; syrupy like raw honey. Berries black as death with unknown venoms clumped upon tree bark like pox. And slim leaves with edges like knives swung low just where necks stopped to rest.
A leaf fell from an iroko. It twisted and tumbled slowly in the rising heat, abiding by the strange rules of syrupy space and stuttered time that governed the earth beneath the tree trunks. Asake moved briskly through the forest, pushed by fear – a small thing with head and shoulders shrouded in dark red. Sweat dripped down her brow – not because the akarawas hot, but because the musky air seemed bent on creeping into her throat and stealing her breath. Veins and tendons jumped in her temples at every tiny sound. Yeye’s hut was another hundred footsteps away. She was very sure the sun would have vanished and the night sky would be out; burnt-pot black and dotted with winking stars.
From behind her a rustling came, she ignored it. Keeping her neck stiff and her sights on a place she could not see.
Stupid goats! Don’t go back home to your pens, wait here to be eaten by…
“Help me, little sister.”
The voice was a screeching whisper that made Asake’s teeth knock.
She turned slowly, just as the thing dragged its body out from behind a bush with shockingly orange berries. Bent fingers sank into the soft mulch as it heaved and twisted and pulled across the forest floor. There were two gnarled black growths behind him where its legs should have been, and from its hollow cave of a chest, ribs pressed against dead black skin. Its eyes were milky with blindness and across its skull and cheeks and back, wet moss grew.
“Please, just a bite. The aroma that pours from your basket is the most nourishment I have gotten in a long long time. I’ve been banished here from an Aafin far far away. Please little sister.”
Beneath the hood, Asake’s eyes widened at the realization that what crawled towards her was a man.
“Please take off your hood, so I can seek the face of Mercy.”
“No!” That was the only word Asake spoke as she tossed one warm cake at him and ran. She flew across the narrow path, bare feet thudding against the soft earth as fireflies began to flash white and gold in the forest that flanked her – night had fallen. Her heart leapt as she heard a wail dance through the air behind her. She clutched her basket tighter and prayed that Olodumare would guide her feet away from the face of Death.
Yeye’s hut was at the edge of the forest. In the day, vast farmland that belonged to the neighboring town of Ofe, spread out beyond it in wide green brushstrokes. Asake burst into the hut, panting like a dying dog, behind her the dark forest taunted her with shapeless ghosts. Her grandmother lay on the floor with glistening forehead and shallow breath. A dark stain spread from her skin onto the adire cloth beneath her. From the rafters, cloth hung down to hug the walls like rogue curtains. They swirled with shadowy color; dappled green, dark blue, mottled red and white.
“Mama, I’m here and I’ve brought it. I’m sorry if I woke you up with that noise. I saw something in the forest that made me run.” She whispered raggedly after catching most of her breath back.
“Ah, Asake my darling. Ignore those puny creatures, they know nothing but to trick and scare humans out of malice. You’re here now. Put the food on the floor and come closer, child of my child.”
She was halfway to placing the basket on floor when she saw Yeye’s feet. They were blacker than coal and lanced with strobing scars.
“Mama, you must be really sick. Your feet look really bad.”
“They were worse, but now they’re healed and I can walk better. Just come and sit beside me, it’s been so long since we spoke”
Her voice came out odd. Throat garbled and strung with ropy phlegm.
“It affected your voice too? You must have been really sick, no wonder Ma’ami was worried.”
“I’ll get better once I eat the akara. The pepper should clear everything right up. You should feed it to me.”
“That sounds better.” Asake lifted one shiny red cake and moved over to crouch beside her grandmother. In the dark she could barely see Yeye’s mouth.
“I should light a flame so I can see better.”
“Never mind, just bring it, my nose will find it.”
But Asake had already struck a pair of molten stones over the bowl with the wick and oil.
Long shadows fell across the room and over the clothed walls as she moved back to the bedside, she looked at her grandmother in the light of the smoky flame and gasped.
Her stomach was almost distended beneath the sweat soaked iro.
“Hush child. Just feed me. I will be better the sooner I taste your fingers in my mouth.”
“Nothing.” She pulled Asake’s hand and bit into the thick oily sponge. Her grandmother’s tongue felt like a brand against her knuckles and Yeye’s teeth when they brushed her fingertips, were like blunt knives.
“Even your mouth is hot, Mama. When I get back home tomorrow, we’re coming back with Falemidebiire. This is pretty serious.”
In the moment she rose back up to stretch for another bean cake, the hood — that by some stroke of fate had remained in place through all her struggles — fell off her shoulders. Yeye made a noise. It was half of a howl and a full bristling moan of agony, before Asake’s eyes, her skin began to tear.
Asake screamed. Raw and thin enough to cause her eyes to water and her heart to begin leaping for escape. The thing from the path to the hut rose from within her grandmother’s flesh, back bent with disease and spine nearly bursting from the elastic blackness that was its skin.
Asake scurried for the door, screaming even louder for her mother and the mercy of Olodumare, as tears began to streak down her eyes. Spiky terror latched onto her soul like illness, as it began to turn its face. She stumbled backwards once more and knocked over the oil pot, plunging the room into near-darkness.
Silence fell like dead flesh, as faint silver moonlight poured into the room.
Through the near darkness it came, a skeletal mass of dead skin and obscenely long bones. Thick and thin scars ran across every inch of its body like a swarm of worms. Its gait shuddered and glitched – the movements of something that should not be. It grimaced from impatience, or anger, and reveled sharp ivory teeth through which inky slime dribbled.
“Come out little sister.”
Come out, Ajanlekoko is hungry
Come out, so we can eat”
Asake trembled in a dark corner of the room as it approached, it was the corner where Yeye had always sat to sew tremendous hills of brightly colored adire and aso-oke intobuba and iro and sokoto.
She watched as he splayed crooked black toes to trample on her red hood, getting even farther away from the dusky moonlight and closer to where she crouched and tried not to cry out in anguish. Yeye was dead, swallowed by the demon, and she too was about to become a meal for him.
Its head swung round the room in one final sweep and then his eyes – yellow like rotted yolks – found her and locked into her being, draining her. In the next breath he lunged and Asake’s final scream flew across the surrounding forests and farmland like a wind red with blood.
Teeth like many needles bit into her shoulder down to the bone.
Fur clotted with obscenities and spiders brushed against her cheeks as its head began to swing from side to side.
Breath heavy with the stink of dead rats filled her lungs, and Asake, with one last swing of her good and frail arm, she swung Yeye’s cloth carving knife into the belly of the beast.
His howl poisoned the air with feverish sickness as blood, redder than dye or the freshest clay spilled down the blade of the knife. It sizzled as it burned the skin of her fingertips. Ajanlekoko flung her across the room, three fingers biting into her cheek and dragging across her fair face to scar her deeply.
Then he stumbled and crawled back into the forest, howling and wailing. The forest that Asake could swear was pulsing before her eyes like a heart.
Blood dripped out of her mangled shoulder and down her cheeks like tears. She fell to the floor clutching onto her belly and the world began to turn grey, growing quieter and quieter.
From the heart of Irunmole, she heard Ajanlekoko howl one final time.