When Ojuri was ten years old, his true mother took him. She was Afefe, Mother of All Sylphs and Wind Essence Itself. Ojuri had been with Fila, his black goat when she arrived. Ojuri despised his farm boy life with Kolari but managed to make the surrounding wild bush into grounds for great adventure – catching rabbits and chasing streams and dodging bats and exhuming glassy rocks.
It was during the okra harvest that Afefe came down. Fila had bleated furiously with alarm as he sensed her presence, knowing what was coming when she descended into the drying leaves, rustling them softly with her fingers before becoming a sinuous wave that slipped under Ojuri’s feet, then around his body to fling him up into the sky like a puppet made out of dried grass.
The last thing he saw was Kolari’s large farm and Fila being left behind, leaping on his haunches.
Afefe roared in Ojuri’s ears as he spun, belly over toe across the skies of Ijegun, the village that had been home to him since birth. He felt like he would hurl his breakfast of ogi and akara. From above, it looked like patches of soil scattered with toy huts amidst rolling green hills.
Let go, she whispered. But Ojuri struggled as he bounced inside what felt like a shivering serpent of air. His stomach yawned with blackness from being suspended so high.
The sky was clear and still, a vastness that defied comprehension. He bobbed like a kite, jerking as the wind snaked up, causing him to soar higher and higher.
Brown earth rolled below and soon, he was within clouds. Their soft white mountains and eddying mists caught the sunlight and presented a playground like he had never imagined possible. He burst through clumps of white fluff, soared over milk seas and past giant whorls. His racing heart began to settle. A silent flock of black heron flew beneath him in shifting formation, like slow swimmers in a vast clear pond.
Ojuri’s mother hummed to him and he relaxed even more. He did not know that Afefe was his mother yet and this was only the beginning of everything. The snake of air that he rode in descended from the clouds and he saw a river, thin and pale green, winding through the expanse of forest beneath.
Afefe was about to descend even lower and drop Ojuri on the riverbank, when a shrill cry split the sky and wicked claws snatched him away – a queen eagle!
Ojuri, torso gripped in the claws of the queen eagle, flew west, towards the sheer hills of Idanre. Afefe and all winged beings were in permanent symbiosis; she couldn’t bring herself to stop the flight of the queen eagle even if she wanted to. In her was their home.
The queen eagle that took Ojuri had feathers white, gold and red like a dying sun.
In the nest of the queen eagle at the edge of the tallest peak, Ojuri rested in the midst of three large eggs. It was night and the queen eagle was asleep above them. The down on her underside filled the nest with a metallic smell and Ojuri could swear that the eggs were glowing in the warmth that their mother provided. Ojuri curled up right between the eggs and tried to sleep, but his thoughts went to Ijegun and to Kolari, his second father
Kolari had taken him in when his mother had run away from Ijegun one year after birthing him. She had run because his first father, an aso-oke merchant, had died under mysterious circumstances that had left his body without eyes or teeth. After the burial of his father, Toyin had left in the middle of the night, leaving the newborn Ojuri to cry himself hoarse to sleep and then awake to cry and then sleep again.
Kolari’s farm was right behind their huts and he heard every gulp and call of the baby for his mother. Unable to sleep, he walked to the hut and found it cold. He carried the child and by morning, went to the mothers for advice. They expressed a vague interest in keeping Ojuri but Kolari just wanted their support. He had always wanted a son and was unable to father children. This had made ten wives abandon him.
Kolari took care of Ojuri and gave him a name that he said he heard on the wind one night when he was returning from his drinking circle. Kolari loved his cowries and palmwine more than life itself. Ojuri came fourth, after those two and the farm. Kolari himself had said so one night when he had been six small gourds into drunkenness.
Despite these circumstances, Ojuri had a place to live, clothes to wear and wild land to hunt and play in. He barely saw his age-mates and Kolari barely hired any farmhands, preferring to do all the farmwork himself, easing his aches afterwards with the sweet milk of the palm tree. When Ojuri was old enough, he began to help, working till he slept off between rows of corn and cassava. Ojuri was weary in body by the time he was a decade old. He was also an expert drinker of palmwine. Kolari introduced it to him as a painkiller for his aches and blisters.
Ojuri missed Fila his goat most. Not much of Kolari and his drunken greed.
In the nest of the queen eagle, the airborne son dreamt. In his sleep, he ran through the wind, hearing it rumble past his ears and flow cool through his body. There was mist everywhere. He stopped when he saw a form standing in the mist at the other end of Kolari’s farm, white and tall. “My son,” a soft voice trembled past his ears, “come to me.”
The air at the top of the hills of Idanre was cold enough to make warm blood run still. Ojuri made a coat out of the fallen feathers of the queen eagle. He sat in a corner of the nest and stared at the human skulls and other strange looking bones that the queen eagle had placed around her eggs. A gust of wind snuck through the feather coat and he scurried back into the center of the nest where the eggs touched and made a warm space. Ojuri’s plans to sneak out and look over the rim of the nest were postponed. He curled up and slept again.
On the second day, the queen eagle returned carrying mangoes in her beak. The mangoes were broken straight off the tree and came with the branch. Ojuri ate too much of these until he began to spurt thick streams of sweet yellow diarrhea all over the nest. Afterwards, he developed a fever that knocked him into another dead sleep and this time, he did not dream.
On the third day, she stole a basket of steaming moi-moi and Ojuri realized he had grown taller through the night. His legs and arms felt longer. Ojuri wondered if it was the mangoes or the hills of Idanre on which the nest was perched. He had heard of its mythic power in many of Kolari’s drunken tales. He ate the moi-moi but became terribly thirsty from the egg yolks nested inside the steamed beans.
He made motions; he choked and then gulped and hopped across the floor of the nest as the queen eagle watched, her plume of dark gold feathers darting left and right as she looked with eyes iridescent amber in the sunlight. He gestured waterfalls and drinking until the queen eagle flew off suddenly, the backdraft of her enormous wings throwing him against the woven skin of the nest. She returned bearing clear cold water in her throat and Ojuri drank till he slept, skin wet.
On the fourth day Ojuri woke up feeling completely different. He looked to his belly and saw a strip of curly black hair up to the middle of his chest. He instinctively touched his jaw and armpit and found them also soft with fuzz. He lifted the hem of his sokoto and marveled at the bush that had grown where there was barely anything overnight.
He stood up and walked into the cold nest. A pile of kills was growing in the corner, covered in big fresh leaves. Ojuri walked to the edge of the nest and his feather coat shook terribly in the wind.
The rim of the nest was twice his height. He began to climb, releasing his grip on the feathers and dried ropey creepers that made up the coat. At the top, he looked out and felt himself grow colder than any mountain air could ever make him. They were so high up, he could see the curve of the earth in the distance where the sun was burning down.
The sheer drop down to the bottom of Idanre made him recoil and fall off the rim back into the nest, onto the mat of old feathers, fur, dry bones, blood and guts.
Ojuri picked up his coat and covered his cold-roughened flesh. He walked back into the center of the eggs. They were now warm enough to make him sweat and in the middle of the night when he woke suddenly, he could see the coming eaglets swimming inside the dark orange of their pre-birth.
The queen eagle returned and sat atop her eggs inside the nest. She could already hear the hungry chirps of her coming offspring even though they were yet to be born. She would first feed them the human who had grown bigger than she expected in just four days. The flesh and blood of all men was very nutritious. It was just what a growing royal eaglet needed.
Ojuri woke breathless to the hot slime of raw egg full inside his mouth. He could not swallow, exhale or open his eyes and his ears were muted by a watery pulse. He realized he was floating in a pool of something and began to claw his way out, slipping to fall every time his legs got a hold of the nest floor. He finally broke free with his head and pulled himself out of the pool of spilled afterbirth onto a dry patch of nest.
He pulled all the gunk off his face and out of his ears and through half-shut eyes saw the queen eagle, claws gripping the edge of the nest, siphoning afterbirth off her second born. It was a misshapen black hatchling, a head shorter than him, with feathers missing around its rump to reveal the goose pimples of its new flesh. Its eyes were barely open, shutting beneath white lids like slit moons and its neck couldn’t hold its skull up.
The first-born eaglet was already able to stand inside the shell it had broken open and make a keening tinkle with its transparent throat. Ojuri felt something crawling on his back and turned to see the mound of rotting kills under dead brown leaves behind him overflowing with maggots.
He got to his feet and blew his nostrils, making sure to keep his lips sealed. His nose opened up to catch a bouquet of smells; meat rotting, slimy iron of yolk and the fungal smell of a giant bird meeting her offspring for the first time.
Ojuri slid to the edge of the nest. He could no longer stay here. He noticed that his flat beard had grown even thicker, rising up his cheeks to his ear and his body felt denser and bigger that it did yesterday, a yesterday that felt like years before.
The queen eagle cleaned off her second born and waited on the third egg to begin to split. She could see the silhouette of the unborn, struggling to find a softness on the inside to burst out from. She called to him, fetal king eagle unfurling, and out of the corner of her eye saw Ojuri sneaking up the nest, about to reach the rim. With her beak she struck quick and deep into his right thigh.
He fell back to the floor of the nest with a cry. The maggots and crumbled bone stuck to his back again and he rolled around in agony as blood spurted out his leg.
The third born cracked the surface of his egg. The sound turned the queen eagle’s killer gaze away from Ojuri. A stream of yolk poured down the off-white shell. She watched as he continued to make new cracks that spread out from the first crack.
Her first two princesses were now standing and their down was drying out. The black one turned out to be dark emerald and the one who had been first born was a deep russet with yellow and white streaks. She couldn’t help the third break out of his egg. He must do it on his own to gain necessary strength to begin living. He struggled a bit and she waited. Finally, the prince eagle emerged, white as a new day. His sisters began to cry for milk from their mother’s throat.
She turned to look for the human and met nothing but smears of blood leading to the rim of the nest.
Ojuri fell out of the nest with a final lunge, dragging his hurt leg behind him. It raged with a raw pain but his teeth were permanently grit against any sound. The sheer face of Idanre passed by in a grey-green blur. Ojuri was ready to hit the earth below and feel himself crumble into pieces. His eyes were shut and his body lax as he fell waiting to crash.
The cry of the queen eagle forced him to open his eyes and his body spasmed in response, darting against his fall; first horizontal for a brief moment, then up against the weight of gravity itself.
Afefe was with him again.
He shot past the queen eagle who was still in a dive with her claws out and her wings held back, ready to catch and pierce her prey.
Ojuri flew up. He shut his eyes again as he shot past the hills and broke through cloud to catch the sun on his face. His ruined leg seemed to act as a rudder, dangling and swinging useless and making his flight jerk in a way that seemed to him, sweet.
When he opened his eyes high above clouds that rushed by thick and soft as fresh cotton, he saw a conflagration of sylphs, afefe, swirling around him across the entirety of the clear sky. They looked to his pale human sight like a mess of swift transparent worms of varying widths, headless snakes of glass in utter freedom across the morning blue. They were all children of his true mother, Afefe.
He was held inside one of them, still in a flight straight up, as if to touch the sun. The clouds beneath shrank till they looked like white cloth, bunched and rumpled across the base of a calabash. The bulb of the earth below was beginning to reveal itself. The air was clear and cold and the sun was like love against his bare skin.
Ojuri stopped flying as the afefe he rode in finally reached its tail end. He hung in the air suspended, arms held out and eyes wide open. Then, he coughed.
Blood spurted out of his mouth like strange red seeds. As he fell, he could see in the distance, rising over the bowl of the earth, his mother approaching, a crystal dragon parting the nest of her offspring below.
Afefe caught Ojuri in her arms before he broke the calm of the pale river. To him she was a mother, to others she was a father, to most an orisha.
He came to when the sun was higher up and the sylphs were frozen still in their dance across the heavens. His true mother knelt beside him. They were on the bank of a river and her head full of flowing white hair was bowed near his broken leg, pushing in streams of hot, then cold air from her mouth.
“We are trying to return your leg to you.” She lifted her head and looked at him with white eye, no black circle. “But it is no longer alive. We have made it light as us so you can swim up better.”
Ojuri sat up, ten years older than when the queen eagle first snatched him. He rubbed his face, feeling the roughness of beard and moustache, then he yawned and said, “At least it doesn’t hurt anymore. I am grateful to you…Iya.” He could barely feel the leg itself anymore. Instead, he felt every minute vibration of air and heat that crossed its skin.
“We are your true mother.” She said, still kneeling. She was so thin Ojuri feared she would snap the way her body danced on the light winds that blew past the river. He didn’t understand yet that she was all wind. “Rise to your feet.”
Ojuri looked at where the wounded leg stuck out of his sokoto, it was now white as the clouds he saw on his first flight and in the rip of his sokoto, the hole of the queen eagle’s beak had been sealed pink. The flight had washed him clean of the afterbirth of the newborn eagles.
He knew nothing about his birth mother except her name. Toyin. All he had known in his life was Kolari’s drunken parenting and farming aches. His body was resonating with those aches as he lay on the soft, wet bank of a nameless river in the foggy heat of a nameless forest.
He shut his eyes and tears of exhaustion slid down the sides of his face. “Why did you leave me?”
Afefe stood up. “Your birth mother left you, not us. We have always been with you, we have called to you and covered you. We regret letting the queen eagle take you but it seems being with her has helped you grow…”
Ojuri sat up, white right leg stuck out flat and left leg raised in an inverted V. He supported himself with stiffened arms and looked at the orisha before him. He remembered her from the day he was running through the farm, unsure of if he was dreaming or awake.
He felt like he was in one of those moments now, but the dreaming and the waking had become one thing.
“I remember”, he said. “, but when it happened, I forgot all I heard as soon as I turned my head against the wind.”
He stood up and barely reached her chest. His right leg was a ghost but it allowed him lean a fraction of his weight on it — any more and he stumbled. The left leg took the rest of his weight well.
Afefe’s body was black as crushed coals and draped in a white mist from neck to toe. The mist clung to her tall skeletal form like a cloth and flowed towards her spine of its own accord with or without motions of air. She was so tall he had to tilt his head to see her eyes sometimes and he felt that he could ring the thickest part of her upper arm in his thumb and forefinger. Her hair, white and more pure than any silk or water, tumbled slowly in the same air as her mistcloth.
She began to walk down the riverbank and Ojuri saw that she was moving on a hard invisible surface, about two feet off the soft ground.
“Come with us.” She said “We have something to show you.”
Ojuri woke up to a warm tongue licking his face. He opened his eyes. He was deep in the humid forest and it was almost night. Hundreds of fireflies darted past, going from spark to nothing and back again. A black goat with curving silver horns stood beside him. The goat baaed and Ojuri sat up. It was Fila, his pet from Kolari, who seemed to have grown just as fast as him.
Ojuri stood using Fila’s body as support and then they both leaned on each other, nuzzling in wordless greeting. Ojuri tried to remember what the tall spirit who called itself his mother had told him as they walked down the riverbank but he could barely remember anything. Much more had happened and they had walked farther than he thought possible. The sky had gone from clear blue to pitch as they sauntered, sluggish in the heat of the forest without name.
He remembered her saying she was his true mother because his father had given him to her immediately after he was born by lifting him to the morning breeze, shedding no blood nor using any talisman. He had talked to the wind, telling it to always be with his son and to protect him against the turbulence of the world, and should the time come and it need to be done, he told the wind to carry Ojuri away to a new place where he would find progress, truth and peace. His birth name had been Tiwa then but Afefe said she had told Kolari to name him “Ojuri” herself.
Ojuri remembered Afefe telling him that he was going to leave her again and that he would return to her after he was done growing a bit taller. He remembered her laying him down in the forest. He remembered her hard face and her empty eyes and her trembling voice that seemed to swim on the air to get to his ears. He remembered her telling him he would never walk alone, then, he had awakened to Fila licking his face.
Fila began to lead Ojuri in the way he had done when they were on Kolari’s farm, biting his sokoto and pulling him in the direction he wanted him to go. Ojuri limped and followed Fila into the night as the carnival of fireflies grew bright enough to light their path.
Ojuri and Fila emerged onto a path not built by hands but worn into the soil by a continuous stream of feet. They walked on the path deeper into the noise and heat of the endless forest. Everything seemed to push and pull at Ojuri — Fila walking before him, tall and thick with a dense mat of curls falling down his sides, the calls of nocturnal birds, sudden gusts of chill wind cutting through the moist air. Ojuri’s right leg shivered and tightened with every move closer to where Fila was dragging him to.
After a while on the path, a gang of waist high statues of farmers and hunters blinked across their path. Ojuri yawned and rubbed his eyes. They seemed to disappear and reappear, unmoving as their ornately carved bodies flickered across uneven lines in space. Their legs were all stuck in cuboid bases of uncarved wood.
Fila walked forward and Ojuri witnessed a comet burn like a sour fruit across the night sky. An animal sound began to fill the air. It was obvious by the volume and timbre that there were a lot of these animals and they were in great distress. To Ojuri they sounded like goats. Fila bleated in response. The first sound he had made since they had started walking.
Ojuri began to notice moving glows inside the wild bush flanking the path. They were bright as small streams of fire and moved fast against the ground. One of the glows crossed out of the bush onto the path and Ojuri stumbled backwards. It was a serpent with the head of a man burning from the inside out. An ejokunrin. Ojuri realized he could hear them talking to each other. They were plotting an ambush. The one in front him screamed old Yoruba in a high voice. “I have found the trespassers!”
The bushes rustled around them and Ojuri and Fila found themselves surrounded by more than twenty burning snakes with the heads of men. The bodies of the snakes were as long as the men were tall before they had been cursed. The men’s eyes were pits of black in which points of red glowed. They had different heads with different faces and hairstyles. Some of them even had facial scars.
Fila began to bleat loud and leap up to knock the earth with his horns. Ojuri held his ground unafraid.
“What are you looking for?” They all had the same voice, it sounded like a man with his throat held under another’s foot.
“Nothi-I don’t know. My friend was bringing me here.” Ojuri gestured towards Fila who was still frisky but had decided to cling to his master closer than before. Fila made a loud sneezing sound and lifted his lips to reveal large yellow teeth. Several ejokunrin slithered backwards in response.
“Your friend is a goat?”
“Yes. And you are all snakes with men’s heads, burning like fire.”
“The fire is supposed to make you run. You don’t seem ready to do so. Were you coming to steal from our farm?”
“No. I just woke up in the forest after talking to Afefe and I saw Fila, my friend, the goat. He brought me onto this path.”
“You know Afefe, Mother of the Winds!?”
“Yes. She is also my mother.”
“But you are not a wind.”
“Not yet. What is that strange sound?”
“Those are the crops on our own mother’s farm. They make that sound when are getting ready for harvest.”
The ejokunrins’ voices sounded all around Ojuri. They spoke sharply like children, taunting him with a seriousness he couldn’t place.
“Okay…my friend and I will like to turn back now.” Ojuri rubbed Fila’s neck and side. The goat was panting with panic. Ojuri could tell something was very wrong and he wondered why Fila had brought him here. He began to walk backwards, using the toes of his white leg to lead himself without looking away from the fiery ejokunrin.
There were some behind him but the one he had seen first, who lay before him, was the tallest of them all. He even had a hood around the hard planes of his face. Ojuri took another step backwards. The entire forest around them was quiet as a shut grave, excepting the waves of that mourning sound coming from farther up the path and serpent bodies glowing bright.
The fiery bodies of the ejokunrin went cold and Ojuri and Fila were in the dark again.
“Where do you think you are going?” the ejokunrin asked. Ojuri felt them sling their bodies at him like catapults. He heard Fila hitting the floor hard with his horns repeatedly. They bound his ankles and wrists and neck and eyes with their bodies till he fell to the floor hard.
The ejokunrin rolled him towards their farm.
After much tumbling and leaping, the ejokunrin’s cold and dry bodies unwound from around Ojuri and he saw that he was in a cage. Their bodies reignited and they slid out of the spaces between the weave of the cage.
There were many cages around him, all made from large oval baskets suspended from the thickest branches of trees above. He peered through the weave of his cage and saw where the strange sound he and Fila had heard was coming from.
There were about one hundred cages hanging and inside them were children. The children were very young and they were all crying really loud, shaking and swinging their cages, afraid and angry.
Ojuri wasn’t hanging too high up and he was able to peer towards the center of the copse of trees that held the cages and the terrified children.
In the clearing, an immense fire burned. It was made up of hundreds of ejokunrin like those that had kidnapped him. They were burning and writhing under the feet of a towering thing that was looking around at all the cages. The thing had arms and legs and its head was hidden in shadows where the glow from the fire couldn’t reach. It was inhuman and Ojuri recoiled at what he thought he saw when he tried to look hard at where its head should be.
Ojuri saw other beings standing around the glow of the serpentfire. They were smaller than the thing in the center, standing at about eight feet tall. Their bodies writhed with worms and insects and burnt with rashes of clustered eyes red as coals. These bodies were made from corrupted mud that dripped slowly around their feet giving off the potent smell of rotted flesh. Some of them were headless. Others had heads smashed or broken open to reveal furnaces and scorpion nests within their skulls. Ojuri knew they were women because of the shapes of their bodies and the grace in their gait. They held long poles with red-hot needlepoints and prodded the cages with the loudest children to keep them quiet.
“O lovely fruits.” The tallest being, the thing in the center, spoke in a strange voice, layered and harmonized into three. “Tonight, we witness another harvest. We can sense and hear your joy at being chosen to give of your body and soul to nourish Alale Olorimeta and her bitter sisters.”
It turned around slowly, feet caressed by the serpent fire. Ojuri wondered how it was able to keep its face staring at all the angles in the copse constantly without breaking to turn its neck or put its head down. He looked closer, the serpentfire seemed to be burning brighter now that it was moving and speaking.
Ojuri saw heads. She had three of them, joined at the throat on her neckless shoulders. Their hair was woven into a singular crown that looked like a bush of shining black thorns. Ojuri could see the heads moving, rotating on a joint.
One had three wide scars on both her cheeks like tiger scratches and ferocious eyes that seemed to gleam with their own fire in the low light, two was old as a great-grandmother, gaunt with milky eyes, bare gums and rotting teeth and three was the center; her face was smooth, healthy and spotless. Their mouths all moved as she spoke.
One of the bitter sisters tilted a basket till it went upside down and a slight figure fell out. He was about Ojuri’s age, rapidly approaching manhood. His jagged face was almost beautiful with its moustache. Bushy eyebrows hung above sharp brooding eyes.
Alale Olorimeta continued speaking like a host at an ordinary village party. “Ah ha! Our first harvest. A boy who my sisters have told me can perform a dance to raise the dead. We shall be eating more than usual tonight…” Her voices echoed into the surroundings.
The boy stood still and the children’s screams dwindled as they took in his presence. The bitter sister who had removed the boy from his cage had the broken head full of scorpions. The tips of their stings burnt red hot as they thrashed about inside the bowl of her skull. She lifted the pole she had used to remove him from the cage and pressed it into his back. He cried and fell to his knees.
The bitter sister screamed at the boy and Ojuri felt it sear his ears. It was loud and shrill as hollow metals grinding against each other. He lifted his hands and covered his ears in reflex. There was a spate of yelps and screams across the copse as other children shrieked in response to the heat in the ears that followed the sound of the bitter sister’s scream.
She stopped screaming and Ojuri could only hear a loud ringing after. The young boy stood up. His ears were bleeding down the sides of his face.
“Come closer, child.” Alale Olorimeta gestured with one of her arms, pulling the air towards her. The boy was towed against his will, and even though he fought, his knees dragging in the moist loam that carpeted the floor of the clearing, he soon found himself kneeling before her. The face that was looking at him was the face with the tiger scars. It was high up, close to where the cages hung in the trees. Ojuri saw him shudder and bow his head. The serpentfire continued to writhe beneath the feet of Alale Olorimeta, an anjonu from the pits of Apaadi below.
“Dance for us.” She whispered, her voices falling over themselves in disorientation.
The boy jerked like his bones had been filled with lightning, then he began to move. He jumped to his feet, stomped the earth and twisted his waist. He leapt and picked up the hem of an invisible agbada before shimmying down till his buttocks nearly touched to ground.
The children cheered despite their situations. The soft face of Alale Olorimeta smiled down on the dancer. The bitter sisters moved and began to empty the cages. Ojuri watched as many boys fell out of the baskets onto the floor with loud grunts. Most of them were naked, though some were still in their sokoto or long buba. There were a number of them that were Ojuri’s age but the majority were as young as he was when he had been whisked out of Kolari’s farm by Afefe.
“Dance. All of you. Dance like this child is dancing. Dance like Olodumare is watching.”
The dazed boys looked around. The bitter sisters prodded their buttocks and backs with the hot needlepoints of their javelins. They began to do pale imitations of the dancer, who was now caught up in a frenzy so hot that there was a perimeter around him. He twirled and did fervent footwork that echoed across the copse of trees. Ojuri could feel minute vibrations making his cage shiver. White dust seemed to be rising off his sweating body.
The dead came into the clearing, called by the dancing feet of the elemi. They were skeletons clad in tattered flesh, bejeweled in maggots. Some still had whole shiny organs inside their bodies. Their eyes were clouded or burst. Most of their sockets were empty. They made no sound.
Several bitter sisters ran across the copse like mad dogs and dove to devour the dead, holding them in two hands like large pieces of roasted peppered meat, tearing and crunching loudly.
The boy in the center continued to dance. The boys mimicked him unsuccessfully. Ojuri’s cage jumped, once, twice and turned downside up. He fell through the air and onto his face, mouth full of soil and blood.
The boy stopped dancing when he stumbled and fell. He had obviously been getting slowly possessed by something more. The white dust about him was beginning to sparkle.
Three snakes slithered out of the fire and coiled around his ankles just before he was about to leap and possibly escape into thin air. He lay on the floor breathing fast, his skin glistening like the earth after rainfall.
The other boys stopped dancing while the bitter sisters finished off the dead that the boy’s feet had called. Ojuri stood near the back of the rows of boys all looking up at the anjonu and the bitter sisters who towered above them, their hungers undone by the feast of death. He searched for Fila but couldn’t find the goat anywhere. He realized he hadn’t heard Fila bleat at all after he had been brought here.
All the bitter sisters walked to flank Alale Olorimeta, nearly reaching up to the severely cinched waist of her long black body. Ojuri counted twelve of them.
“Calm down, my delicious fruits. The time for the actual harvest has come. I will save the dancer for last. He currently looks a bit too…sweet.” The bitter sisters made strange retching sounds that, Ojuri realized too late, was supposed to be laughter.
“Now, step forward into the ring of fire.” Some of the ejokunrin unfurled out to bite their tails and make a ring a few feet from the burning nest that Alale Olorimeta stood on, several hands away from the fainted dancer. The boys were riveted with fear. Ojuri was not, but his empty leg was throbbing madly and he felt that it would take action before him if he didn’t do something soon.
“Come closer.” She pulled the air with her large hand again. Five boys on the first row drifted over into the ring of fire. The heads turned around on the axis of the unseen neck till the face of the gaunt old woman was looking at the boys. Saliva dribbled out of her mouth in slick streams.
“Kneel down.” The boys fell to their knees like they were sticks broken. The gaunt, milk-eyed face sucked in air. White dust and blood spilled out of the pores and mouths of the boys up into the air. It flowed up into the mouth of the anjonu.
The boys in line shifted back as they watched the dried-out bodies of their mates curl up in the ring of fire, emptied. The bitter sisters dove again, hungry as unseen caves, scampering and kicking up dust as they fought for the bodies of the drained, ripping them between themselves. Ojuri shut his eyes and prayed to Afefe.
“Now children, you have to hurry and come forward. We don’t have much time before sunrise when we return home to Apaadi. And we must all be fed by then. If you’re lucky we’ll be too full to taste of you.”
Alale Olorimeta’s voice was sweet and sticky like honey, but under it one of the other voices had become rabid and guttural. It made Ojuri’s stomach turn. He began to walk to the front of the rows.
Some of the children were on their knees praying to Olodumare. Others just held themselves and shivered. Most were mesmerized by the towering anjonu. Their eyes seemed to widen the longer they stared up at her.
She lifted her arm again. The children in front drifted towards the ring of fire. Her heads rotated. The smiling soft face was forward. She bared too much white needleteeth and loudly sucked in air.
As Alale Olorimeta fed for the third time that night, Fila leapt into the clearing, followed by about fifty other goats making noise, “Baaa! Baaa! Baaa! Baaa! Baaa!”
The anjonu had just finished feeding on the souls of the children and the bitter sisters were fighting for the dried bodies again.
The children left behind looked towards the noisy goats. The goats moved forward in a wave and began to nudge them and pull on them with their horns and teeth. The children riveted by the anjonu’s three heads did not move, but those who had been praying began to run away with the goats.
The bitter sisters noticed the escape and leapt into action, leaping and landing in front of the escapees to sweep their javelins in wide arcs, knocking the boys and their goats down and scattering them across the clearing, but they were too late for some had already escaped.
The heads of the anjonu spun confused. “What is happening?!” The chaos before her answered. She began to lift her left leg, thick as a tree.
Ojuri was trying to run too, but his white leg kept pushing him down. Fila was behind him nudging him forward. Ojuri watched as one of the bitter sisters picked up a fat brown goat and tossed it in her mouth. She crunched and blood spilled over her ripped lips.
Ojuri fell again. The bitter sisters were screaming the boys down and his ears were bleeding. He shut his eyes as his empty leg trembled violently to the timbre of the poisonous screams.
Like a light flashed in a dark room, he remembered. Ojuri took in a big deep breath and stood to his feet, pulling on Fila’s horns. Holding the breath, he started to run forward again, dodging the swings of the bitter sisters’ weapons.
When he was a bit clear of the chaos, close to the center where the dancer was now awake, lifting his head to look around at what was happening, he let out the breath and rose into the air, quick as a small bird.
Alale Olorimeta finally brought her heavy foot down, hard on the nest of ejokunrin she stood in. She lifted one finger and pointed it down at the ruckus before her. “Attack!”
Ojuri shot higher. The ejokunrin broke up and flowed out of their nest, merciless streams of fire.
Ojuri darted past the highest branches, buoyed on the wind within him. He burst through the crowns of the trees and hovered above the forest. Beneath him a battle raged and he could hear the screams of both boys and goats alike as they were struck by the ejokunrin and the bitter sisters. Ojuri looked up to the night sky. The afefe in this area of the heavens remained, swimming slow and clear.
“You can tell the winds to do whatever you want. You have a piece of me inside of you.” Afefe had whispered to him before he slept off where she left him. “Remember to take some air for yourself first. Breathe deep before you do it.”
Ojuri breathed deep till his belly touched his spine. He looked to the sylphs swimming above the world, beneath the sparkle of distant stars. He asked for obliterating winds, cold and sharp as swords, then dove back into the chaos.
Afternoon in the belly of the forest, the free boys slept, languorous in its sweltering haze. They curled up in a vale thick with moss and flowing with streams no thicker than their wrists. Large smooth stones served as their shade and bed. This was their new home.
They realized they lost many of their brothers in the aftermath of the gales Ojuri brought down into the midst of the attacking bitter sisters and ejokunrin. The winds had been cold enough to make their teeth rattle and their eyes hurt and after the whiteness cleared, there was exactly a score of them left with half as many goats clinging to their sides. Alale Olorimeta and her surviving ejokunrin had disappeared in a burst of dust black as night as all of her bitter sisters had crumbled, reduced in the chill winds.
Ojuri woke up and found the dancer who raised the dead asleep in the curve that his body made. They were beneath the largest of the smooth white rocks and it was late evening. They had stayed awake through the dawn, anxious after their escape, until the morning breeze that brought dew slipped into their eyes. The dancer’s name was Bata and Ojuri did not want to leave his side. Fila and three white goats dozed around them in a protective circle.
Ojuri craned his neck and saw many of the other boys in various stages of sleep. Their arms and legs flung across bodies nested in deep moss. They were in the shadows of other smooth white stones. Ojuri eased himself off the warmth and sweat of Bata’s body because he was thirsty.
The stream nearby tinkled with mirth and he found himself gulping fast out of its icy flow until his stomach cramped and he folded into a bow, waiting for the slow agony of his triggered hunger to abate. As his pain eased, he heard a scream and instantly knew who it was from. Bata sat up in the midst of the four goats, eyes wide with fright. Ojuri scampered to his side.
“What is it? What happened?’ he said as he rubbed one hand down his new friend’s moss-wrinkled back and the other down his still upset stomach. Bata breathed heavy, panting out his words.
“She…she..she will return.”
“Who is she?”
“Alale Olorimeta. She will come with bitter sisters if we stay here without a mother who loves us”
“Calm down, rest” Ojuri pulled the limber dancer to lie against his chest and helped him settle his breathing. “Did you dream of it?”
Bata nodded and then he spoke, “You have to go get a piece of ile from Funfunene, a sky dragon. Its purity will help us settle into this land without fear, give us protection. You will fly to his lair in the ether. I saw it in the dream. I also know that I’m the one who will go find us a mother.”
“But I don’t know how to find any dragons in the sky, and I don’t think you know anything about mothers.”
“You just go up.” Bata said, “I’ll go into the night.”
Ojuri omo Afefe left the village of the free boys, which they had named Abule Kekere, after he had kissed Bata on the neck and Fila on his shut eyes. He walked down the softness of the vale with his signature limp which made him lean down deeply every time his right leg hit the ground, and in the space of twenty steps the wind within took him up.
He did not look back.
Ojuri flew through a storm. The peaceful white cottonclouds that he associated with flying had not prepared him for the rumbling chaos of a tempest. He was being assisted by an afefe who knew where Fufunene’s lair was located and they had drifted gently over hills and valleys and more of the nameless forest which Ojuri saw was endless from above, until he found himself flying faster, away from the serene purity of the morning sky into the growling black heart of a storm which flashed and roared and writhed like a wound in the sky.
The cotton he knew became angry tufts, hungry spirals and thick plumes of black and grey that smelled very much like the inside of the blacksmith’s just after he had submerged a new piece of completed metalwork into a cauldron of water. Lightning dashed past his sides and arched above him, followed by reports of a terrible thunder that seemed to come from the core of existence itself.
They approached the eye of the storm and Ojuri shut his eyes. It was a disc, mad and thorny with purple veins of lightning, spinning fast around a black abyss. The afefe held strong even as its airkin raged wild within the storm. They were so fast that Ojuri could barely see them and when he did, he noticed that their regular translucence was stained with a green tint of abandon and their long stomachs burned blue with lightning.
He drifted into the abyss, weightless. The eye of the storm was silent. Ojuri opened his eyes and saw the lair of Funfunene. He exhaled.
The lair of Funfunene, the sky dragon, was a series of stacked mountains, archways and tunnels made out of smooth hard cloud. It rested on a plain of cloud too. The plain moved slower than snails and was ribbed with the rhythm of a constant wave. Ojuri found himself walking on the plain in the sky, toward the first archway in the lair. The lair took up all the space around, and above it, the sky was clearer than a newborn spring and through it the sun shone down true.
As he approached, he realized he had no limp. Both of his feet were flat against the cloud plain, his right barely stirring up the dense mists of the plain like his left foot did, sending up a plume of pure whiteness with every step. Ojuri was nearly at the first archway when he saw the body of the dragon. It slipped past from an arch above into a tunnel below silent, bigger and more beautiful than anything he had ever seen. White scales gleaming with the oily smear of all the colors inside and outside the rainbow.
Ojuri walked into the first archway with his neck tilted up to watch as clean rays of sunlight turned spectral inside the body of the lair. The dragon swam out of nowhere – distorting and disturbing none of its perfect home with its swift playful movements, knowing every single curve and droplet of frozen mist – to snap him up in its jaws like a light snack.
“Ojuri omo Afefe, welcome to the Great White Palace, also known as the Office for the Establishment of Homes, Villages and other Settlements. Would you like an herb infusion?”
Ojuri was inside the heart of the palace of Funfunene. The dragon’s mouth had been cavernous enough to hold him without a single cut. The great dragon curled up all his mighty length around the boy. His gentle voice reverberated through the sky blue womb that they sat in. His serpent skin was white and pebbled with what looked like pearls. Ojuri tried to look at his face but his beauty was terrible. Narrow blind eyes, a large head with a long snout and wormlike whiskers that undulated to taste the air, and rows and rows of ivory teeth.
Ojuri nodded for the herbs and the dragon flicked his tail. A cloud shaped like a tall man emerged out of the wall with a steaming ivory kettle that he poured into a deep white calabash as big as Ojuri’s head. The aromas of ginger, lemon and many other bitter and sweet spices filled Ojuri’s head till it began to feel lighter. The cloud which was also a man, walked back into the wall and left the kettle.
Funfunene looked at Ojuri, his thick neck swaying and something of a smile playing on his thin lips.
“Come on, drink. I made it myself. I also made the palace with my own breath. We have a garden, hot water springs and fifteen lodges for the airborne. You’re welcome to stay if you like.”
Ojuri drank deeply of the hot liquid. It scalded his tongue and the roof of his mouth and his chest burned viciously, but it was sweeter and more bitter than anything he had ever tasted and he smacked his lips. After he put the calabash down, he could feel his muscles thawing and he came to realize he was aloft in the womb of the Great White Palace.
“I won’t be staying.” Ojuri felt braver with the herbs in his stomach, he twirled on the air until he was before the face of the dragon. They were both bathed in the warmest blue light and Ojuri realized he wanted to stay. He felt a strong sense of home that he had only felt lightly, lying in the moss with Bata.
Fila and Bata and all the other boys could take care of themselves with their newfound mother. He twirled again, drunk on sheer pleasure. He asked for what Bata had wanted anyway.
“I’m here because I need a piece of ile for our new village of boys, Abule Kekere.”
“I can see that, child.” Funfunene’s voice deepened. “I will give you what you desire. What sort of ile, do you want? Fortress or hearth? Castle or dome?”
Ojuri eyes shut in bliss as he drifted around the dragon’s head. “Fortress. We made some nasty enemies gaining our independence and we can’t afford to be gentle anymore. We’ll end up growing into hard men, except our new mother softens us with her tears.”
“You have to register before you take it with you.”
Ojuri opened his eyes. The dragon was drinking the herb infusion, holding a steaming calabash in thin, long hands that Ojuri was sure had come out of his body while his eyes were shut. On the cloud before Funfunene’s curled-up might was a cube of rock, black and full of a brittle glitter.
The dragon called forth the cloud who was a man again and he brought with him a mirror. Ojuri stated his name and business to his reflection and then Funfunene said in a droll tone that seemed to spike up out of his soft voice,
“Now, go drop off the gift to your friends. Shed a drop of blood on it and don’t forget to say your goodbyes.”
Ojuri, still languorous from the herb infusion wanted to ask why he would say goodbye to his brothers when he found that he was falling into the sky.
The boy with the white leg who could swim, dart and rise through the air like a bird drifted down to Abule Kekere. Bata had found a mother and all the boys and goats were seated around her, clinging like ants to honey.
Bata had found a sweet mother with skin clear and green as new leaves. She towered above them, the size of an elephant, seated on the largest smooth stone, her shoulders draped in a cloak of fine silk, woven by silkworms. Her head was intact and overgrown with a cloud of many flowers visited by butterflies and bees. Her eyes were clear and black. She couldn’t speak but she sang wordless melodies to her children and as her voice soared, mist fell on the boys who rested around her, cooling their hearts. She stopped her song when she saw Ojuri drifting down with the ile in his hands. She pointed to the sky and Bata stood up.
“Ojuri, welcome back. Look how beautiful our mother is!”
Ojuri remained silent and drifted down lower and lower till he was a few breaths above the moss of Abule Kekere.
“She is, truly. Where did you find her?”
“Just outside Ala, before it blurs and you forget. Won’t you stand on the ground before your brothers?”
“I can’t.” The fortress ile fell out of his hands onto the moss. The sweet sister made a lovely sound and the boys gathered around the glittering thing, curious as mice. Ojuri remained floating directly above the ile. Funfunene’s herb infusion seemed to have taken over him, even his eyes were wrapped in a blanket of numbness. Bata walked closer to Ojuri and grabbed his hands. He kissed them and pulled him, but Ojuri was taut in the air like the strongest branch on a tree.
“Why can’t you descend?”
“I drank agbo with the dragon.”
Bata’s jaw opened slightly. “You shouldn’t have. What if you signed a pact with him through it?”
“I don’t know. It smelled delicious and I was thirsty.” Although bearded and old-looking, Ojuri sounded like he was still a young child, stuck on Kolari’s farm
Bata held onto Ojuri’s waist, leaned his head on his stomach and shut his eyes, trying to remember their brief moments together; their escape from Olorimeta on Fila’s back as ejokunrin and bitter sisters flung themselves and their javelins at them, and then their sharing of warmth in the darkness of the forest. Ojuri protected Bata when he needed it the most, and now that Bata wanted to stay with him forever, he saw that he could not. Bata’s eyes overflowed and he stepped back and looked to Ojuri.
“I have love for you and I will hold it until it goes out. May Olodumare be with you and grant you all you need.”
The boys of Abule Kekere and their mother watched Bata and Ojuri say their farewells. Ojuri was the quieter of the two. He leaned down and rubbed Bata’s head like it was a smooth stone.
As Ojuri unfolded his taut body back to the point in the air where it seemed to be stuck waiting for him to finish saying his goodbye, a spray of blood poured out of his mouth and onto the fortress ile.
The glittering black rock, about the size of a baby, absorbed the red with a sizzle and began to sink into the ground, multiplying and interlocking as walls and chambers rose from it and spread across the valley of Abule Kekere. Fila began to bleat and leap on his haunches, about to be left behind by his master for the second time.
The other goats followed suit, while the boys watched with wonder as the ile expanded about them, sealing them within its impenetrable walls. Before the sky was shut out by the fortress, Bata saw Ojuri become wind and streak white into the blue.
Afefe was drinking agbo with Funfunene when Ojuri returned to the Great White Palace, through the eye of the storm. She sat on his vast curling body and they laughed about something just as Ojuri entered the womb, pulled by the same force that had refused him land.
“Son.” Afefe said when he entered and collapsed onto the endless blue softness. She put the calabash down on air and rushed to him, swimming in a clean arc. “Wake up.”
Ojuri opened his eyes. His true mother breathed new air into his lungs and the exhaustion he felt dissipated. “We see you have met our familiar.” Ojuri’s eyes widened and he watched as Funfunene unfurled and swam over. “I’m sorry you couldn’t stay with your new comrade but your mother insisted.”
“Why? I was going to be fine. I had Bata and Fila…”
Afefe looked to Funfunene and smiled bittersweet. “You will find love again.”
Ojuri sighed, “Where am I going?”
“Everywhere. The earth and the air will no longer hold you under their weight.”
Afefe grabbed Ojuri’s hand and they shot straight up blowing clean holes into the layers and floors of the lair of Funfunene that shut up instantly like surprised eyes. They emerged out, above the Palace, higher than Ojuri had ever been. A cluster of royal eagles flew in dizzy circles in the distance. The earth curved dangerously down below, like something slippery, full of smoke and water.
Funfunene emerged from the spiky shell of his dragonsbreath citadel, a shimmering ribbon in the evening light. He spun and spiraled around Afefe and Ojuri, laughing till the pearls of his body twinkled. Higher up above the orisha and her airborne son, where the sky was beginning to turn a dark blue, he spun in a perfect circle, nearly biting his tail.
The space inside the circle began to shimmer, lustrous like water reflecting the sun.
It was colder up and the sky was darker, deepening the more Ojuri looked. He realized he and Afefe were still flying up at a great speed. A vaster sky appeared, black and full of jewels sprayed like sand. Ojuri looked below and saw Ile Aye, the home where all the land and water and people thrashed – a perfection against the abyss they now hung in.
“Go into the light, Ojuri Mi. Let your brokenness fall.”
Ojuri looked into Afefe’s face and up at the portal that the dragon had opened, where golden light shimmered and made the sound of a thousand seas reaching shore. His mother was still black as coal and her eyes still pale as her familiar’s. In the wind that rushed up into the portal from down below, her hair and the mist of her body were pulled upwards.
He was stunned and suddenly saturated with an uncertainty that caused his white leg to begin tingling from deep inside. He tried to hold himself but he could feel something from the deepest parts of him, beyond the core of his belly responding to that sound above, the sound of crashing and falling and flight.
He held onto Afefe, his head buried in her belly, her godsbody frail and trembling in his hands. He looked down at the sphere of the earth, also fragile in the impossible maw of blackness.
He let go of the Wind and fell into eternity.