Authors: Nnedi Okorafor
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O THE DIVERSE AND DYNAMIC PEOPLE OF
ANIMALS, PLANT, AND SPIRIT
The cure for anything is salt waterâ
sweat, tears, or the sea.
( pseudonym of
Danish writer Baroness Karen Blixen)
Lagos na no man's land. Nobody own Lagos,
na we all get am. Eko o ni baje!
Lagos is no man's land. Nobody owns Lagos,
we all own Lagos. Lagos will never be destroyed!
âa protester from Ajegunle District
to local reporters, interviewed the night it all happened
the city where nothing works
yet everything happens.
âan American white woman
in the wrong place at the wrong time
The city takes its name from the Portuguese word for “lagoon.”
The Portuguese first landed on Lagos Island in the year 1472.
Apparently, they could not come up with a more creative name.
Nor did they think to ask one of the natives for suggestions.
And so the world turns, masked by millions of names, guises, and shifting stories.
It's been a beautiful thing to watch.
My designs grow complicated.
She slices through the water, imagining herself a deadly beam of black light. The current parts against her sleek, smooth skin. If any fish gets in her way, she will spear it and keep right on going. She is on a mission. She is angry. She will succeed, and then they will leave for good. They brought the stench of dryness, then they brought the noise and made the world bleed black ooze that left poison rainbows on the water's surface. She often sees these rainbows whenever she leaps over the water to touch the sun. Inhaling them stings and burns her gills.
The ones who bring the rainbows are burrowing and building creatures from the land, and no one can do anything about them. Except her. She's done it before, and they stopped for many moons. They went away. She is doing it again.
She increases her speed.
She is the largest predator in these waters. Her waters. Even when she migrates, this particular place remains hers. Everyone knows it. She was not born here, but after all her migrations, she is happiest here. She suspects that this is the birthplace of one of those who created her.
She swims even faster.
She is blue-gray and it is night. Though she cannot see, she doesn't need to. She knows where she is going. She is aiming for the thing that looks like a giant dead snake. She remembers snakes; she's seen plenty in her past life. In the sun, this dead
snake is the color of decaying seaweed with skin rough like coral.
Any moment now.
She is nearly there.
She is closing in fast.
She stabs into it.
From the tip of her spear, down her spine, to the ends of all her fins, she experiences red-orange bursts of pain. The impact is so jarring that she can't move. But there is victory; she feels the giant dead snake deflating. It blows its black blood. Her perfect body goes numb, and she wonders if she has died. Then she wonders what new body she will find herself inhabiting. She remembers her last form, a yellow monkey; even while in that body, she loved to swim. The water has always called to her.
All goes black.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
She awakens. Gently but quickly, she pulls her spear out. The black blood spews in her face from the hole she's made. She turns away from the bittersweet-tasting poison.
they will leave soon. As she happily swims away in triumph, the loudest noise she's ever heard vibrates through the water.
The noise ripples through the ocean with such intensity that she tumbles with it, sure that it will tear her apart.
Then the water calms. Deeply shaken, she slowly swims to the surface. Head above the water, she moves through the bodies that glisten in the moonlight. Several smaller fish, jellyfish, even crabs, float, belly up or dismembered. Many of the smaller creatures have probably simply been obliterated. But she has survived.
She swims back to the depths. She's only gone down a few feet when she smells it. Clean, sweet, sweet,
! Her senses are flooded with sweetness, the sweetest water she's ever breathed. She swims forward, tasting the water more as it moves through her gills. In the darkness, she feels others around her. Other fish.
Large, like herself, and smallÂ .Â .Â . So some small ones
Now, she sees many. There are even several sharp-toothed ones and mass killers. She sees this clearly now because something large and glowing is down ahead. A great shifting bar of glimmering sand. This is what is giving off the sweet, clean water. She hopes the sweetness will drown out the foul blackness of the dead snake she pierced. She has a feeling it will. She has a very good feeling.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
The sun is up now, sending its warm rays into the water. She can see everyone swimming, floating, wiggling right into the glowing thing below. There are sharks, sea cows, shrimps, octopus, tilapia, codfish, mackerel, flying fish, even seaweed. Creatures from the shallows, creatures from the shore, creatures from the deep, all here. A unique gathering. What is happening here?
But she remains where she is. Waiting. Hesitating. Watching. It is not deep but it is wide. About two hundred feet below the surface. Right before her eyes, it shifts. From blue to green to clear to purple-Âpink to glowing gold. But it is the size, profile, and shape of it that draws her. Once, in her travels, she came across a giant world of food, beauty, and activity. The coral reef was blue, pink, yellow, and green, inhabited by sea creatures of every shape and size. The water was delicious, and there was not a dry creature in sight. She lived in that place for many moons before finally returning to her favorite waters. When she traveled again, she was never able to find the paradise she'd left.
Now here in her home is something even wilder and more alive than her lost paradise. And like there, the water here is clean and clear. She can't see the end of it. However, there is one thing she is certain of: What she is seeing isn't from the sea's greatest depths or the dry places. This is from far, far away.
More and more creatures swim down to it. As they draw closer, she sees the colors pulsate and embrace them. She notices an octopus with one missing tentacle descending toward it. Suddenly, the
octopus grows brilliant pink-purple and straightens all its tentacles. Then right before her eyes, it grows its missing tentacle back and what look like bony spokes erupt from its soft head. It spins and flips and then shoots off, down into one of the skeletal caves of the undulating coral-like thing below.
When a golden blob ascends to meet her, she doesn't move to meet it. But she doesn't flee either. The sweetness she smells and its gentle movements are soothing and non-threatening. When it communicates with her, asking question after question, she hesitates. It doesn't take long for her apprehension to shift to delight. What good questions it asks. She tells it exactly what she wants.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Everything is changing.
She's always loved her smooth, gray-blue skin, but now it is impenetrable, its new color golden like the light the New People give off. The color that reminds her of another life when she could both enjoy the water and endure the sun and air.
Her swordlike spear is longer and so sharp at the tip that it sings. They made her eyes like the blackest stone, and she can see deep into the ocean and high into the sky. And when she wants to, she can make spikes of cartilage jut out along her spine as if she is some ancestral creature from the deepest ocean caves of old. The last thing she requests is to be three times her size and twice her weight.
They make it so.
Now she is no longer a great swordfish. She is a monster.
*Â Â Â *Â Â Â *Â Â Â *
Despite the FPSO
's loading hose leaking crude oil, the ocean water just outside Lagos, Nigeria, is now so clean that a cup of its salty-sweet goodness will heal the worst human illnesses and cause a hundred more illnesses not yet known to humankind. It is more alive than it has been in centuries, and it is teeming with aliens and monsters.
It was an eerie moment as Adaora and the two strange men arrived at that spot, right before it happened. Exactly three yards from the water at exactly 11:55 p.m., 8 January 2010. Adaora came from the north side of the beach. The tall veiled man came from the east. The bloodied man wearing army fatigues from the west. They ambled in their general directions, eyeing each other as it became clear that their paths would intersect.
Only Adaora hesitated. Then, like the others, she pressed on. She was a born-and-raised Lagosian, and she was wearing nicely fitted jeans and a sensible blouse. She'd spent more time walking this beach than probably both of these men combined.
She wiped the tears from her cheeks and trained her eyes straight ahead. About a quarter of a mile away was open water where the Atlantic overflowed its banks. When bad things happened, her feet always brought her here, to Lagos's Bar Beach.
In many ways, Bar Beach was a perfect sample of Nigerian society. It was a place of mixing. The ocean mixed with the land, and the wealthy mixed with the poor. Bar Beach attracted drug dealers, squatters, various accents and languages, seagulls, garbage, biting flies, tourists, all kinds of religious zealots, hawkers, prostitutes, johns, water-loving children, and their careless parents. The beachside bars and small restaurants were the most popular hangout spots. Bar Beach's waters were too wild for any serious swimming. Even the best swimmers risked a watery death by its many rip currents.
Adaora had removed her sandals. It was deep night, and this was probably a bad idea. So far, however, she hadn't stepped on any pieces of wood, rusty nails, broken glass, or sharp stones. Her need to feel the cool sand between her toes at this moment outweighed the risk. Despite its trash, there was still something sacred about Bar Beach.
On 12 June 1993, the day of the most democratic election in Nigeria's history, she'd come here with her father and watched him shed tears of joy. On 23 June, her mother brought her here because her father and uncles were at home cursing and shouting over the military annulling those same elections.
She came here to escape the reality that her best friend was sleeping with her biology professor to earn a passing grade. On the day she received her PhD in marine biology from the University of Lagos, she came here to thank the Powers That Be for helping her stay sane enough to finish her degree (and for the fact that she hadn't had to sleep with anyone to earn it).
Last year, she'd come here to weep when her father was killed along with thirty others during a botched robbery of a luxury bus on the LagosâBenin Expressway, one of Nigeria's many, many, many dangerous roads. The thieves had demanded that all the passengers get off the bus and lie in the momentarily empty road. In their stupidity, the thieves hadn't anticipated the truck (speeding to avoid armed robbers) that would run over everyone including the thieves.
And now Adaora was here at Bar Beach because her loving perfect husband of ten years had hit her. Slapped her really
. All because of a hip-hop concert and a priest. At first, she'd stood there stunned and hurt, cupping her cheek, praying the children hadn't heard. Then she'd brought her hand up and slapped him right back. Shocked into rage, her husband leaped on her. But Adaora had been ready for him. By this time, she wasn't thinking about the children.
She didn't know how long she and her husband had scuffled
like wild dogs on the floor. And the way the fight had ended, it wasn'tÂ .Â .Â . normal. One minute they'd been brawling, and then the next, her husband was mysteriously stuck to the floor, his wrists and ankles held down as though by powerful magnets. As he'd screamed and twisted, Adaora had got up, grabbed her keys, and run out of the house. Thankfully, their Victoria Island home was only minutes from Bar Beach.
She rubbed her swollen cheek. Even on her dark skin, the redness would be visible. She set her jaw, and tried to ignore the two men coming from her right and left as she walked toward the ocean. After what she'd just dealt with, she wasn't about to let
man get in her way. Still, as she got closer, she ventured a glance at the two of them.
The man in the military uniform looked like he'd already seen plenty plenty pepper. He reminded Adaora of a whipped lion. Blood dribbled from his nose, and he wasn't bothering to wipe it away. And half his face was swollen. Yet he had a hard, unshaken look in his eye. The other man was a tall, dark-skinned scarecrow of a fellow wearing a black-and-white veil. Maybe he was a Muslim. He was scrutinizing the approaching beat-up-looking soldier more than he was her.
Each of them walked in their respective straight lines. Each heading toward each other. Adaora squinted at the man in the veil.
What is it about him?
she thought as she walked toward the sea.
But she didn't slow her gait. And so the three of them met. The tall man was the first to speak. “Excuseâ”
“Tell me this is a joke,” Adaora interrupted as she realized what it was about the man. “AreÂ .Â .Â . are youÂ .Â .Â . Can I ask you aÂ .Â .Â .”
The tall man, looking deeply annoyed, removed his veil and sighed. “I am,” he said, cutting her off. “But don't call me Anthony Dey Craze. I'm just out for a post-concert stroll. Tonight, just call me Edgar.”
she exclaimed, laughing, reaching up to touch her throbbing cheek. “You wore that scarf on your album cover, didn't you?” After what had happened at home, it was surprising and felt good to laugh. “I was supposed to be at your concert tonight!”
At some point, her husband Chris had changed his mind about “letting” her go to the Anthony Dey Craze concert with her best friend Yemi because he'd barred her way when she'd tried to leave. “Since when do I need your permission to do anything, anyway?” she'd said to her husband, taken aback. Then came the slap.
“Please,” the bloody military man said, snatching his green beret off his smoothly shaven head and squeezing it in his shaking hands. “Do either of you have a mobile phone? I must call my father. I will pay you well.”
Adaora barely registered his words; she was now really looking him over. Up close he looked not only injured but in deep, deep distress. The blood running from his nose glistened in the dim mix of street and moonlight. She took her hand from her burning cheek and reached out to him.
“Hey, buddy,” Anthony said, looking at the military man with concern. He'd brought out his mobile phone. “You're bleeding, o! Do you need help? Are you allâ”
“No!” he snapped. “I'm
Adaora jumped back, unconsciously bringing her fists up.
“Do I LOOK all right?” he shouted. He motioned for Anthony's mobile phone. “I need to
make this phone call right now
! My famâ”
Anthony dropped his mobile phone as all three of them dropped to the ground, their hands over their heads. Adaora found herself looking from the bleeding military man to Anthony in terror. It was
the type of sound one heard on Bar Beach, or in any part of Lagos. On Bar Beach, the loudest thing was typically some woman shouting at a man or someone's old car backfiring on a nearby road. This booming sound was so deep Adaora could feel it
in her chest, and it rattled her teeth. It left cotton in her ears. It was so wide that it seemed to have its own physical weight. Adaora glanced around and saw that the noise pushed everything to the ground. A few feet away, two seagulls dropped from the night sky to the sand, stunned. Something black bounced off Anthony's head and fell beside him.
“Bat?” Adaora asked. Everything was muffled, as if she were speaking underwater.
Anthony looked at it closely. The bat was furry-bodied and beady-eyed with black wings. It wiggled a bit, still alive. He scooped up the poor creature and grabbed Adaora's hand. He nudged the military man's shoulder as he cradled the stunned animal.
“Come on!” he shouted. “That came from the water! We should get away from here!”
But something was happening to the ocean. The waves were roiling irregularly. Each time the waves broke on the beach, they reached farther and farther up the sand. Then a four-foot wave rose up. Adaora was so fascinated that she just stood there staring. Anthony stopped pulling her and pushing the military man. Blood ran into the military man's eyes as he tried to focus his gaze on the darkness of the water. The wave was heading right for them. Fast and quiet as a whisper. It was closer to ten feet tall now. Finally, the three of them turned and ran. The fist of water was faster. Adaora grabbed the military man's hand. Anthony threw the bat to what he hoped was safety, leaped, and grabbed Adaora's legs just as the water fell at them.
The salty water stung Adaora's eyes and pulled at her garments as it sucked her toward the sea. Her hands scrambled at the sand as it collapsed beneath her, the pebbles raking at her skin, the sea sucking at her legs. She could still feel the desperate grasp of the military man's hand and Anthony's arms around her legs. She wasn't alone. In the blackness, she could see some of the lights from the
bars and the nearby buildings. They were flickering and growing smaller and smaller.
Bubbles tickled her ears as she tried to twist to the surface. But it was as if the ocean had opened its great maw and swallowed her and the two men. She couldn't breathe. She heard bubbles and the roar and rush of water against her ears. And she could feel the tightness of her laboring lungs and the suction of the water.
, Adaora weakly thought. The phrase meant “water is life” in the Tuareg language of Tamashek. She'd once worked with a Tuareg man on a diving expedition.
had been his answer when Adaora asked how a man of the Sahara Desert had become an expert scuba diver. Despite the pain in her lungs now and the swallowing darkness, she smiled.
The three of them grasped each other. Down, down, down, they went.