Authors: Nnedi Okorafor
THE BOY AND THE LADY
Only two people on the beach witnessed the watery abduction of Adaora and the two men. One was a young boy. Just before the boom, his guardian had been standing several feet away having a heated discussion with the owner of one of the shacks selling mineÂral, mainly orange Fanta and Coca-Cola. The boy was staring at something else. His stomach was growling, but he forgot about his hunger for the moment.
In the moonlight, he couldn't clearly see the creature, but as it walked out of the water, even he knew it was not human. All his mind would register was the word “smoke.” At least until the creature walked up the quiet beach and stepped into the flickering light from one of the restaurants. By then it had become a naked dark-skinned African woman with long black braids. She reminded the boy of a woman whose purse he'd once stolen.
She'd stood there for several moments, watching the three people who came from three different directions and ended up standing before each other. Then the strange woman creature silently ran back to the water and dove in like Mami Wata.
Rubbing his itchy head, the boy decided that he was seeing things, as he often did when he grew confused. He flared his nostrils and breathed through his mouth as he tried to focus back on reality. The great booming sound rattled his brain even more. Then came the wave that looked like the hand of a powerful water spirit. The boy saw it take the three people, one who was a woman and
two who were men. And just before it did, he saw one of those people throw a black bird into the air that caught itself and flew into the night.
Nevertheless, he could not speak or even process any of this information for he was both mute and mentally handicapped. He stared at where the three people had been and now were not. Then he smiled, saliva glistening in the left corner of his mouth, because somewhere deep in his restrained brain, he had a profound understanding that things around him were about to change forever, and he liked this idea very much.
The other witness of the abduction was a young woman named Fisayo. She was a hardworking, book-reading secretary by day and a prostitute by night. She, too, noticed the creature woman who emerged from the water. And she, too, thought the word “smoke,” but she also thought “shape-shifter.”
“I am seeing the devil,” she whispered to herself. She turned away and dropped to her knees. She was wearing a short tight skirt, and the sand was warm and soft on her shins and kneecaps.
She prayed to the Lord Jesus Christ to forgive her for all her sins and take her to heaven, for surely the rapture was here. When the boom came, she shut her eyes and tried to pray harder. The pain of death would be her atonement. But deep down she knew she was a sinner and there was nothing that would ever wipe that away. She got to her feet and turned around just in time to see the woman and two men snatched up by a huge fist of water. Just before it happened, one of them had released something black and evil into the air like a poison.
She stood there, staring at the spot where they had been and no longer were. She waited for the water to take her, too. The fist had to be the hand of Satan, and she was one of the biggest sinners on earth. Oh the things she'd done, so many, many times. Sometimes it was just to fill her empty belly. She trembled and started sweating. Her armpits prickled. She hated her tiny skirt, tight tank top, red
pumps, the itchy straight-haired brown wig on her head. When nothing else happened, she went to the nearest bar and ordered a cranberry and vodka. She would anxiously tell her next john, a businessman from the United States, what she had seen. But he wasn't interested in anything she had to say. He was more interested in filling her mouth than watching it flap with useless dumb words.
But she wouldn't forget. And when it all started, she would become one of the loudest prophets of doom in Lagos.
The breeze cooled Adaora's wet back through her drying blouse. She heard people nervously talking, some in Yoruba, one in Igbo, two in Hausa, most in Pidgin English.
! Make we go from here!” someone said.
“I don' know. Maybe
suicide bomb, o!”
There were clicks and clacks from people packing and locking up, rushing to close shop and bar. And there was the sound of the surf. She seized up. For the first time in her life, that sound scared her. Someone touched her shoulder and she flinched.
“Awake,” a female voice said.
Adaora opened her eyes and sat up quickly. She tried to stand but fell back to the sand, dizzy and light-headed. “Don't,” she muttered. “Don't touch me.” Then she saw the other two lying in the sand, still sleeping or passed out or drugged, whatever
had done to them. Nearby, a dim streetlight flickered. Most of the other lights were completely out, leaving Bar Beach in darkness.
“I won't,” it said. Adaora squinted at it in the flickering lightÂ .Â .Â . No, not “it,” “her.” The woman wore a long white sundress and looked like someone from Adaora's familyâdark-skinned, broad-nosed, with dark brown thick lips. Her bushy hair was as long as Adaora's, except where Adaora had many, many neat shoulder-length dreadlocks, this one had many, many neat brown braids that crept down her back.
Adaora turned to the water as the breeze blew in her face. She
inhaled. The air smelled as it always smelled, fishy and salty with a hint of smoke from the city. But the water was way too high. Nearly ten feet up the beach! Only a foot from her toes. In the darkness, bar and restaurant owners and employees with battery-powered flashlights looked fearfully at the water as they rushed about closing up. All their customers must have fled.
They should be more than a little afraid,
Adaora thought, shutting her eyes and trying to gather her faculties.
How much time has passed? Hours? A few minutes?
“What's done is done,” the woman said. “We are here. NowÂ .Â .Â .”
“Now youÂ .Â .Â . you people should leave,” Adaora said, slurring her words.
“No. We stay.”
Adaora looked at the woman and couldn't bring herself to feel irritated. She shut her eyes again, forcing herself to think analytically, calmly, rationally, like the scientist she was. Many things depended on how she reacted, she knew. But when she looked at the woman, an unscientific thought occurred to her.
There was something both attractive and repellent about the woman, and it addled Adaora's senses. Her hair was longâher many braids perfect and shiny, yet clearly her own hair. She had piercing brown eyes that gave Adaora the same creepy feeling as when she looked at a large black spider. Her mannerisms were too calm, fluid andÂ .Â .Â . alien. Adaora's husband, Chris, would instantly hate this woman for all of these reasons. To him, this woman would be a “marine witch.” Her husband believed there were white witches, physical witches, and marine witches. All were evil, but the marine witch was the most powerful because she could harness water, the very substance that made up 70 percent of an adult's body and 75 percent of a child's.
Water is life,
she thought, yet again.
Adaora grinned. She could easily pass the woman in the white dress off as her cousin. Scaring the shit out of her husband was the perfect way to get back at him. And she had a lab in the basement. She could run some simple tests on thisÂ .Â .Â . “woman” there. It
would be an easy, uncomplicated, private way to determine if what was happening was real and not just some stress-fueled bizarre hallucination.
“What should I call you?” Adaora asked, sighing and rubbing her forehead. She touched her cheek. Still swollen and sore.
The woman paused and then smiled knowingly. “I like the name Miri?”
Adaora blinked, surprised. She'd been thinking this exact name. It really
read her mind. The name “Miri” would surely drive her husband that much more insane; it would be the icing on the cake. Still, something in Adaora resisted. The name needed to be more subtle than the Igbo word for “water.”
“No,” Adaora said. “What of the nameÂ .Â .Â .” She paused as the name “Ayodele” came to mind. It was a Yoruba name and it would fill Chris with suspicion, since Adaora was Igbo. Also, Adaora had had a childhood friend named Ayodele who'd been killed while trying to cross a busy street when she was eight years old. She'd loved Ayodele. She frowned at the woman. “Do you know what name I'm thinking of right now?”
ItÂ .Â .Â .
Adaora's husband would remember her friend Ayodele from when they were kids too. He'd cried just as much as Adaora when it happened. The name would trouble him more than “Miri.” Yes.
“You need a place to stay,” Adaora said.
“Yes,” she said. “I would like that.”
“Fine,” Adaora said, her voice hardening. “So you are Ayodele, then.”
WHAT WOULD YOU DO?
They all went. Adaora, Anthony, Ayodele, and AguÂ .Â .Â . Adaora knew the soldier's name now. His name meant “leopard” in Igbo. Her name meant “daughter of the people” in Igbo, and she told them so. She told them all a lot of things. She knew plenty about both Anthony and Agu, and they knew plenty about her. Adaora drove.
do if this happened to you?
The soldier Agu had woken soon after Adaora had given the creature a name. His still swollen face was crusty with sea salt and blood that must have seeped from his wounds and dried after they'd been returned. All he could think about was his family, who he said was in the village. “Please, do you have a mobile phone?” he'd asked Adaora again.
“It's in my car,” she said. “Let's wake Anthony up first.”
Agu had pressed his head with his big hands and shut his eyes. Images of being in that foreign place under the sea where for some reason he could breathe and had to answer a thousand questionsâquestions that made him laugh, cry, and thinkâkept trying to cloud his thoughts. If you were Agu, would you return to your barracks where you'd encounter your fellow soldiers who had just beaten you up after you tried to stop their assault of a woman? When your superior had threatened to send hired thugs to kill the only family you had? He did not wish to return to his barracks, not right away.
Anthony woke as Adaora softly patted his cheek. In the dim, flickering light, he'd looked into her face and thought she was a fish woman because of her ropelike dreadlocks and intense eyes smeared with runny mascara. Then he'd remembered the music from under the sea in the reeflike place and how he could hear it too, and how they'd called him “brother.” He had several brothers, and being called one reminded him of home. And this woman looking at him now had been there with him and the beaten soldier. He was glad they were all alive. He was also glad to find his mobile phone in the sand a few feet away.
All three of them stayed together. All three of them were in. It was 9 January and approaching one a.m.
“Hurry,” Adaora said, flicking the light switch on and moving quickly down the stairs. “My husband sleeps heavily but my children wake up at the slightest noise.” She moved to the far side of the lab and flipped on the lights there, too. This was her personal space, and she felt odd bringing strangers into it, especially one that was
Â .Â .Â . strange. Normally, no one but her eight-year-old daughter and five-year-old son came down here. Of late, her husband avoided what he now called her ââwitch's den'' at all costs.
“Shut your eyes,” Chris had told her years ago on the evening Adaora returned home from her first day of teaching at the Nigerian Institute for Oceanography and Marine Research. Both of them giggled as he led her down the stairs. When she opened her eyes, she had to sit down right there on the steps. He'd transformed the place.
Chris was a wealthy, very busy accountant for an international textile company. The job took him all over the world. For him to spend enough time at home to gather and work with his equally busy colleague friends to build her a lab was an act of the truest love. There were bookshelves packed with her textbooks, monographs, and journals; a place for her to hang her diving gear; a brand new computer with a huge wide-screen high-definition teleÂvision as a monitor and a high-speed, generally reliable, Internet connection; a large solid lab table and a powerful microscope, plenty of test tubes, racks and slides; and a giant flat-screen television in
the back for when she needed to relax. In the middle of the room, he'd even installed a two-hundred-gallon tropical fish tank full of wiggling sea anemones, darting butterfly fish, busy shrimps, sneaky crabs, and three large confused-looking cowfish.
“The institute can't give you everything you need,” he'd said that day. “But I can.”
Adaora had been speechless. Back then, he'd loved her so much. But that was a long time ago. Before the children. Before the stress. Before Chris's traveling became too frequent and took him overseas for more than a third of the year. Before his miserable mother started meddling in their marriage. Before the turbulence-plagued plane flight that scared Chris so profoundly that two days later when he was passing a prayer tent, he decided to become “born again” (something that made even his meddling mother frown). Before the fasting. Before the jealousy and accusations.
The woman Adaora had named Ayodele came slowly down the stairs, Anthony and Agu a few steps behind her.
“Please. Sit down,” Adaora said.
Ayodele went straight to the computer and sat in the black leather chair. Anthony and Agu looked at each other and cautiously followed Ayodele into the room, afraid to get too close.
“Nice crib,” Anthony said.
“Yeah,” Agu said. “What is it your husband does, again?”
“He's an accountant,” she said as she rummaged around in her equipment drawer. “I am a professor at UNILAG. So we do okay.”
Agu nodded as he looked at some of the books in the cases.
When Ayodele touched the computer's flat-screen monitor with a graceful finger, the background picture (of a menacing dragonÂlike lionfish in a blue ocean) flickered the slightest bit. “You people have your own”âshe giggled, a creepy dovelike sound that raised the hairs on Adaora's armsâ“little inventions.”
“Yes,” Adaora said. “That's a computer. Your, eh, people don't have them?”
Ayodele laughed at this.
“They don't need them,” Anthony muttered as he tiredly rubbed a hand over his face and put his veil over his head.
Adaora set a clean slide beside her microscope. She glanced at Ayodele and hesitated. Every time she looked at her, there was a disorienting moment where she was not sure what she was seeing. It lasted no more than a half second, but it was there. Then she was seeing Ayodele the “woman” again.
Adaora cleared her throat and pushed these observations, along with thoughts of what she'd seen in the water, from her mind. “Come here, Ayodele,” she said. “IÂ .Â .Â . I'd like to take a skin sample.” As she handed Ayodele a Q-tip, Adaora visualized the size, shape, and color of magnified cheek cells. It had always been like this. When she was afraid, nervous, or uncomfortable, all she had to do was focus on the science to feel balanced again. It was no different now.
“You don't believe I am what I said I am?” Ayodele asked, scrutinizing the Q-tip. She held it up and touched the soft, white, cottony bud.
“IÂ .Â .Â . I do. But IÂ .Â .Â . It's important that I see for myself,” she said.
And make sure I am seeing what I know I'm seeing and know what I know I know,
she thought frantically. “Then we can get you something to eat. DoÂ .Â .Â . do you eat?” She cringed at how silly she sounded.
“Eat?” Ayodele paused, seeming to think it over. “Okay.”
Adaora took a Q-tip, opened her mouth, and rubbed the tip on the inside of her cheek. “Swab the inside of your mouth like this,” she said.
As soon as Ayodele did so and handed the Q-tip to Adaora, Ayodele went to the fish tank and stood beside Anthony.
“I should be back in the club,
,” Anthony said, staring at a butterfly fish as it darted by. “I only went out for some fresh air. I had a headache.”
“Too much rhythm?” Ayodele asked.
He frowned, turning to look her in the eye. She smiled back pleasantly. Always so pleasant.
“I know why the Elders like you,” she said.
Anthony held her gaze a bit longer, then turned back to the aquarium. “Can you change into one of those?” Anthony asked Ayodele, pointing at a red shrimp with white stripes.
“I can,” she said, pressing her face against the tank. “You know that.”
Anthony nodded. “You can change yourselves but you can change the fish, too, right?”
“Precisely,” Ayodele said. “We give them whatever they want.”
“Damn,” he said. Then he nodded with a small smile. “Respect.”
Adaora slipped the slide onto the microscope's stage and took a look. It didn't take long to see what she needed to see. She switched to the lens of the greatest magnification just to make sure. She chuckled, feeling an ache of excitement deep in her belly.
Again she pushed away crowding memories of what she'd witnessed under the sea. How she'd been floating and breathing beneath the water in whatever contraption they'd built down there on the reeflike structure. How one of them had touched her arm, and she watched as it became coated with lovely iridescent fish scales and her fingers webbed together. How the sensation of the changing felt more like rigorous vibration than pain. How they'd known that that was what she wanted so that she could horrify her husband. How easily they'd changed her back. She squeezed her eyes shut.
Focus, focus, focus,
Agu sat on the stool beside her.
“So, what do you see?” Agu asked.
Adaora stepped aside. “You tell me,” she said, motioning to the microscope.
He put his eye to the lens.
“Do you know what cells normally look like?” Adaora asked.
“Yes. I remember from secondary school.”
As he looked, Adaora watched Ayodele gazing at the fish. She met Anthony's eyes, and she gave him a slight nod. He cocked his head and mouthed, “This is crazy.”
Adaora nodded in agreement. They both shifted their gazes to Ayodele, who was still looking at the fish.
“Well, Agu?” Adaora asked, after a minute. “What do you see?”
“I'm not sure,” he said, still looking.
“YouÂ .Â .Â . you see them, right?”
“Tiny balls? Moving around and sort ofÂ .Â .Â . vibrating?”
Adaora nodded vigorously. “Yes! That's her skinÂ .Â .Â . magnified.”
Agu's battered face held a deeply uncertain expression. “ButÂ .Â .Â .”
“I don't think it is
matter.” She leaned against the lab table.
Agu touched his bruised nose. “Does that meanÂ .Â .Â .”
“One thousand times!” Adaora whispered loudly, ignoring Agu. “That's how strong the magnification is. She's made of tiny, tiny, tiny, metal-like balls. It's
be metal. Certain types of metal powders look like that at two hundred times. I think that's why she canÂ .Â .Â . change shape like that. You saw howÂ .Â .Â . howÂ .Â .Â . when we wereÂ .Â .Â .”
Agu wouldn't meet her eyes. “Yeah. I saw.”
“The balls aren't fixed together as our cells are,” Adaora said.
Agu just looked at her blankly.
“I always wondered,” Adaora continued. “Much of the world's most famous extraterrestrial material, mainly meteorites, has fallen right here. In
.” She was speaking more to herself now. “Last year a big one fell in Tarkwa Bay. I was testing the water for pollution when it happenedÂ .Â .Â .” She started looking around. “I should write all this down!” She grabbed a pen and paper and started Âjotting down notes, focusing on each word she wrote. Not wanting to focus on Agu. If she focused on him, her world would fall apart.
She could feel him looking at her. She took a deep breath, fighting down tears as she thought about the fight with her husband. “SoÂ .Â .Â . what happened to your face?” she asked.
“It was punched.”
“I see that, but by who?”
,” he said. When Adaora looked at him questioningly, he said, “My
Â .Â .Â . my comrades, my fellow soldiers.” He sucked his teeth. “Don't act like you didn't listen in during my phone call in the car.”
She had, all of them had. Agu had used her phone to call his parents in the small town of Arondizuogu. He'd told them to leave their home immediately and hide with relatives because hired thugs were going to descend on them. “Tell Kelechi and his wife, too. Leave the yams! You can grow those back but you cannot grow your life back, o!”
Adaora had felt embarrassed and sorry for Agu when he handed back her phone. And for minutes, no one in the car said a word, not even Ayodele.
“But what did you do?” Adaora asked now. “Why are they coming after your family?”
Agu looked at her with his fully open eye and squinted with his swollen right one. “I tried to stop one of my own
from raping a woman.” He paused, a disgusted look on his face as he remembered. “We'd pulled her over on the LagosâBenin Expressway. This fine woman; she was drunk. Lance Corporal Benson, my superior, he got out of hand with her. IÂ .Â .Â . I punched him in the gut.” He paused, frowning. Then he looked into Adaora's eyes. “He went flying like a sack of feathers!”
Adaora went cold. “What? What do you mean?”
Agu nodded. “Exactly! I'm not a weak man. I exercise, keep myself in shape. And I've had my share of fights. ButÂ .Â .Â . he went
. Because I
him. Then for a while, he didn't move. The rest of my
descended on me for that. They beat me like a dog and
left me unconscious on the side of the road. I must have lost my mobile phone then, soâ”
The sound of the television interrupted their conversation. Anthony had switched it on for Ayodele, who had moved to the sofa. She sighed softly when the picture appeared.
On the TV, as a breaking-news banner scrolled across the bottom of the screen, a newscaster in fashionable dress pants and a white blouse stood on what could only have been Bar Beach. The wind was blowing, and military personnel behind her were setting up barriers.
“Witnesses on Bar Beach are saying that just after nine p.m. they heard an earth-shaking explosion that seemed to roll up from the water like a tidal wave,” the newscaster was saying. “People are reporting broken windows in cars and buildings. A few people say they're even experiencing hearing loss. There's no sign of terrorist activity yet, but here to discuss the issue is Lance Corporal Benson Shehu, who is on the scene.”
Beside her stood a stern-looking Hausa man in sharp military dress, his green beret perched on his head like a fixture. He rested a hand on his hip, as if he were working hard to stand up straight.
Agu pointed at the television. “That's him! That's myâ”
“Shhh shhh shhh,” Anthony hissed, frowning.
“You also happen to be the president's nephew,” the newscaster on TV added.
“Yes, but that is mere coincidence and irrelevant to the issue,” Benson snapped. He winced visibly, pressing below his ribs.
The newscaster nodded as Benson looked into the camera and squinted as if he were looking into the sun. “There is no destruction or, or anything like that. It was
a bomb. It seems to be some sort of sonic blast. ErmÂ .Â .Â . noise from the breaking of the sound barrier. Something like that. This is not a suicide bomber. We have never had that nonsense in Lagos. But we are treating this as an
,” he said.
“An attack? Against Nigeria?”
“Yes,” he said, turning to the newscaster.
“We don't know,” he said. “We don't know anything. But did the Americans know who destroyed their World Trade Towers when it first happened?”
The newscaster nodded. “Good point. But that brings me back to my question about the president. Where is he? Will he be givingâ”
“By morning, we hope to know more,” Benson interrupted. “Where there's smoke, there's fire.” He shifted uncomfortably from one foot to the other. “In this case, where there is noise, there is a source. For now, we are advising people to continue going about their business. Act normal, no need for
Â .Â .Â .”
“They don't know anything,” Adaora said with a wave of her hand, returning to her microscope.
“I agree,” Agu said, following her back to the counter. “And if Benson did, he's too dumb to process it. The president needs to come back. The last person they want in charge of what's happening on Bar Beach is Benson, trust me. Why is
the one they're interviewing?”