In This Garden of Our Memories

Victor Forna

{A Kərfi’s Wife}

My hand seeks your hand.

You shrug away, an all-too-familiar move. “Don’t…don’t touch me.”

So much anger you hold, Yeli, like a calabash holds warm, unholy water to be thrown away. 

“Don’t you dare.”

I take a step from you and your spite for me. “You can be content here.” Countless times I’ve offered you these words. “I can give you things you won’t find anywhere else. Stay with me.”

Silence.

Shouldn’t I be used to it by now?

We walk on, through the emptiness of the Between Worlds, toward a light in the distance.

You speak after a while. “Remind me of everything before…before you send me back.”

Your eyes, honey-brown stars in oval slits, tiro lines drawn on their edges. You’re beautiful.

I shiver when you look at me. “What do you mean?”

“You’ve had me go through this how many times? It’s affecting my memories.”

“You don’t need them.”

“I do, I do. Let me know myself, let me know why I’m suffering. You offer me riches, children I don’t want. Give me this.”

“Do you remember why you’re here?”

“Bits.”

“But you know what I am?”

You answer with a tightness to your lips. “Yes.”

“Do you remember him?”

“Who?”

“I’ll give you what you want.”

You nod, innocent.

I urge my magic; the white emptiness around us starts to become forest. It unfurls — green, brown, gold. Crispy grass forms a rough, uneven carpet underfoot. Above, palm fronds appear. The smell of the woods you played and danced in as a girl wafts about, earthy and of fallen fruits, with whiffs of smoke from faraway farms.

Here, it all began.

With your mother, long ago.

*

She builds a nest, yellow lappa on a mound of brown leaves, and settles her baby on it. Though she tries to keep her comfortable, the child’s wails grow louder and louder. A goat stands next to them, tethered to a tree. 

“What was her name? I find it hardest to remember the names.”

“Pɔmpɔ. Means—”

“Thread.”

She walks to the bleating goat.

You have her lips, which are like an orange cut halfway through, and her night-time skin.

She pulls a knife from the faded bag around her waist. “Let the whole village give up. But how can a mother give up on her child?” Blade across throat. Blood marries the forest floor. She calls a name over the gathering crimson. “Pele… Pele… Pele…”

“I wish you hadn’t answered.”

“Then you’d have been dead in three days, Yeli.”

“You don’t just appear to everyone who summons you. Why her?”

“I heard her pain. It was honest pain. And what are we gods for?”

“You’re no god.”

“I’ve only been good to you.”

The portrait of irritation, your nose flares gently. “You… you… how can you believe what you do to me is good?”

Before I come up with an answer, my past self bellows before us, a bodiless growl in the wind.

On her knees, she scrabbles, frightened of the growl, of the force she’s summoned. The forest quivers. Leaves and branches rustle, fall. Birds flap away, out the canopy. “Show yourself, oh, Kərfi. This goat bleeds for you.”

“Why have you called me here?”

“I am in pain, Pele.”

The Kərfi is eight feet tall, limbs long, with a face of wax, when he takes down the darkness between them. 

She gasps.

“You have seen me. I have seen you. What do you want me to do for you and your pain?”

She plucks her baby from her yellow nest. The child sobs. “My daughter, only you can save her. She’s at death’s door, but I want her to stay.” In her arms, the child’s as pale as the petals of lotus, white as ashes. “To see her grow, see her love, see her dream. We’d braid each other’s hair, she’d tell me secrets, I’d warn her about life. I want her to experience joy, pain. I want her to live… Save her and she is yours; save her and she will be your wife. I promise my daughter to you, Kərfi, the trees as our witnesses.”

“No, Mama!” You scream as though gone-things are meant to hear us. “She had no right to promise away a baby, so fragile, so helpless. She sold me to a fate worse than death.” Tears glaze your lashes, diamonds struggling to fall. “For what?”

“I will help your child.” The Kərfi hands her a bean-shaped stone infused with his magic. “Keep this on her at all times. She has my protection.” He tells her she must also change the baby’s name, in line with tradition. “To Yeli. We name the ones we own.”

*

I urge my magic to reshape the forest around us: trees to rocks, loam to sand.

You owned an acrylic painting of a beach in one of your past lives — how you’d stare at its black shores and dream of standing there someday, someway. You kneel on those sands. “I know this place?”

“One of the myriad things I can give to you, worlds of your dreams.”

“So relentless.” Furrows shiver between your brows. “I only want my memories, then you can send me back.”

The waves come in, from the iridescent sea, mist on your face. You cup the foamy water, stare down; memory swims in it.

She sits on a log under a mango tree. She traces patterns in the dust with her toes. Giggles, screams, chuckles from the golden distance haunt her ears.

“Do you remember why they shunned you?”

“Afraid of being friends with a Kərfi’s wife.”

“It was for your mother; she scared them.”

“What difference does any of that make to a six-year-old? Look at how lonely I was. I remember how much I wanted to be accepted. I feel the longing as though I’m there again.”

She rips off her necklace, flings it into the dust. With a clatter, it hits a lizard scuttling by. “I don’t have a Kərfi.” She sprints for the open area where the others play Touch. “We can all p—” Trips, her weight on her left hand. Like a bird’s fragile wings. She should’ve died years ago: the universe hurries to restore balance.

“I’ve only been good to you, Yeli.”

She lays broken. Salted tears blur the world when her father comes running her way at last. “Are you okay, Imari?” Short for Imarimuthɔŋ, her name before the promise made in the woods. He shudders at her elbow, bent so awkwardly. He picks her up. “You’ll be fine—”

“Yeli!” Her mother’s raging rain. “Where is it? Where’s the stone?” She sweeps through the dirt with her hands. “You took it off.” Dust haloes her. “Why would you take it off, stupid child? Your life depends on that thing…” She’s about to strike.

Your terror, your sadness, transcend the years, discernable in the tremor in your voice. “I just wanted to play, be a normal child. I’d wanted to tell her back then. But I was too scared to say any word at all. Scared and in pain. Look at her. How can a mother’s love become such a twisted thing?”

“What are you doing?” Grooves blade her father’s forehead. “You’ve lost your mind, Pɔmpɔ. You actually want to hit her in this state?”

“How could she take it off?”

“So? Look at you. You’ve been drinking again?”

The sleeves of her mother’s kola-red dress trail as she walks away.

An amalgam of fever-dreams follow the fall, fever-dreams and long nights with teeth chattering, bones aching, vomiting. Her father tries his utmost; nothing he does helps. She withers. He gives up in the end, like he’d done when she was a baby. He awaits the inevitable. The child waits too, breathing slowly, slowly — she hears a whisper over the pain.

“As long as you wear this stone, you’re safe and sound. That’s all I want for you.” The child’s mother, late in the night, moon silver and high, has come back. She strings the stone around her neck again. “Please, Yeli, understand.” Glow returns to the child’s skin. “He alone can keep you safe and sound, and alive. I’ve already lost too many. I’ve been laughed at for too long. Stay.”

*

I want to see you smile, I adore that crescent curl your lips wear so well. I go on my knees. Memory pools in my hands. I splash you with it.

For one infinitesimal second, you and I are lovers frolicking on a moonlit beach, dream-like and okay.

You glare at me.

Again, I splash you.

The memory I send rings sweet. It travels slowly through the air, like those soap bubbles you loved in your last life. It leaves a beautiful streak in its wake. Inside it, your four-year-old self sits between her father’s knees, on the floor. He’s laughing, his eyes twinkle, he brays out a song about the moon. She chortles, nodding along to his music. Smells of woodsmoke and onions sizzling in hot oil saturate the mud-brick room. In the backyard, her mother prepares goat stew to go with the cassava set on the bench.

It should make you smile, a memory like this. 

“What are you doing?”

“I wish you’d be as happy as you were—”

“My happiness has never mattered to you.”

“It does. I’ve protected you for so lo—”

“Then let me die. Take no for an answer.”

I’m silent.

“As I thought.”

“It isn’t that easy, Yeli.”

“It is. There’s nothing cosmic binding you to me. You have power over me because of Mama…but everything else is because of your ego. You’re punishing me because I chose…I can’t recall his name.” You’re still struggling to remember, your eyes distant, when the wave leaps out of the sea, giant and cold and powerful.

Startled by the swell, I urge my magic against it. It only rises higher, an abrupt white wall against the gentle scene.

Wild wind howls, rain drizzles.

“What’s happening?”

“I’m not doing this.”

I glimpse a calm and knowing grin on your face, that crescent curl at last, as the billow of memory crashes upon us.

A forest.

The day he came into our lives.

*

Her lappa weaves over her shoulders and cascades green and patterned to her ankles. She’s dancing to the music of the forest, the chirps, the hoots, the crunches, as she steps on dried-up twigs. Every now and again, she stops her twirls, reorients herself so she won’t lose her path, or stray too deep into the woods. Growing up alone, left out always, no friends, she does this often when she’s not at the farm scaring birds away — she walks the forest, and dances.

Her dance leads her to him, today, like stars in the night sky. She hides at the sight of him, of his bare back. She hides behind low shrubs, stooping, spying.

The boy leans on a rough tree, whistling against the heat. He stops. “I know that you are back there.” Like gravel, his voice. “Why are you even hiding?”

The blood beneath her cheeks flames. Her skin shrouds the blush. She comes from behind the shrubbery at the same time the boy turns and faces her.

Their eyes meet.

“Hey.”

She stays silent, blank, fidgeting with her necklace.

He’s tall, gently-muscled in the arms and chest. He’s two or three years older than her, and he has skin dark-brown as honey, but on both flanks of his nose, beneath his dark-brown eyes, like spilled milk, white patches take the shape of uncertain wings. This discolouration drips to his chin, explodes again on his neck. There are others all over his frame: on his arms, on his stomach, on his thighs, on his calves, the pale, white patches.

“And what are you doing in here, all alone?”

“What are you doing in here?”

His smile flashes the woods with cassava-white teeth. “I come here to dream, and play.” He shakes a flute. “Something about dreaming beside trees, you know?”

She hesitates. “I’m here for the silence.”

“One for the silence, one for the dreams.” Filtered sunblinks, seeping through the foliage above, seem to follow him. “Do you want to listen to me play?” 

“I said I’m here for the silence. Go away.”

He laughs. “You go… What’s your name?”

“Ima— Yeli. My name is Yeli.”

“I am Ruba.”

“Your name means blessing.”

“My parents were optimistic.”

They share a laugh.

Silence.

Ruba puts the flute between his chapped lips and starts to play, and she stays.

*

The wave spits us on the deafening emptiness of the Between Worlds.

I struggle to catch my breath. “Are you okay?”

I would’ve never shown him to you so unaltered and true. How am I losing control? What do you know that I don’t, Yeli? That smirk I saw on your face. I must’ve imagined it.

There’s an ear-shattering blast.

*

We’re back on the shore: a sun bleeds on the horizon. I urge my magic to keep us here, this painting you loved so much. But it doesn’t. The world changes yet again, an anchorless dream.

*

A garden: only yesterday-today-and-tomorrows grow here. We’re on our backs, looking at a swirling twilit sky. Petals, dropping like tears, hold memories from your past lives.

*

Castle of glass: walls covered with mirrors holding moments from your original life.

“I think I should send you back.” Even my voice doesn’t sound like mine, like a Kərfi’s, like a god’s. I sound afraid, unsure of myself. “Yeli, it’s time.”

You’re cloaked in your silence and ice again; you say nothing to me. You head for one of the moments on the wall, moving thoughtfully down the gallery of memories.

I follow after you, urging my magic to return us to the Between Worlds. It doesn’t. 

You peer into a mirror.

I peer into it with you.

Her parents are fighting because of her again.

“Why would you beat her like this? Because you saw her with a boy? Hmm?” Her father points at her. Beside the flickering fires of two battered lamps, she wimps. 

“He’s a thief, that’s what he is! I heard them. And I’ll beat her again and again. She shouldn’t have encouraged him. I warned her.”

“You always hear things, see things. You don’t want Imari with anyone. She’s 17. You wanted this child to live, but what life? You’ve got to stop, Pɔmpɔ.”

You walk away from this mirror. What are you looking for, Yeli? I don’t want to ask. I don’t want you to know how much I have lost control.

In another mirror, circular and dangling lonesome on the west wall of the castle, you vet a luminescent memory of you and Ruba pacing down the banks of a stream, hand in hand. The stream sparkles as it swerves through the trees, leaping over rocks, leaping over branches felled by gone, forgotten storms.

I urge my magic to wipe it away, this beautiful memory of Ruba.

“Let’s catch it,” Ruba chimes as he steps with you into a puddle of mud and rotting leaves.

“Love’s letting things be free.” Pause, laugh. “I sound like Papa. Let the butterfly be.”

“I like how you say things.”

The memory starts to fray at its edges. The scene is replaced with another.

“You lied to me. Me.”

Ruba looms beside her. He never takes things too hard, always chameleon-calm, but today, his hands shake, his voice shakes. “I thought I could change their minds. I’ve been stalling for almost a year, trying to prot—”

“You should’ve been honest!”

Silence.

“My brothers. They will get it one way or another. Would’ve been easier if you had willingly given it to me. But they always get what they want. We must run.”

“I trusted you, Ruba.”

He holds her shoulders, pulls her close to him. Mint lazes on his breath. “I came to steal the stone that gives you life, but you’ve stolen the heart that gives me mine. My brothers are all I have, twisted as they are. Stealing and selling totems is our life. But I’m ready to turn my back on that world for…for us. Come with me. We will settle in some village where our names are unknown, live simple lives and meet new people that will look at you better.”

“I don’t know…this…this is your dreamy head musing again. I’d love to elope, like in the stories. How would we survive on the run? Where would we go?”

“We will figure it out. We will throw cowries, see how they fall. Lovers on the run, a gang of vexed brothers, and a Kərfi on their trail. It’d be an adventure.”

“No. We stay. You’re going to stand up to your brothers. I’ll want to see them touch me with Papa here… with Mama here. Let them come and try.”

“Okay.”

“And don’t ever lie to me again.”

You step away, face unreadable.

The aureate gleam of another mirror catches your eye. What are you looking for? It can’t be the memory I erased. You can’t possibly know about it. I’m deep in focus; my magic fails again.

Ruba lies in a nest made between the aerial roots of some ageless tree. He rests his head on the tree’s back, looking at the foliage above as they let through shafts of shadow and shafts of light. “I hate that she beats you because of me, your mother.”

She’s humming a melody he taught her yesterday. She inhales, to pull in the smell of his sweat. “Don’t worry.” She traces the milky splotches on his chest with the fingers of her free hand. “They could be patterns in the sky, like those constellations you like and envy so much.”

“I’ll never do anything to hurt you, know that.” He never looks at her while he says these things, eyes locked with the lights and shadows from beyond.

“I know, I know. I’m your person, or whatever nonsense you always say. Let’s go for a dip.”

“Only if you kiss me.”

“No.” She kisses him.

My magic works, at last. The figures on the mirror vanish in a wreath of cloud, and an image of a hamper takes their place. My offerings. What haven’t I done for your love, Yeli?

Fruits — plums, mangoes, bananas, oranges — are at her feet. She looks over to her father, unsure. 

“We will not eat his gifts, Imari. Let them rot there.”

The mirror bursts apart. Each fragment, a memory of its own. In a shattered glass, bigger than the rest, we watch another moment unravel.

She’s in a glossy field, dancing, dancing. A silvery crowd dances around her. Her eyes stay fixed on Ruba. He jumps and kicks, laughing. Sweat hangs along the sides of his face. The bubu music sounds muffled, far, but she dances as he does, following all his steps and stops.

“It’s so easy to move along with you, so easy.”

“And you wanted to stay home.”

“Was afraid. Never been welcomed to these things.”

He says nothing, holds her hands and twirls with her.

She tilts her head, looking up at the stars. She smiles, breathless, as though feeling alive for the first time.

The night you knew you wanted to be in love with this milk-and-honey boy; the night the unrest in my heart began.

*

I consider changing into my oldest form and magic. But I’d promised never to do it again when with you. I stand powerless, and we watch another memory on a floor-to-ceiling mirror.

Ruba stands beside her father at the entrance to their home. “I really don’t know why they decided not to come. It baffles me. It’s unlike them.”

“Your brothers have picked sense. Thanks for informing us, my son. Come sit with me. Imari, go bring out the poyo.” He clasps Ruba’s shoulder. “Tell me, can you do farm work? Let’s see those hands.”

“One more thing…”

“Go on, my son.”

“I know someone who can help Imari with…with—”

“There’s no way for her. I have been searching, too. This Kərfi has been tormenting her for so long.”

“My grandma — she knows long-forgotten juju. I think she’ll be able to help. Let’s try, at least.”

“Where’s she now? How will you make contact?”

Ruba’s already told her. She answers her father on his behalf, cutting into the conversation. Her father nods as she explains. Hope swims in her eyes.

*

And hope can turn wise men into fools and lead fools into earlier graves. The excitement, the prospect of victory over me, you gave yourself to Ruba. My wife, my wife. Why fear a Kərfi now that safety was so close at hand? On a mirror overhead, the answer to that riddle unrolls like a snake.

Clouds outside give way to hard breeze and hard rain. Nature heralds the coming of a Kərfi scorned. Evening morphs into sudden night. From the corners of her room, he rises. The Kərfi appears in his truest form: black wax over the thousand cracks on his skin made of red clay, fire oozing from the sockets of his eyes.

“How dare you disrespect me?” His voice lilts. “I forgave the small kisses, the hand-holds, the cuddles, but the time for forgiveness is gone. You were promised to me, Yeli, the trees as witnesses. How dare you let another — this worthless bag of bones — touch you? I named you, I own you.” Thunder. “I love you, Yeli.”

They try to escape his wrath. They dash out the door, shaking; she in front, he behind. His hand holds hers, reminiscent of that day they chased butterflies. 

Beneath the clouded sky, the pouring torrents: lightning, neon-green electric.

Ruba lifts off the ground, and he drops lifeless, stiff.

The whoosh of running water. Her shrieks. Nothing moves. The echoes of footfalls as she rushes over to where he lies. The mud cracks apart beneath her toes. When she reaches Ruba, she sinks to her heels and cradles him, rocking, pleading that he wakes, the cords on her neck taut.

None of her neighbours dares to come out. They stare from the safety of their windows, doors closed, prayers fearfully whispered. Dogs barking. A small crowd of relatives gathers before her hut, holding her mother down. Her father towers by them, defeated, in the dim. “What can we do?” His chin quivers. “How can we fight a devil?”

“Let me go and die with her. This is my fault. I gave her to him.” The thick veins on her mother’s neck stand, too, as she shouts into the gloom.

“I can’t lose you both. Hold her, hold her for me.” Her father’s knees kiss the ground. “Forgive them! Forgive us, Kərfi—” his voice fails him.

“Either die here, in the slippery dirt and in the rain, or come with me…Take my hand.”

“This is all my fault…I killed him…Kill me, kill me. Let me die here with him.”

And for what happened next, you’ve called me a villain, you’ve hated me. But let only those who’ve never been twisted by love and heartache cast the first stone.

“A single death would be too easy, ungrateful child.” The Swear begins to sizzle on his tongue. “You will live, and you will die, and you will live, and you will die. You will be reborn into newer bodies, newer days, and you will always have this lingering idea in your head of your first life. It will haunt you, like a sweet dream you can’t quite recall, like the forever hoot of an owl in the dead of night. At each of your deaths, you will lose your way on the fork road of the Hereafter, find yourself in the Between Worlds. There, I will ask again for your hand. One—”

“My answer will always be n—”

The Swear leaves the Kərfi’s ancient hand; it’s a stream of fizzling gold that lights up the dark.

*

“What does love even mean to you?” 

“Love’s a river with 10,000 tributaries. Some meander and bend more than others, but they’re all love in the end. And, the end’s all that should matter.”

“You piece of shit.”

“What?”

“How did you become so twisted?”

“I love you, Yeli, I do.”

“If it twists you then it’s not love. You have such vast powers. Why stay stuck on a single mortal girl? Why me?”

*

At the end, the castle of glass crumbles, walls and floor buck and break. Mirror fragments screech as they merge before us, superposing scene over scene, moment over moment. A mosaic part-day and part-night forms in mid-air among the soughing splinters and dust.

“No…” I try to take us back to the Between Worlds, try to send you back to life. I urge my magic until it hurts. The recollection on the mosaic isn’t yours but mine. A memory given to me by trees.

She dons a tanned ronko with black vertical stripes. On her neck lie five chains adorned with beads and cowry shells, and ringed fingers hold a pipe between her lips. She takes it out, puffs smoke into the air. “Where’s my grandson?” Voice like ancient gravel. “Where’s Ruba?”

Pɔmpɔ sobs. The rain’s drying up around her, but her tears still fall, dead body in her embrace. “Over there.”

“His brothers warned him. You can steal anything in this cosmos but the wife of a spirit man. Take the stone, move on, ah, but youth. Did the Kərfi curse both of them? All that camphor can’t be for a single soul alone.”

“He only cursed my daughter, my child.”

“What did he say?”

Pɔmpɔ tells the woman.

She stares at Ruba for a long time.

“Can you bring her back? This is my fault.”

“Let the things meant to die, die. Don’t you learn, child? I’ll try to counter the Kərfi’s curse. It’s the only way.” She smiles, an out-of-place smile, and faces Pɔmpɔ. “I’m going to trap Ruba in the stars. He wouldn’t mind, if he loves this girl as much as his brothers say. And if your daughter — the reason he lost his life — in any of the restless lives she’ll live, finds him in the sky, remembers his soul, then the Kərfi’s Swear will be broken. She’ll be sent to the Hereafter, where she’ll meet the one she glimpsed in the stars, and they’ll love again. Bring two birds back together with one stone.”

“But how will we know it worked?”

“Only the dead will know of the affairs of the dead.” She pours purple powder on Ruba’s cold body, chanting strange verses and ancient names. She sets the boy ablaze with a raise of her second and ring fingers, purple flames. “And be sure to tell your husband I came.” She goes on her knees, and to the dead daughter, she whispers, “Remember the stars, Imari. Remember the soul you once loved.” She slides back in time, from night into day, the woman with a voice like ancient gravel.

Her plan would’ve worked.

I would’ve lost you in no more than two lives. But the trees. They told me everything about her countercurse. Yeli belongs to you, they crackled in my ears with voices resembling night storms, promised to you beneath our eyes. She’ll always be yours. There are rules, these fools. There are traditions. They told me everything, and I wiped your mind clean of the patterns on Ruba’s skin, the one true way to his and your freedom. But to touch something as delicate as memory meant with time you’d forget who you are.

“I’ve found them all.”

“Wha…who’re you talking to?”

You’re silent. Calm and knowing grin. Black light starts radiating from your centre. Bright. Bright. Bright—

You explode into a thousand sequin flowers.

*

I wake up in the garden with blossoms of memories from all the lives you’ve lived, blinking. I am alone.

Your petal-memories fall around me, like on a mid-autumn’s day.

“Memories from all the lives I’ve lived? All the lives you’ve made me live, you mean.” A disembodied voice.

“Who are you?”

“You already know.” 

Yeli?

“Never been my name.”

You’re reading my thoughts. How? “Show yourself!”

“Afraid?”

“Show yourself!” I begin to shed the human visage I’d donned to be easier on your eyes. I tap into my oldest form and magic — promise broken. Clay and wax skin, fire and smoke come out of my head. Stronger. “I’m afraid of no one! I’ve looked into the eyes of Kərə Masaba himself. So who are you that I should fear? Show yourself, pull down the darkness between us.”

“Hmm, hmm. We will not be rushed. We will reveal ourselves at our own damn time.”

Beat.

Beat.

My heart skips. How?

You float from underneath the petals. You unbury yourself. Like a child dipped in bɔnpamayn and left basking in sunlight, you glow. Your head’s been shaved, and your scalp crackles with scarlet lightning, with pow—

 

{More Than a Kərfi’s Wife}

With power. My scalp crackles with power.

Crimson electric zaps through my body, head to toe to head again. There’s an army of myselves, women from the many lives I’ve lived, the many lives I’ve been forced to live, towering beside me. An army of 200 misfits, loners, daydreamers, wanderers, all of whom have had their ounce of affliction because of him.

His features look barely human, but I see his surprise, his fear of our glory. I see his hurt. He stands aglow in the distance, in a clearing, wax and clay, over six feet tall.

He sends a bolt of magic against us. Indigo light burns through the air. A copse of us is obliterated… But we knew sacrifices would have to be made.

We march on.

Before another bolt leaves his hands, we blast petals his way, a hurricane of memories; we fight back with what we’ve been through. The gale engulfs him, sweeps him off his feet. He flails, he goes on his knees, he growls, blusters and curses at us. He glimpses pieces of my life as flowers stir around him.

My hands and feet are tied in this life, for my own good. Two men stand over me. The brows of one of them lift as he peers down. I tremble and writhe on the ground, and white foam comes out of my mouth. Sweat soaks the black ropes on my wrists.

“It’s her devil,” says one of the men, my neighbour, “paying her a visit. Maybe it’s angry at her, I don’t know.”

“Will it pass?”

“Of course. But maybe I should call Pastor Fyle. Or you call him. You are the boyfriend.”

“Look. Don’t want to be here for all that. Tell her not to call me again. Fuck that…changing my number.” He leaves, runs away, like a thousand others before him.

The Kərfi has cursed the soil beneath us, turned it into wet tar. We struggle to reach him.

He experiences another piece of me.

“Aminata, Ami.” My name is Aminata in this life, Ami, Amina, yet I do not answer my boss’s call. “Are you even paying attention to me?”

The patterns on the wallpaper keep dancing. “I am happy here,” I say vaguely to the woman. It was true, but things keep pulling me away, things like dancing geometric patterns on paper walls.

“Look, Ami, I like you. I do. If there’s anything going on, tell me.”

“I quit.”

“What?”

“My lungs don’t feel like home when I’m happy. I’m going away.”

“Wait.” She touches my hand, and I scream in her face until my mouth becomes a volcano.

The Kərfi screams along with me as new petals dart across his line of vision.

I wear only rags and moonlight. On the cold, blue streets of a city fast asleep in mist, I lie. In this life, like most, I’ve lost myself and become a mad woman again. My name and story are only what passersby concocted to make a myth of the insane and lonesome. They call me Maria. I don’t remember being called anything else. I dream of bubbles.

This was the very night she came to me, the woman with a voice like gravel. She was only passing through, a wayfarer of time, and worlds, and stories. And to whatever god that steered her my way again, I’m grateful. I had no idea who she was, back then, just another stranger at midnight. Even now, how much do I know of her?

“You?” She recognises me in the halflight of the moon. “You’re still here?” Her hands rest on her aged hips.

“I’m a bird in a cage of clouds.”

She’s also dressed in rags. “If you’re here, then he’s still tra—” She weeps into her hands, loses herself in soliloquy. She joins me on the side of the road, embraces me. I haven’t been held in a long time. She smells of corn left too long over fire. “Of course, of course, he figured it out. He erased bits from your mind. That delicate place. Who knows what else you would have forgotten?”

“The mind is an illusion, a sad song.”

“And after all this time, you still haven’t chosen him.”

“The monster in the white.”

“You don’t even know of the magic all these lives have built up in you… I can’t remind you. That would only undo my countercurse. I can’t remind you of anything.” She talks to herself until forever sleeps off with the city around us. “I can send you back to him,” she says to me at last, quietly. “Go back and ask him to remind you. He would, in the name of his dark affection.”

“I am tired.”

“You’ve been tired all your life, child.”

“Throw me with the yellow bones.”

She studies me, as though reading the past and future from cowries thrown. “You must search for these things in your memories. Only then will you get through this. You have to be subtle.”

“Tell me, tell me, blue is red that bled for someone else.” My thoughts keep drifting away, without wings.

“Focus, child. Listen to me. When he shows you your memories, you must find a name from true love’s lips, so you would know yourself; find a love you must forgive, so you would fly; find a love you must remember, so you would set both of you free. The spirit might try to manipulate you, of course, of course. Some memories would hurt, too. You may even lose bits of yourself, but you’re strong, stronger than you know. May we not meet again on these lonely roads.” Her blade glints where it catches drops of moonshine in the dark, hilt made of purple leaves.

I take it from her hand.

“The more you remember, the more power you unleash.”

“Thank you,” I say from behind the fogs of my mind. I plunge the knife into my chest.

Some agonies are better than other agonies.

I bleed.

I die.

One. Last. Time.

*

A name from true love’s lips, so you would know yourself: his love had no chains, Papa. I don’t remember his name anymore, but I remember mine because of him. Papa never called me Yeli, a name even I called myself. He called me Imari, short for Imarimuthɔŋ, a plea for me to live, a plea for me to be peace, not to only them but to myself. I remember my name. And to know myself is to have power, is to be more than a Kərfi’s wife.

*

A love you must forgive, so you would fly: Mama, Pɔmpɔ, named after a tangling thing so death would be afraid to touch her. Her mother had also known the loss of too many children. For 201 existences, I held it against Mama, called her love selfish, but be it ugly names or deals with devils, a mother just wants a child who’ll stay. She only wanted me to stay. Why hold it against her? Mama, wherever you are in the cosmos, I forgive your love. I understand. And to forgive is to become weightless; this is how I fly.

*

He fights no more. He’s on his back. “Kill me then, ungrateful child, kill me and free yourself.”

I hover over him. “I have no need to. The key to my freedom has always been within me.” I smile. “And death would be too easy.” The Swear begins to sizzle on my tongue. My other selves surround us, my sentinels. “You say you’ve only been good to us, which means you shouldn’t mind spending the rest of your days slipping in and out of our past lives. I put this Swear on you, Pele: to be stuck forever in this garden of our memories.” Petals stream from my palms.

He groans at their touch. His pained screech fills the wind. Serpentine roots slither and tangle around his ankles, and they drag him into the soil.

“Why struggle at the idea of living my life, if you’ve only been good to me?”

*

A love you must remember, so you would set both of you free: I remember the stars, a constellation that was once white kisses against a honey-brown soul. I look up at the night sky of a city blue and cold and shrouded in strange vapour. I see a hand forming in the stars. From this hand, I do not shrug away. At the touch of our palms, all fades to black.

*

I’m in the woods.

That day I first met him.

I hide behind low shrubs, stooping, spying.

He leans on a rough tree, whistling against the heat. He stops. “I know that you are back there.” Like gravel, like his grandmother’s, like a thing on the verge of crumbling, his voice. “Why are you even hiding? Don’t you know I’ve been waiting for you?”

The blood beneath my cheeks flames. My skin shrouds the blush. I come from behind the shrubbery at the same time he turns and faces me.

Our eyes meet.

That dimpled smile.

Hurricane in my heart. How long has it been?

My mouth opens, but words fail me. Close.

“I know what you want to say. I would’ve waited a thousand more years. A thousand more.” Eyes glint, tears within. “And what he put you through was way worse. All that hurt. But it’s all behind us now. Let’s focus on the win, on you and me together again.”

Silence.

He kisses me, and I kiss him back, in the woods.

*

“May all our heavens be second chances at reliving the moments we cherish the most.”

*

I tilt my head, looking up at the stars. I smile, breathless, yet alive for the first time.

Victor Forna is a Sierra Leonean writer based in his country’s capital Freetown. His short story appeared in the Short Story Day Africa Anthology: Disruption. He also has works featured in Bad Form, the Nami Podcast, Literandra, Brittle Paper and Poda-Poda. He tweets @vforna12.

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