The Bone Stomach

Ziawa Jande

Auntie Taywah died from navels.

This is how they tell the story in my family, anyway. They say Auntie Taywah was zepsy from birth; cracky like an over-boiled egg. They say when she was small, she was so fascinated by crabs being able to breathe underground that she buried her younger brother’s head in the sand when they went to the beach so he could discover the trick and relay it to the surface. They say she believed the world had no colour in the olden days, that everything was black and white, because of the photographs she saw of our relatives. Her parents came home one day to find her stained in the rainbow up to her elbows: she thought she could raise them from the dead by soaking the photos in food dye.

“Dey-say-dey-say” should be our family anthem, for all the mouth-running and cheycheypolay we inspire across the county. That said, a common thing like navels didn’t yank the yarn hard enough to jerk that last bit of crazy out of my auntie, as one uncle put it. It’s no secret: a tiny clutch of girls in my clan – like me, my mother, and my grandmother – are born with completely smooth stomachs. No wrinkled nub on our bellies. No connection to our time in the womb, connected to another, bathed by their fluid and drunk on their blood, folded between their bones. The whole clan knows and accepts it because what else can they do? Half of them like our medicine too much, the other half like our money more. Besides, stranger things happen in this world. I’ve read of people whose throats close until they die because groundpea or egg got into their food. Those navel-bearers are no less weird than we are, but the likes of Auntie Taywah be cutting up and carrying on like we grew on trees. 

“Our no-navels selves are what drove her into that crazy home she ended up in,” chuckles Grammah K.

“It wasn’t. Taywah never had no doggone sense,” Kemah sucks her teeth.

“Overplus and overmuch, that was her. Every single time she came to spend time, hayaka! Lifting our clothes upandahn, commanding us to naked ourselves so she could inspect our bodies for demon marks. ‘Da wetin happin to allor yor navels? Wehplay yor duh keep it at? Yor ate it, eneh so? Yor either ate it or the Devil ate it. Papa fini tokkay ever since. Papa say yor the Devil chirren dem. Da why man can’t put bones in yor stomachs de normal way, only de Devil able to do it. He can make yor eat yor ownsef navel and then make yor swallow his toto—’”

“Mama! Ssh now. What kind of talk is this?” Kemah hisses.

My grandmother roars. Her laugh doesn’t turn on itself, curdling into a hacking cough, which is rare. It’s also bad. Grammah K will die tonight. The signs are all here. The cough stopped this morning, as if it decided to grant her one final day of peace. Kemah, my mother, has been calling her “Mama” this whole week. Grammah K is on her “chukunush” this and that, a playname she hasn’t called me since I was a teenager. We’ve never been people of “Grandmother” or “Mama” or “granbaby” to each other. Kumba. Kemah. Kadiatu. Sugar, salt, pepper. Call a thing by its true name, keep a hand on its heartbeat. Death is changing the shape of our names in each other’s mouths.

Most important of all, the vigil has ended. Members of our rural hillside community of small, medium, and large importance have camped outside our compound since news spread among the healers how bad Grammah K was. They retreated en masse three days ago, leaving their offerings in the grand palaver hut in our front yard. They know. It’s her time.

The largest gift is an obscenity. Imported flowers, cheap chocolates, and “native” curiosities: strange roots floating in brown liquid, bundles of dried weeds and stems, an assortment of animal teeth that reeks. Things that would be offensive under different circumstances. The offering is from the research centre, which sits like a giant pimple on the highest hill of our green valley, looking down on us. My hands itch to throw out the gift every time I pass the palaver hut, but Kemah won’t allow me.

No,” is all she says. The research centre is no friend of ours, though I’ve never known why. Healing is a gateway calling. Accepting your gifts means inheriting enemies, too. Fully, without question.

Offerings are customary, as well as reciprocal, when a great healer is passing. Kemah and I are healers too, but our duties are on hold until my grandmother has crossed over. We’ve been at it double time, accepting tokens with one hand, pressing parcels of Grammah K’s “deliverance” into the palms of strangers with the other. People poured in from counties near and far. Chancers took their shot with thick bundles of crisp notes, hoping to sweeten Grammah K into taking on an ancestral role on their behalf. For her to enrich them, guide their steps with kind eyes from the great beyond would be no small thing. They don’t know my grandmother. She may be sweet, but old age and the waiting embrace of the joyful everafter have changed her. She has more of my mother’s saltiness and my fire than they realise.

After she goes, Grammah K wants nothing to do with the whining and wheedling of the living. “To die is to achieve eternal peace, not take up watchman job,” she says. She doesn’t even want to meet Grampa, her one true love. “I’ll be sitting in a divine seat, chukunush. Higher than his. No more running upandahn making him comfortable. Take my advice, chukunush: be married and enjoy it one time, so when you move on you move on. Kpang! Finish.”

Now, Kemah squeezes her mouth into a pinch at the mention of Auntie Taywah, who was actually her few-times-removed aunt on Grampa’s side, not a cousin. Auntie Taywah had two children before her mind swallowed her, before she was institutionalised by the same Devil-fearing father she idolised. One of Auntie Taywah’s children is a boy. No woman in our direct lineage has boys, ever. One girl, always. My mother’s expression clearly shows she sets no store by anything Auntie Taywah ever said. “We were children then. Even after we were grown…Taywah always had problems.” Kemah shrugs. She taps the side of her head. Some problems are beyond our help.

Every mouth-pinch of Kemah’s is meaningful. Mash-mouth means disapproval. Purse-mouth is for listening to fascinating gossip, waiting for her moment to jump in with her own yarns to stitch into the fabric. Flat-mouth means murder; she’s packing the oncoming explosion in her mouth until it cooks properly. Crinkle-mouth is sadness, the kind she can barely hold in or on to. I have to catch her unawares with that one. I caught her yesterday, crinkles round her lips trembling, tears on her cheeks. That’s how I know it will be today.

Kemah looks up from smoothing the comforter down over Grammah K on the bed. “Go make tea.”

I hide my sigh in the motion of rising. Grammah K is dying in the heart of the dry season. Despite the heat, I’m the in-house teamaker. Everything makes her cold. The herbs don’t ease her as they should. “My bones are icy, chukunush. Like needles poking my insides.”

They whisper while I’m in the kitchen. I boil and brew, trying to remember a time I felt something other than tired, adrift. When last I lived up to the pepper in my end of the triangle. The woman I consider more motherly than my own mother is leaving me and I should feel devastated, hysterical. All I can muster is exhaustion. I knew Grammah K had to die one day, but now that she’s actually doing it, I can’t even feel betrayed. I’ll be…free. What would that feel like, where will I do that at? Once my grandmother is gone, I will leave this town and never look back. Save myself while I’m still young. This is not my life.

When I return, Kemah is still stroking and adjusting the comforter around Grammah K. She moves aside, allowing me to serve the tea. Grammah K sips, crookedly upright. She refuses to let me hold the cup to her mouth.

I sit. Kemah sits.

I doze.

*

“Once upon the time before time was…”

I jolt awake on the sofa. Night has fallen. Hard rain drums the roof, thunder slaps the air every now and then. It never rains in this month. Unless…

I rush towards Grammah K, just as Kemah holds up a hand and gestures towards the bed. I peer through the gloom more closely. Grammah K’s chest rises and falls, her eyes closed. She’s asleep. Alive and asleep.

Kemah repeats herself. “Time,” I whisper the expected answer, sitting down. A lump as sharp as jagged stone forms and jigs around in my throat, refusing to be swallowed easily. This will be Grammah K’s last lore. Put together, the three of us have gone through these motions thousands of times, with such ease for so long they hardly feel like rituals. For the sickbed, the deathbed, for spiritual cleansing and marriage and conception and birthing beds. Her own bed, now, is how we send her off.

“There once was a chiefdom in a place much like this one, ruled by a highly prosperous chieftain,” Kemah continues. Her voice is soft and warm, cotton over my ears, yet loud enough to compete with the rain. “He was loved as much as he was hated, meaning he was a fair man. The chieftain had three sons. The eldest was by his first wife, who had died several years before. The eldest was a kind, gentle soul, a great lover of music and nature. She was very naïve, given to seeing the best in others. His father often wondered what kind of leader the eldest would make when he himself was too old to rule or died, if the eldest would be easily conned out of his birthright or if he could keep a clear head when the time came. The chieftain’s other two sons were crafty, bloodthirsty in their adventures. They were both captains in the army and skilled huntsmen, much to their mother’s delight. See, the chieftain had been compelled by his advisors to remarry after the death of his first wife.”

“Humph. Nobody compelled him. Tell the story properly.”

I jump again at Grammah’s voice rising from the dark. So she’s not asleep. Kemah releases a loud breath and closes her eyes as she mutters, “I’m telling it, am I not?”

Grammah K gives an impatient grunt. “Desire and pleasure don’t stop because your spouse goes to greet the gods.” Before my mother can fire a reply, Grammah K gives a magnanimous wave, Tell your story how you please. I swear she rolls her eyes but it’s too dark to tell. I giggle as Kemah gives another muttering sigh.

“The new chief-wife was beautiful. Ruthless and calculating like her sons. Far more, in fact. She would host a party for the advisors or go riding with the army generals during training, and next thing you know the chieftain’s decision on matters of state had changed. It was no fault of the chieftain’s. He—”

“All. Of. This. Was. His. Fault.” Another bed interruption. “The chieftain had his shit together but his chieftainship was large. It was too much shit to keep together and too much ground to cover. To make matters worse, he allowed himself to be cheapened by beauty. He picked the first fine girl he saw and gave her power. Pearls don’t lie around on the seashore waiting to be found – you must dive for them! Aren’t you glad none of us are pretty? Ugly woman wey outlast diamond sef-sef.”

It takes a beat before Kemah decides to laugh. When she does, when we all do, it shakes the room and polishes the air.

“So the door stood wide open for the new chief-wife’s plot,” Kemah says. “Her moment came soon enough. News of a vicious leopard began to travel throughout the land. The animal was beyond the usual menaces that crept out of the forest to steal a wandering goat or unmonitored child. This one ripped through flesh and crunched into bone with ease, killing humans and animals alike. The leopard mauled cattle in broad daylight, leaving farmers terrified of working the fields. The chieftain put a bounty on the creature’s head, proclaiming that whoever killed it would be gifted a rich reward and parcel of land. Brave warriors, men and women alike, did their level best to claim the prize and restore peace to the land. After many injuries and deaths, not a soul dared to enter the forest where the beast lurked. The situation looked hopeless.

“One fine day, the chief-wife approached the chieftain with a suggestion—”

Grammah snorts again. “Isn’t it always a fine day when a downpour of shit happens?” Her voice is guttural, like she’s talking through an underground pipe. The usual sparkle in her eyes have dulled to an intense sheen, somehow both dull and bright, so bright I can see their glow across the room.

Kemah mash-mouths and ploughs on. “‘You know our sons are the best marksmen and strategists anywhere,’ the chief-wife said. ‘Why you keep doing play-play? Deploy them to capture this creature. Between the three of them, they can accomplish it. Yes, all three of them. Why would I exclude your – our – eldest?’ You see, for the plan to work the chief-wife couldn’t leave out the eldest son. Her boys were more brute force than brains, and she needed sharp wits at the beginning of the mission. ‘But make sure to offer them something sweet, ehn. A reward so ripe they cannot refuse.’

“‘What would that be?’ asked the chieftain, sensing a promise he would later regret. ‘The seat after you die. Regardless of who wins,’ she cooed. Shocked, the chieftain emphatically refused. Leave the pattern of ascension to a game of chance? Hell no. He couldn’t throw his power into the ring so carelessly. The hierarchy had to be respected. Not to mention he wasn’t sure his eldest son was a match for his brothers. He was sharp, no doubt, but the rest? The gamble was too great. ‘Lookah you mehn, come on!’ teased the chief-wife. ‘You don’t want the boys to have nice things? Fine-fine things they will cherish because they won them fair and square. Who cares how the council appoints the heir? You are the chieftain! You can create or change rules as you please! Those old men are not powerful like you.’ The chief-wife spent all night convincing the chieftain…mind you, she was very convincing.”

Grammah K and I titter; Kemah grins. The shortest distance between two points is making the two points meet under pleasurable conditions. Nighttime meetings were famously effective. “The next morning, the chieftain cheerfully announced the plan to his sons in front of the court,” Kemah says. “All three accepted the challenge with zeal, the eldest already gazing into the distance in deep thought as he formulated a plan. Before dismissing them, the chieftain presented each of them with identical magical flowers. ‘These are singing zais. They know no master and speak no lies. The first person to return with a zai intact and carrying the dead leopard wins. You will have horses, tools, and weapons to assist you, and you will enter the forest from three different directions. May Gwo and the ancestors guide and protect you.’ He embraced and dismissed them into a cheering crowd. On their way out, the chief-wife waylaid her two sons with a vicious hiss, ‘Make sure that fool doesn’t come back alive.’

“The three brothers separated, cutting paths into the forest. It took no time before they were met with challenges. The second son was the unlucky first one to butt up with the leopard. Growling and pacing, it leapt at him and his horse. The horse reared from the creature’s claws, throwing the second son off the saddle. He ran for his life through the bush, only looking back once to see his injured stallion being taken down by ferocious claws.

“The third son had other designs. Weakened by desires of the flesh, he came across some merrymakers in a palm wine hut and decided to stay for a quick brew and dancing. A quick break grew into several hours. He didn’t even feel the zai tumble from his pocket as he twirled with a pretty girl. The flower was trampled to nothing.

“But the eldest. Hehn, he sat in the forest for a long time, thinking. The leopard could be anywhere in the vast terrain; it was senseless to waste energy hunting it. He would bring it to him. He spotted a bee’s nest on a tree branch, and it sparked an idea. He built a fire and wrapped his long coat around him, nearly covering his eyes. He lifted a smoking log to the hive and, very carefully, smoked the bees out of the hive. After they deserted, he cut the hive down and dribbled honey around the enclosure. Then he waited.”

Grammah K coughs. I rise and feed her tepid tea in slow gulps. She lets me. She’s fading. My nostrils tingle. I flare them to keep the tears back and my hand steady.

“Naturally, the leopard was attracted to the scent of raw honey in the breeze. Eating his fill of horse meat was one thing, but who can resist sweetness?” Kemah’s voice thickens as she fights her own swell of emotions, watching me watch my grandmother as I feed her.

“Exactly,” I say, voice cracking as I stroke Grammah K’s cheek. “Who can?”

“The leopard wandered near, licking honey as it went. As it drew nearer, it caught the scent of the eldest son, but he was ready. He launched his spear, striking it clean through one eye. Finishing it off was easy. The eldest son slung its body over his horse and began the trek back to the palace in the dark. On a main road, he met his brothers. Imagine their faces! Equal measures of shock, jealousy, and rage. This filthy toenail had the bounty and would claim the prize. But they hid their emotions well. ‘Let’s take a shorter road back home,’ they suggested, jeering when the eldest reminded them of the road’s lurking dangers. ‘My man, stop acting like a woman! Wahappin, you scared of the forest? Scary skellor wetin! You fini bagging the fiercest beast in here.’ The eldest felt a prickling of his senses he couldn’t voice. The other brothers jostled and joked until he gave in. Off they went. And as you well know…”

“…Shortcut kill deer,” we chorus. The air in the room warps, vibrates. An energy flows around me, around us, melding the air to my skin and my skin to my bones. I massage my arms but the vibration lingers.

“The two brothers stabbed the eldest in the back, chest, mutilated his face, kicked him to a bloody pulp. He screamed, fought, and wept as his blood seeped into the ground, but they were merciless. They buried him in the underbrush, freed his horse and tossed his weapons and tools outside the nearest market ground to be claimed by a lucky trader. The next day, the chiefdom woke to two bloody, dusty champions. Neither had a zai to present, but it didn’t matter. The second son claimed victory, a handsome reward, and the chieftain’s seal, guaranteeing him the seat upon his father’s death. He credited the youngest brother’s bravery, leading his accomplice to claim a juicy reward of his own. They hung their heads as they recounted how the eldest son fell prey to the leopard. They had fought for his life, but the beast was quicker. He was lost and would be sorely missed, but at least they had safeguarded the chiefdom. They became heroes. Over the years, the tale of the leopard-trapping adventure grew suspiciously wilder and different with each retelling, but nobody paid enough attention. The chieftain lost himself in mourning his fallen son. Illness after illness overcame him, and he sank deeper after every failed attempt to rejuvenate his body and spirit. He died heartbroken. The chief-wife ruled by the side of her sons. Not a single nose in the land pointed higher than hers.”

I close my eyes, hugging my knees to my chest. My flesh is climbing all over me. My eyes feel hot, then cold. Flowing lava, cubes of ice.

“In all this, everybody forgot the dead son’s zai. Flowers are forgettable things, after all.”

The room shifts under me. I know this story. It doesn’t go this way. Not the version Grammah K and Kemah told me. There is evil and plotting, sure enough, but also a beautiful princess, a handsome traveller, a singing bone, and a betrothal. An ending worthy of the fair of face and pure of heart. I am neither. We three are neither. Why are they changing it?

Grammah K starts to hum. Kemah joins in. I start to rock, back and forth, back and forth, pressing my nose to my knees. A force pulls at my core, a wrenching deep in my torso that feels as familiar and welcoming as it does alien. I wrestle it, terrified of where it wants to drag me. What is this? What’s happening? I don’t want this! This is not my life!

The chanting of my mother and grandmother grows louder. The walls warp more sharply, slipping and sliding around the corners of my vision. I close my frozen burning eyes but the room, the drumbeat of rain, the inky yawn of the sky are somehow in this room, with me, within me. Seeing me as clearly as I see them.

Kemah is still talking. It looks – feels – like talking, chanting, echoing, all at the same time. I don’t know how she’s doing it. So soft. So loud. Please stop, let it stop.

“It didn’t end where it should have,” Kemah whisperbooms in her new mothergod voice. “Nothing ends. Life circles, repeating itself as often as it can get away with. Memory can be a kind mother or a vengeful one. It chose to linger on. Deep in the old forest, in the spot where the eldest son’s blood and dying cries had stained the earth and air, a zai shrub grew. It didn’t grow like other plants, taking its sweet time over many years. The zai took root and burst into a thicket in an instant. It was breathtaking, its flowers various shades of mourning purple. For all its beauty, nobody dared to pick a single flower or leaf. Gatherers of mushrooms and medicinal plants, hunters and passersby all claimed to hear a song drifting on the wind near the shrub. Yet there was never a singer in sight, nor could the melody be recognised. Word of the miraculous blossom spread in the sacred circle of healers as they puzzled its origins. The sacred circle couldn’t make it out but knew enough to conclude the source was magical, possibly dangerous. This kind of magic often sprang from death in the bloodiest fashion or gave rise to it in the same vein. It was clear the plant’s suspected properties and whereabouts had to remain secret. The sacred circle gave the villagers one rule to abide by: ignore what you hear, never go near. Since the villagers were already terrified of the strange singing plant and avoided the area around it, the matter found uneasy rest.

“But the right words have ways of drifting past the most unlikely ears. Music, even more so. Music is magic of its own kind. And people! Mtsshw,” Kemah hisses. “They trust too little, too much, or can’t be trusted at all. They move, they forget, or die. People assume others will follow their rules. Gossip is not like legends. Gossip must eat from a communal bowl in order to thrive. A legend needs only one disciple, one memory-keeper that knows its truth.

“Time passed. The village grew into a town. New families put down roots. Most heard stories about the humming wind and the captivating zai in the abandoned part of the forest. One sigh of music in the air was enough to send them running.”

Kemah’s voice shreds my ears, butchers my insides. The swirling-pulling-yanking sensation is gentle one moment, excruciating the next. Why would my own mother do this to me? Grammah K…appears lit from within beneath the comforter, mouth inhumanly wide. Gibberish, the most breathtaking words I’ve ever heard, escapes her mouth, splattering the strobing walls. They glow on impact, smearing, reforming, and growing into inconceivable shapes. Slowly, they warp into their true form, over and over, until the room is covered, the air heavy with their perfume. Purple zai flowers.

“One afternoon, a young girl went walking in the forest. She was a curious child, overly so one could say, and curiosity can be the killing kind. Her family were new to town; they’d heard no dark whispers. Loving nature as much as she did, the girl ached to explore the forest on the southwestern edge of the township. So off she set. Into the forest. Into an area she knew nothing about. 

“After wandering awhile, picking this and sniffing that, she wandered into the zai clearing. The girl had never seen a plant so magnificent. Its flowers were of every shade: wild and vivid, sweet and demure, mixed hues dancing in the sunlight. By now, the overgrowth was higher than five men standing on each others’ heads. The girl moved closer. Wind swept by and around her, through her, it seemed. It carried a song she couldn’t make out, so she moved closer and closer to the bush. She stepped on something sharp and screamed.”

I’m on the floor, writhing, howling. The flowers on the walls of the room remain where they are, yet have migrated onto my face, too. My body. My belly. They cover me, gently sucking my flesh. Their smell…

“The wind hollered and hooted, sweeping the girl clean off her feet.” Kemah’s voice is a mighty shout. “When she drifted down, she saw she’d stepped on a white sliver poking out of the forest floor. The object was a piece of bone, bright with her blood. It called to her, in her head, in her heart, through the wind. Pick me up and blow. Gingerly, the girl did as she was told, dropping the bone in terror when it began to sing:

Traveller dear, traveller dear…my bone, my bone you blow.

My brothers killed me in the woods and stole my flower away.

Traveller dear, traveller dear…my bone, my bone you blow.

Kemah is on the floor beside me, her face a dark moon phasing in and out of the purple haze, eyes a swirl of deep mauve as she continues. “The bone told its story of betrayal and murder. It told her where to dig, parting its impassable canopy to make way. Hours later, the girl had uncovered every fragment of the long-dead heir. The towering canopy of zai flowers shrivelled to ash, drifting away in the wind. The bones began to shake and the girl trembled, scrambling away. Then, a strange feeling of comfort and fulfilment washed over her. She lay on the forest floor. ‘Thank you,’ the bones said. ‘Everything we touch from now on will be bountiful, kind, and just.’”

Flowers drown me. I drown in them, I am them. My world is all their shades. A radiant heat fills me, tugging at my waistline where my navel would be if I had one. I’m screaming but the gibberish streaming out of my mouth only makes more of them, the zais. It’s excruciating; I’m in heaven. I am endless.

“A day later, in the forbidden part of the forest, surrounded by bones – that’s how they found your great-great-great-great grandmother. Glowing. A smile on her face. The first of us had been created. Months later, she gave birth to the second. And on and on, we have lived.”

Kumba, Kemah, Kadiatu. We are one hum, one chant, one lament. We fill the universe.

*

“Ask what you want to ask. But work as you talk,” Kemah commands.

The lightning storm is over. The sun will be up in a few hours. Grammah K is…gone. The way her eyes locked onto mine and Kemah’s though she never left the bed, the zais serving as her eyes as she watched us watch her go, her essence thrashing to a crescendo until…brilliance. In shades of white, magenta, violet, indigo. Nine decades worth of life. Zais rained down on us, melted into my skin until I glowed. The final note of our symphony still thrums within me, a pitch above anything my ears have ever been able to capture. Somehow I know the ringing is permanent. Kemah looks deflated, yet rejuvenated. Emptier now that her mother is gone, but released from the torment of holding her tongue. And…expectant. Waiting to see how I do at…this. I stroke my belly in disbelief. Me, a mother, a miracle blooming inside me as with every foremother before.

Kemah senses my hesitation. “Those ones,” Kemah points with her chin and her sneer-mouth, which she only applies to one local family. I don’t need to look up to know she’s aiming a glare at the pimple up the hill. “Research centre, my leathery ass. Descendants of the chieftain have been on this land longer than we have. There’s no need for them to be deceitful. Every so often they rebrand themselves and snake their way back to town. Looking for one thing: the heart of the zai. To them, our stories are nonsense. A fairytale concocted to hide the truth about a real plant with extraordinary abilities they can exploit. They wasted all that money building that thing up there, just so they can sit around here. Waiting to pounce, for us to crack if they press us with enough money. Hoping we’ll die one by one until the last of them can plunder and kick over the last of our graves. Ha! If only they knew…” She cackles until tears pop at the corners of her eyes, then sighs. “That witch of a CEO is just like that chief-wife. Generations separate them. Same blood though. Same conniving, feecee blood, through and through.”

I look around at our family graveyard. At our generations of dragon women, flower spawn, begotten of themselves dozens of times over. These graves are empty, nothing but markers. Pimple Hill needs to believe our bodies are buried here, parched and vulnerable, quivering under their gaze. They’ve struck before, sending graverobbers to desecrate our grounds, but they never turn up anything. A zai’s true burial is performed within the hour after she returns to her final bloom. Kemah crushed and prepared the wilted flower, all that was left of her mother, seasoning it with our tears. The vial rests with all the others in a medicine bag I had never seen before. Vials she saves for clients in the most critical condition. We will never die off this land. Our kin will never turn on us. We live on their tongues, in their veins and cells, ingrained.

I rub my belly again. Impossible but…Did I just feel…Could she be moving so soon? My throat starts to clench shut. This morning I had nothing to offer myself except a bus ticket out of town. Now I have nothing to offer us. I’m an us. A mama with no navel. A resource with no tangible source, in a long line of navel-less women.

Kemah shakes her head, sensing only half of my fears. “He’ll come. The man always does. Once the zai ceremony is performed after one of us dies, the balance of three is restored. He shows up days later, out of nowhere. He…” She looks at the brightening sky, searching galaxies for the words for it. For this, our existence, the inexplicability of this cycle. “He senses us. Or we call him. Maybe both. But he always comes.” She shrugs and goes back to shovelling. “Except for Kelliama back in the 60s because didn’t her gbelle idiot get himself killed in a bus crash on the way here? Left her high and dry in shame. Oh, and in the 1880s there was Korluba—”

My eyes moisten. “What if…I won’t know him…What if he doesn’t…Would he betray…”

“Never. He will protect you, and he will keep your secrets.” Kemah resumes her work, but flaps one hand before does. “And he will love you, if that’s what you need. I didn’t.” She shrugs, smiles. “Your father saw me and said, ‘I’m here.’ And remained here. That was enough for me. Pack your own kinja, so you know what’s inside when you toting it.”

I’m crying now. “Mama…”

“I’m here.” Kemah puts a hand on my shoulder and a shudder jolts from her to me. This is the first time we’ve touched in the weeks leading to Grammah K’s, to Kumba’s, death. A rare time I can call her by her common name. Over the empty coffin we bury for my grandmother, in a graveyard full of deadstones.

“Don’t disturb my chukunush, ehn. She needs her rest.” She pats my belly. “Now, let’s finish quick-quick. Soon you’ll be too fat to help me with anything. We make big babies, did you know? It’s all flowers and music when they go in but chey, you will see flames when you born! Kkkkkiii, big bounty na tell lie! Wait…Did I ever tell you the story of Keturah the chicken-fighting champion, your great-great…”

I sigh and carry on digging. This is my life.

Ziawa Jande was born in Germany and spent her lively childhood in Liberia until the 1990 civil war. A refugee and cultural nomad, she has lived and worked in several African countries. Jande, a clinical immunologist by training, also works as an author, educator, and consultant. She writes crime and speculative fiction. She is a laureate of the Africa39 list of promising sub-Saharan writers and is listed in New African magazine’s 100 Most Influential Africans of 2016. She won the 2017 Brittle Paper Award for nonfiction and was longlisted for the 2019 NOMMO Award for speculative fiction. She has been shortlisted three times for her crime novels. Jande is a 2020-21 Miles Morland Scholarship winner for Spectral, her upcoming jujuism fantasy book. She is also working on a collection of Liberian mystical folktales. Her works have featured in Granta, BBC, Brittle Paper, Omenana, Isele Magazine, Gutter Press, and other publications. Currently, she lives in Monrovia with her son.

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