The Haunting of Kambili
It was the smell of fried plantain, slightly burnt, that roused her. But when Kambili opened her eyes, she wasn’t in Nne’s kitchen. There was only a filmy darkness – one that left an oily coat on her tongue – and the rusted tap leaking drops of water.
One, two, three. She counted, closed her eyes, and submerged back into the vision.
The next time she woke, she was in the hotel room, with the duvet’s heat smothering her. She lay without moving. Sometime during the night, the power had gone out. Kambili heard the sound of generators – old and tired – and felt a flash of irritation. Why had the hotel not put on its own generator?
Reaching into the duvet, Kambili fumbled around for her phone. She found it, turned on its torchlight, and aimed it at the roof. She blinked. Above, on the cemented ceiling, were wet footprints, as if someone had run all over it upside down. And below, on the floor, there was a murky pool of water.
Kambili drew in a ragged breath that was brittle and harsh against her teeth. She swung her legs over the bed and settled them on the floor. The cold enveloped her feet. Is the water real? Something stung her, and she winced, bringing her feet back up. They were covered in cuts, with mud and leaves stuck in the crevices and her toenails. Slowly, she breathed in and out, wondering if she had made the right decision in coming to this place. No matter what she had seen, she should have stayed with Nne. Her lips trembled as she began to pray, “Our Father, Who art in heaven, Hallowed be Thy Name…”
1: No one leaves Obatete
In the morning, as soon as the first rays of sunlight kissed the sky gold, Kambili did makeshift first aid on her cuts; some were deep enough to get infected. She cleaned the wounds with the bottle of water she hadn’t finished during the bus ride, then disinfected and slathered them with vaseline.
There was still no light and no running water either. Kambili had not expected much from a hotel in a middle-of-nowhere shit town, but ahah, this one was too much. She cleaned her face, neck, armpits, and ‘down there’ with wipes and changed her underwear, begrudgingly wearing a bra because she knew how villagers could be. Then she shrugged on a long blue cotton skirt – a lone ranger in her sea of jeans – and her hoodie (formerly white). She checked her phone for messages, but the signal was poor, almost nonexistent. She hissed and tucked the phone and some cash into her bag, then shoved her feet into her worn-out sneakers. Before leaving the room, she glanced at the ceiling. The footprints were gone, and so was the water – disappeared or dried up? She didn’t know. But she steeled her shoulders and locked the door.
Kambili was going into the village.
The village was a relatively small place, quiet and picturesque, with muddy hills and muddier grounds. And it was sentient. Kambili could feel it in the thick air, in the bending of the trees, and on the ground in the grass that wrapped around her ankles, pulling. There was darkness lurking. Evil had spoken to this village for a long time, and now it had called her here.
On those rare days when Nne slipped into sudden catalepsy, she had murmured about the village well enough for Kambili to know her way around. It was strange. This was where her mother had grown up, laid her roots, and uprooted herself. Yet, Kambili felt no form of kinship; all she felt was dread. Cold, hard, heart-churning dread.
Kambili passed the market, already bustling with people. She noticed that compared to the men, the women were fewer – one or two in a sea of men. Unlike her, who averted her gaze and kept it to the ground, the villagers stared at her openly, and she could have sworn that one fish seller hissed at her. Their animosity tightened her bones. Did they recognize her? As the daughter of the one who ran away?
A little further, she came upon the settlement. There were rows of mud houses and thatch huts built and spaced intimately – to keep the ajo mmuo from squeezing themselves in – Nne had said. But it made no sense to Kambili; bad spirits could not be stopped by small spaces. The houses were marked with ancient Nsibidi symbols, drawn with white chalk and numbered with red or black chalk.
With a sigh, Kambili wiped the sweat off her forehead; the sun was beginning to lose its morning warmth, and humid heat wrapped around her like a thick blanket. Under her hoodie, rivulets of sweat formed between and underneath her breasts. Kambili tugged at the hoodie, wishing she had worn a camisole underneath. She had expected harsh, village Harmattan weather. This heat was something else.
“That useless hotel had better have water when I get back,” she grumbled and picked up the pace. She needed to go to the sixty-sixth hut. Conscious of the villagers who watched her, she adjusted her bag’s strap over her shoulders and began to count the houses in Igbo, “ofu, abou, ato, ano, ise…”
Compared to the others, the hut was downtrodden, with its mud exterior chipping away and a goat tied to a post in front of it. Kambili hesitated, questioning her sanity again before she knocked on the wooden door and pushed it open. The hut was dusty, but there were signs that it was occupied. In the parlour where Kambili stood, she found a used plate – orange with palm oil – sitting precariously on a monochrome TV, a brown ageing wrapper resting carefully on a plastic chair, and a comb on the wooden table, with white hairs in its teeth.
“Mama,” Kambili called out softly. She checked the rooms – there were only two – and they were empty. The last door led to a backyard. Kambili twisted it open and went outside. That was where she found the woman whose hair matched the strands on the comb, thick and strong despite her age and a little loose, framing a wickedly wrinkled brown face. The woman shifted, and Kambili noticed she was barefooted, her feet reddened by mud and leaves stuck in her toenails.
Kambili called out, “Mama?”
The woman straightened, moving away from the firewood she was stoking and limping towards Kambili. She held Kambili’s face between her hands, smiled (warmly), and said, “Anyi echewo gi ogologo oge.” We have waited for you a long time.
Kambili supposed she should have brought her grandmother a gift. The Our Lady’s Bread the East was known for, or Okpa, but she didn’t know what her grandmother liked. She had not even expected the woman to be alive and so strong; Kambili watched in awe as her grandmother pounded ede, showing no exertion as the gummy white cocoyam paste drew in the pestle. She was showing Kambili how to cook ofe onugbu – a soup made from bitter leaves and thickened with ede.
Kambili heard singing – slight at first, then becoming louder – from the other end of the house.
“Okpa. Opka di okwu!” a hawker called out as she passed. Kambili had eaten Okpa only once when Nne had travelled to see a ‘friend.’ Her mouth watered as she thought of the bean meal, yellow, soft, and surely steaming hot. Kambili’s stomach rumbled, reminding her she had not eaten the night before or this morning.
Her grandmother caught the swallowing in her throat. “Agu o na agu gi?” Are you hungry? she asked.
Kambili nodded and glanced at the stove where the pot was bubbling, its cover open. They had already washed the bitterness out of the onugbu leaves. It was boiling now, but it would take at least an hour before the meat cooked and the soup was ready.
“Call the woman,” her grandmother said, referring to the Okpa seller.
“Okpa o!” Kambili quickly shouted as she searched the thin pockets of her skirt for money.
The seller came from behind the house, through a gate Kambili had not noticed because it was half-swallowed by the bushes leading to her grandmother’s farm. “Ehei good morning, o,” she greeted as she set her tray down. “How many?”
“Two,” Kambili answered. Perhaps it was Kambili’s voice, but something made the Okpa seller stop short. She eyed Kambili, really looking, for a few seconds before reaching into her tray and selecting two Okpa wrapped in plantain leaves and separated from the rest. The seller made to put them inside a nylon, but Kambili’s grandmother shoved a plate at her. “Put it here,” she grunted.
A silent exchange went on between the seller and Kambili’s grandmother, and Kambili thought she was going mad, but she swore she could hear their voices in her head. Both argued about a Ritual of Purity. Kambili suddenly felt uncomfortable – unsafe. She moved between both women and collected the plate from her grandmother, then pushed a five hundred naira note in the okpa seller’s waiting hand.
“Don’t worry about the change.” Kambili offered her a reluctant smile.
The seller smiled back, and whatever tension was in the air dissipated. “Are you Nne’s daughter?” she asked then, adjusting her wrapper and tightening the knot on her waist.
“Eh, yes,” Kambili answered, confused, because this woman clearly knew who she was.
With a speculative gleam in her eyes, the Okpa seller smiled even wider. “Nnoo nwa furu efu.” Welcome back, lost child.
After the woman left, Kambili’s grandmother snatched the plate from her hand and threw the Okpa into the fire.
And Kambili, hungry, tired, and restless, watched it burn, her lips pressed into a thin line.
Evening rolled in, bringing with it storm clouds that Kambili knew she could not allow to catch her on the way back to town. It was time to leave.
Strangely, she felt bereft. Sad that Nne had never brought her to the village. Sure, the village was weird, with it being transmundane and having fast-changing extreme weather, unfriendly occupants, and that crazy Okpa seller. But finding her grandmother made all of that seem unimportant. They had spent only an afternoon together – she and the grandmother she had just met, but there was an immediate bond. It felt like she had met her grandmother before; there was a familiarity in her touch and in the way her eyes crinkled at the seams when she smiled.
Kambili went over her day again and again in an attempt to sear the memory permanently into her brain. She had learned how to cook Onugbu. With the way her grandmother cooked it, Kambili had licked the soup bowl clean. Then they went into the farm to pick corn ripened and goldened by the rich soil. And Kambili fed the goat out front, offering it stalks of dry grass by hand until her grandmother laughed and warned her not to get attached because the goat would soon be boiling inside a pot.
Running her hands over the fresh, flat braids her grandmother had plaited for her, Kambili picked up her phone again. The service bar had two lines, with one going on and off. Kambili sighed and hoped that would be enough to deliver her message. She tapped Nne’s number and tried calling, but when the call didn’t go through, she opened the messaging app and began to type, hoping that her mother would read it soon.
Kambili’s hand hovered over the send button. She bit her lower lip and typed one last thing.
I know you said I shouldn’t go, but I had that vision again, and I had to see. Sent: 6.15pm.
Her grandmother was still on the farm, so Kambili laced her sneakers and returned there. She found her holding a plastic bottle filled with palm oil and pouring it on a mound of soil, muttering to herself. It looked almost ritualistic. The oil must be bad, Kambili nodded to herself. She paused before saying, “Mama, I have to get back now. I’ll come again tomorrow, and you can show me around the village.”
Stilling, her grandmother dropped the bottle and shifted in front of the mound, blocking it from Kambili’s view. Kambilii frowned. Her gaze averted to her grandmother’s feet, muddied and covered in green. The image flashed, and Kambili was looking at her feet, stinging from the cuts, covered with those leaves and the red mud coating her soles.
Air rushed in and out of Kambili as the world slowed. The images became interweaved and a realisation hit her. She’s been here? On her grandmother’s farm, she had been here!
“No one leaves Obatete.”
“What?” Kambili whispered, finding it hard to breathe.
“Not by this time,” her grandmother said, “the bus park closes by 4pm. You won’t see transport going back.”
“Oh,” Kambili said, then laughed, feeling very stupid.
Taking her arm, Kambili’s grandmother led her out of the farm, back into the parlour, where she pointed at the second room in the hut. “You look tired nwa m. Go and sleep. There is a meeting I have to attend. I’ll be back soon. Should I buy corn and pear?”
“Yes, Ma. Thank you.”
Wearing a Dunlop slipper that was flat and lifeless, her grandmother tied the brown wrapper over her shift, then hung a bag over her shoulders. Kambili eyed the bag, convinced it was more of a travel bag than a handbag. The thing was bigger than the suitcase she had come with. She held back a snort of laughter.
“Bye bye Ma,” she waved.
Her grandmother paused at the door. “Kambili,” she said, all the light in her eyes gone out, “lock your room door.”
God abeg. Kambili sighed. It was probably a safety measure, but why did her grandmother have to say it like that? Still, she turned the key in its hole twice to be sure.
With no service, she couldn’t check her Instagram and Snapchat; some statuses had loaded on her WhatsApp though, so she watched those before switching to the offline colour puzzle game she was addicted to while listening to her Eric Nam playlist. If there was a way to kidnap the K-pop singer and keep him all to herself, Kambili would have done it without hesitation.
Eric Nam’s voice serenaded her to sleep. And when his voice mottled down into a guttural whisper – harsh, grating, and not his – it woke her up.
There was scratching at the window. Panic-stricken by the change in the song she had been listening to, and now this, Kambili called out for her grandmother. “Mama! Are you back?”
As soon as the words left her mouth, Kambili wished she hadn’t spoken. She felt a shift in the air. The song (although she had stopped it) started playing again, with the melody shifting between the singer’s voice and the forceful whispering.
Scratching, again, at the window. Kambili swallowed, her tongue stuck to the roof of her mouth like a dry husk. She got up and padded to the window.
Two knobby, bony fingers appeared on the window, followed by three others, then another hand – skeletal and ghostly. Kambili bit back a scream and backed away from the window slowly.
A face took shape behind the fingers, stretching and filling until it had eyes that watched Kambili with unbridled malevolence. It had rotten flesh, with pieces falling away to reveal white bone underneath. The Thing’s mouth opened, and it blew on the window. Then it continued scrawling.
Kambili read the letters. It said n-w-u-o. Die.
She screamed then because the Thing was starting to open the window.
“Oh God. Oh shit!” she prayed and cursed at once. Then she hoped God would smite her down for using a curse word with his name. That was better than facing whatever hell forsaken thing was at the window.
A white light flashed, blinding her. This was it, Kambili thought. Nne had warned her about the village; she had told Kambili it was demonic and dangerous, but she hadn’t listened, had she? Kambili had gone with her coconut head to the one place her mother had told her never to step foot in.
The window stopped opening.
Kambili paused. Swallowing the knot in her throat, she went to the window and looked through it. In the small space between her grandmother’s hut and the next, two Nsibidi symbols were glowing. The Thing had disappeared. Nne’s words came back to her: small spaces keep the ajo mmuo away.
So the symbol between her grandmother’s and the next hut was some sort of protection? Kambili slammed the window shut and locked it. Whatever it was, the Thing, the symbols, the village, she would leave first thing in the morning and never come back. Fuck what she had seen in the dream.
She was going to check whether her grandmother had come back when the door handle began to move up and down like someone was trying to open it and was failing. The key twisted in the hole – in, out, then a click. It was open. Kambili felt hot liquid on her face and realised she was crying. She ran into the bed and huddled at its corner, folding into herself. She bit on her left arm, and with her right, she held her phone tight, cracking its screen protector.
The door didn’t open, but wet footsteps came in. They were tiny at first, like those of a child (five or six), coming towards the bed. Then, as the footsteps stopped and changed course, climbing the walls, they grew in size into those of an adult – an adult with two toes missing on the right foot.
“Our father, who art in heaven, hallowed be thy name.” As Kambili shook, she switched to Psalm 91. “Whoever goes to the lord for safety, whoever remains under the protection of the almighty can say to him –” she looked up at the roof. The footsteps had stopped right above her head.
Water dripped onto her forehead and rolled down to the tip of her nose. She sniffed. It smelled metallic. Kambili continued praying, her voice steady, “– You are my defender and protector. You are my God; in You I trust.”
The water was dripping down faster, soaking her and the bed.
“You will keep me safe from all hidden dangers. I need not fear any dangers at night.”
Her phone vibrated, startling her. She flung it away by reflex, and the phone landed on the floor. The phone screen lit up; she had a message. Kambili crawled to the edge of the bed. The message was from her mother. She leaned over and snatched the phone, unlocking it with shaking fingers.
Only two words:
All at once, the ceiling cracked and water poured in – no longer in baby drops but in torrents that swirled around her – choking, drowning, and swallowing her screams.
Slimy and cadaverous hands clasped her legs, gripping like a hook into a fish’s gills. Kambili saw herself standing in a sea of dead women. Their bodies were blue and bloated and rotting. All with open eyes; eyes that were dead but gleamed with jealousy because she was alive and they weren’t. They wanted her.
Someone was calling Kambili’s name. Her grandmother.
“Mama!” she cried out, “Mama please.”
“Kambili nwa m.” I’m coming! The door opened, with her grandmother behind, eyes blazing with a circlet of fire around her right arm, and a kerosene lantern in the other hand.
At that moment, the hands holding Kambili’s legs tightened, twisted, and dragged her under.
2: A psalm, a curse, a dream, the Thing
It was in 1930-something that the first cairn that formed Obatete’s foundations was laid. It was a pile of rocks, tainted with the blood of its women, wet with their tears, and held together by a psalm of their cries.
The curse (although Obatete’s people would not admit it was a curse) started with the mutilation of the witch girl, Imelda. Obatete’s women, at the moment of their first bleeding, were circumcised, and the blood from their privates was collected and offered to Obara, their god. In return for their purity, Obara granted the sacrificed women Theurgy; through him they were able to wield oku – fire – to nurture life in the village and keep warm when the biting cold of Harmattan came. Because of this, they believed it was the virtue of their women that kept Obatete’s rivers flowing and its soil pregnant with harvest. To refuse this rite of passage was to become an outcast, an unclean person, a curse on the village.
There were those who died: girls who did not survive the cutting and women who bled to death during childbirth. And there was Imelda, the witch girl. Perhaps it was because of the darkness that rested in her bosom, or the evil that often clouded her thoughts, but when Imelda died during the cutting, she came back.
It was Imelda that Kambili saw in her dream in the night, bleeding into a small dirt hole, crying. And she was afraid, not of the dark as a child should have been, but of the woman kneeling beside her, holding a knife and whispering of purity. Her nine-year-old body had trembled violently with resentment toward her people. Imelda had vowed to return and not stop until she put an end to Obatete’s atrocities against its women. She would destroy the village and everyone who lived there. She had to so they would not spread their dreadful traditions to the rest of the world.
With each person she took, Imelda became the Thing – a spirit of retribution and bloodlust.
3: The girl who ran, the woman who returned
Nne was going to kill her daughter. But first, she would kill every single person in that village if even a single strand of hair was missing from Kambili’s head.
After everything she had done to keep Kambili away: running off at 19 with a four-year-old daughter, starting a new life in Lagos with nothing but a primary school degree, fighting off her people’s spiritual attacks because God forbid anyone left Obatete and talked about what they did to those girls. Nne had struggled, and Kambili had gone and thrown everything she had worked for away, and for what? A vision!
Nne twisted her finger rosary, her lips downturned as she gripped her car’s wheel harder and leaned her head on it. She started to nod her head back and forth in an attempt to calm down. Anger would do her no good. Nne shook her head. She wasn’t really angry; she was scared. She hoped the woman who had cut her then was dead. She felt a pang in her chest, and she brushed it away. It didn’t matter if her mother was the one who did the cutting; she still wanted her to be dead.
With a sigh, she got down from the car, went over to the other side to get her stuff, then she locked the car and stuffed the key into her jeans. She shouldered the small backpack she had brought. She didn’t plan to stay long. “In and out, Nne,” she breathed and started trekking.
Surrounding Obatete’s boundary was a shield of fire that had not been there when Kambili arrived, built more to keep its people in than to ward off outsiders. Nne paused at the shield before tentatively stretching her hand forward and into the flames. It parted for her, recognizing her as Obatete’s own; it was an identity engraved into her very being, one she could never shed. The minute she stepped past the boundary, Nne felt the shift in the air. Everything felt wrong, darker, suffocating. It was hard for her to breathe, and she twisted at the heat that roiled beneath her veins. Her fire was returning. She had despised her Oku; it was another thing that tied her to Obatete, but now that it was licking at her veins, just waiting to be released from her fingertips. Nne welcomed it like an old friend.
She decided to cut through the main road and take a shortcut, one that led through the forest and straight to her mother’s farm. Nne was jogging now. Her body protested the exertion. It had been ages since she had done anything more than stretch. She ducked under a tree branch, hissing when its leaves slapped her face. She blinked away the stinging in her eyes and moved faster.
Another set of footsteps joined hers – they were swift but light. She heard them somehow, over the roaring in her head, and deduced that whoever it was was chasing her. She stopped and shifted deeper into the bushes, where the grass was tall enough to hide her. Nne’s chest heaved as she glanced around, squinting because she had forgotten to bring her glasses.
Her pursuer came into view. It was a man; he was tall, barrel-chested, and thick-bearded. He did a 360 turn, scratched his head, and hissed, “Was it not my two eyes I used to see that woman?” he muttered to himself.
Nne watched him. Flames licked at her fingertips, and she had half the mind to throw them at the man. She laughed to herself, cursing her luck. Of course, the first person who spotted her was Afam, the husband she had left behind. The stupid, stupid man who chose Obatete over her. He was still handsome. She noticed the cleft on his chin had become less visible with age. Nne crouched to start crawling away, only for something cold to slither up her legs. It was sudden, and her mouth opened to let out a shrill scream before she could bite it back.
“Nne!” Afam shouted and rushed into the bushes, following her scream. Before she could fix her backpack and run, Afam was there, reaching into her jeans and bringing out the caterpillar that was crawling up her pants.
“Get away from me,” she said, and backed away.
Afam laughed and raised his hands in surrender. “I thought my eyes were seeing double. You’re still as strong-headed as ever. I can’t believe it’s you.”
Nne’s throat constricted. She hated that she had missed this man. It felt like she was betraying herself. She turned her head so he would not see the tears burning her eyes, but Afam held her chin and turned her face to his. Leaning in, he cleaned her face with the sleeve of his shirt, then pressed his lip to her forehead. Nne clicked her tongue and pushed him away. “Where is my daughter?”
She eyed him up and down, then rolled her eyes. “Biko, where is she?” She asked again as she got up and adjusted her shirt where it had ridden up her stomach. She did not miss the way Afam’s gaze lingered on her skin.
He hesitated before he spoke, his eyes not meeting hers. “I – see eh, I only just found out she was here yesterday…”
His lips pressed into a thin line, and he stepped away from Nne, carefully watching the flames shadowing her fingers as he said, “She was taken.”
Afam nursed the bruise on his temple where Nne had hit him. The skin there was tender and slightly burned. He sighed. Twenty two years later, she had returned to give him another wound that matched the one on his left chin. He rubbed the scar, a habit he had developed while it was healing and itching like hell.
He glanced at Nne again for the umpteenth time. She had changed a lot. There was a hardness in her gait that had not been there when they were younger. Whatever she faced after leaving Obatete had strengthened her in more ways than one. Something slithered in his chest, and he realised it was jealousy. A part of him wished he had gone with her. Maybe this time he would be brave enough to.
They trudged through the forest in silence, with Nne doing her best to pretend he was not there. Her brows were furrowed, the only indication of her annoyance.
Nne forced herself to concentrate on saving her daughter. She had come back for Kambili, nothing more.
They reached the thinner part of the forest. Obatete’s main square came into view. Nne’s breath caught in her throat. Not much had changed; it was like the village was caught in a state of limbo. The huge iroko tree at the centre of the square was only a little thicker and weathered. The Theurgy school building just behind it, where the village girls learned to control their fire. The small kiosk (the only one that sold provisions). And the people milling around the square – still as wretched-looking as ever. She recognized all of them, surprised their names came to her so easily.
“Let’s go further down,” Nne said to Afam, pointing to the path that would take them past the main square and right into the village settlement instead. The fewer people that saw her, the better. That was why she had not ditched Afam. Who knew what he would tell people if she let him go?
“Okay.” Afam nodded and took the lead. The path had changed a little over the years, curving in a snakelike pattern where it had once been straight. He couldn’t bear the silence anymore, so he faced her. Walking backward, he said, “Nne…” But as soon as he called her name, his courage dissipated, and he realised he did not know what to say.
How have you been?
Where did you go?
What is it like outside of Obatete?
Nne waited and then sighed when he did not speak. “Nwoke m, what do you want to ask?”
“Nothing,” he said to her questioning stare. “Wait!” he blurted out, “why did you leave?”
Hissing, Nne came to a stop. She stood with her arms on her waist. “Lee onwe gi anya—look at yourself Afam, then look around you. Why do you think I left?”
Fair enough. He nodded. “I should have gone with you. I regret it every day. Drowned myself in palm wine too”—he laughed—“they even said you used juju on me because I refused to look at any other woman.”
Nne paused at that. “You did not remarry?”
“Mhm mhm.” He shook his head with a smile, the same boyish grin she had once loved him for.
With a noncommittal grunt, she said, “Me too.”
Afam clamped down on the surge of happiness he felt at her answer. “What are you going to do when we get there?” By ‘there’ he meant her mother’s house. Despite Nne’s reluctance to go, Afam had explained to her that since it was the place Kambili disappeared, it would only make sense to start their search from there, see if she left anything behind that would give them a clue.
“I’m going to find my daughter any way I can. Then get out of this place. And God help anyone who tries to stop me.” Nne answered and continued walking, leaving a trail of fire-tinged grass beneath her feet.
4: To fight against what you believe in
Obatete’s people reckoned that fire was life, a living thing, human like them but formless and powerful. Perhaps it was because the fire that Obara granted their women appeared to live and breathe and consume anything in its path, or maybe it was that it felt warm enough to heat up the blood beneath their veins. Either way, they were wrong. Their fire was not alive; neither was it life itself. It was a tool, one that lay dormant until it was awakened.
Something burned within Kambili. She stirred, groaning from the headache pulsing at the side of her head. The night chill had seeped into her bones, stiffening her body so moving was painful. She shifted up from the ground where her face was pressed into the marshy earth. She sniffed and grimaced. She was lying in manure.
Kambili shivered violently. Someone had taken off her hoodie and skirt,leaving her in only her underwear,bound her hands and feet with ropes, and blindfolded her. She folded her lips to keep her tears at bay. Think first, panic later. That’s what she should have done at her grandmother’s house.
Crickets chirped somewhere nearby, and it was dark all around her, thickly so. She could feel that even with the blindfold on. But where was she? Her memory was hazy after the bodies dragged her in. It was as if they had transported her through a spirit portal of some sort. Kambili was sure she was still in Obatete, just not where.
Raising her knees, she tried to sit up, but the rope that had been used to tie her up dug into her skin, tearing the flesh open the more she moved. Kambili sucked in a deep breath, then screamed. She hated that tears were burning the corners of her eyes; she hated that she was scared; she hated that she had ignored her mother’s warning. She should never have come to Obatete.
A prayer started to rise from her lips, but Kambili stopped herself. This wasn’t God’s fight, it was hers.
She screamed again and continued until her voice was cracked and hoarse. It was only then that she calmed down enough to process everything that had happened. Kambili, think first, panic later – it was what Nne had always told her because she tended to get overwhelmed by the littlest things.
Where the hell am I? Kambili thought. Ignoring the pain in her ankles and wrists, she started rolling sideways, worming her way around until she hit a wall. She stretched out her hands to feel around. “Wood,” she murmured. The wall was made of wood. She pushed herself into a half-sitting position that burned her core, but years of sit-ups kept her steady. She pressed her hands onto the wood. It was soft, slimy and cracked at the edges. Pushing her left hand into one of the holes, she pulled, hoping to break off a piece and use it to cut her bonds. The wood held despite being rotten. She grunted in annoyance and gave up on that idea.
She went back to worming around, figuring that if she was on the ground and there was a wooden wall, then she was probably in a shed. And the shed had to have an exit. After scraping her head on sharp stones and getting multiple splinters in her palms, Kambili was ready to give up, right until she hit a body. The body was frigid, too cold to be alive, but it stirred when she brushed against it. Kambili’s stomach dropped, with her heart beating so hard she was sure it would stop any minute. She brushed against the body again, and whoever it was let out a small feminine whimper.
Kambili wet her lips and spoke hesitantly. “I – who are you?”
The girl whimpered again.
“Were you taken too? By the bodies?” Kambili asked, only to realise how ridiculous she sounded seconds later.
The girl coughed, heavy and dry. “Others,” she said, “anyi di otutu.” We are many taken.
Oh God. Kambili gasped. The girl sounded so small that she had to be younger than 10. There was a great deal of pain in her voice, and from how cold she felt, it was obvious she had been in here for days.
“Okay,” Kambili said, “listen to me carefully. I’m going to roll closer to you and bring my hands to yours. You have to untie me, okay. Then I’ll do the same for you.”
Little by little, Kambili scooted over to the girl, not wanting to move too much at once so she would not accidentally roll on her. “Am I close enough?”
The girl did not answer. Instead, nimble fingers began to work on Kambili’s bonds. Kambili gritted her teeth. The girl’s fingers were so cold that they left imprints of ice where they touched Kambili’s flesh. A brief flash of anger ran through Kambili. How could anyone treat a child this way?
She felt the knots loosening, so she flexed her wrists to make the rope come off faster. Kambili hissed in relief when the rope came off. She rubbed the welts on her wrists, then ripped off her blindfold, untied her feet, and immediately went to work on the girl’s ropes.
Thin lines of moonlight filtered into the shed, making it easier for Kambili’s eyes to adjust to the darkness and allowing her to see bits of the girl’s features. The girl was a tiny little thing with a clean-shaven head, sunken dark eyes and bones jutting out of places where flesh should have been. Her skin had a bluish tint to it, with an almost translucent glow. Kambili’s eyes watered, not just because of the state the girl was in but because, somehow, she was feeling her pain too. Kambili had the nagging feeling that she knew this girl. There was something familiar about the way the girl shrunk into herself, something about the mud that stained her slender, hardened feet.
“Do you know where the others are?” Kambili asked, remembering that the girl had said they were many, yet the shed was empty, with the exception of both of them.
“Gone,” the girl whispered.
A shiver passed through Kambili. She chewed on her bottom lip, thinking of what to do next. Whatever it was that took them was probably still out there. They couldn’t escape the shed without a weapon to protect themselves, but then, what could she use to fight ajo mmuo?
Kambili froze. She had heard footsteps, soft and calculative, approaching the shed. She put a finger to her lips, warning the girl to stay quiet. Together, they watched as a figure came to the shed. Kambili was not sure, but it looked like the person was pouring something outside the door. Then they started making clicking noises and others joined. Kambili listened to the distinctive clicks. There were at least four people out there.
The clicking faded away, and so did the figure, until it was deathly silent. Kambili’s chest rose and fell; fear was starting to cloud her mind, but she shook her head. She had a little girl to protect, and she could not afford to be afraid at this moment. She took the girl’s hand in hers and whispered, “I don’t know who’s out there, but I promise, I won’t let them harm you. Everything is going to be okay. I’ll keep you safe.”
The girl shook her head. “No, Aunty. I’ll protect you.”
With a pause, Kambili turned to her. What did the girl mean she would protect her? She could barely stand. Yet she seemed so sure of what she said. The girl shifted, moving directly under a strip of moonlight. Kambili peered closer, squinting and using her imagination to fill in the features she could not see. She mentally noted the translucence of the girl’s skin; her not shivering despite how cold she was to the touch; the malevolence (and warmth?) that rested beneath the girl’s eyes, at odds with the fear that lined her dirty face.
Kambili blinked multiple times, sure that her eyes were playing tricks on her, but the more she looked, the more she saw the resemblance between this girl and the one in her dream – the one that had told her to come to Obatete.
“W-what is your name? I’m Kambili,” she stammered.
The girl hesitated before she spoke. Kambili thought it was because she was scared to say who she was until the girl said, “Amam gi – I know you, Aunty, and you know me. I am Imelda.”
A scream rose in Kambili’s throat, but only a haggard gasp escaped past her lips. She dropped the girl’s hand and backed away from her. Dread settled in her chest, as well as the unavoidable cognizance that she was talking to a ghost.
Outside, drumming and singing started mingling with the unmistakable sound of girls crying in pain. Kambili whimpered and shot to her feet, searching in the darkness for anything she could use as a weapon.
“It’s okay, Aunty. I brought you to Obatete. I’ll protect you.” With that, the girl’s features stretched out, becoming distorted – bonier and rotten – until she transformed into the Thing.
N-w-u-o. Kambili could only hiss out the word that the Thing had scratched into her window.
“No, not you”—the Thing said in a low guttural voice—“them. I need your help to kill the Cutters.”
“Stay the fuck away from me!” Kambili screamed.
Sighing, as if saddened that Kambili did not trust her, the Thing turned and pointed to the shed’s door. “The Cutters, ha na-abia.”They’re coming.
The door swung open, and standing at the entrance was an old, almost ancient woman with saggy, wrinkled skin that was collapsing in on itself. Kambili’s eyes rested on the knife the woman was holding. It was so sharp that it glinted in the moonlight, with drops of blood streaming down the edges. Then Kambili’s gaze travelled to the woman’s feet, first to her left, which was skeletal and crooked, then settling on her right (also crooked), where two toes were missing.
What happened next was a blur. Imelda – the Thing – jumped at Kambili and embraced her. Kambili shuddered as their bodies joined. She felt splintered down to her soul like she had been taken apart and put back together, but not quite. There were pieces of her that didn’t fit, parts that weren’t hers but Imelda’s.
Kambili hung onto a line, a single tether that held her to her own body. She wrestled for control with Imelda. “Let me go!”
“Biko Kambili, it is only you that can help us.” There was sincerity in Imelda’s voice. Kambili knew this because they shared one body now. She sighed. She may have bit off more than she could chew by coming to Obatete, but she was already here and already in danger. She would not go down without a fight. If Imelda was the only chance she had, then she would take it. Her grip on the tether faltered.
“What do you mean, only I can help?” “I’ve seen Obara, the god we worship. I’ve seen him, that wretched creature!” Imelda spat, “he’s not what they think he is. My people were deceived into thinking Obatete was sustained by virtue, but our village would have prospered with or without him.”
“He’s feeding off the girls.”
Nodding, Imelda said, “Ee—yes. Virgin blood is what fuels his existence, and so does our unwavering belief in the customs he formed. We are bound by our tradition, unable to break free. All of us except you, Kambili. The Cutter’s knife has not touched you. You have not been poisoned by this…falseness. “
If this was true…
Kambili thought of her mother, now completely understanding why she had run away. Kambili could not imagine living with the terror of being held down by a tradition such as Obatete’s. Her heart broke at the thought of those women holding Nne down and cutting her. She wondered who had done it. Her lips pursed. She would kill whoever it was. Wait, she thought. “But what of the fire? In the dream, you showed me the fire from Obara.”
Imelda shook her head. “I showed you my fire. It has always been ours; we were just made to believe otherwise.”
Shoulders strengthened with resolve, Kambili released her grip. “I’ll do it. For Nne and you and the other girls.”
“Daalu.” Thank you.
Then Kambili was falling.
She landed in the same place they had been, outside the shed, but everything was different. Her eyes now easily picked out the incorporeality of the past, and there was something else she recognized – that filmy darkness that left an oily coat on her tongue. Slowly, the darkness cleared up, and Kambili was able to see. Bile rose in her throat.
Ghostly naked girls were bleeding into little dirt holes. Cutters floated around like wraiths, their mouths firm, eyes blank, and fists clenched with the piety of one who was a proud custodian of their tradition. They placed dried leaves on the girls’ private parts, but only those that weren’t crying, Kambili noticed. They treated only the girls who did not have defiance in their eyes.
Lightheaded Kambili watched as they brought in a new girl. She was screaming and thrashing, spewing words that should not have come out of the mouth of a girl her age. Imelda, Kambili mouthed. Imelda was fighting to get to another girl who was being held in the dirt. Imelda broke free and ran towards the woman holding the other girl and pushed her. “Run!” she shouted at the girl. The older woman grabbed the girl by her legs and held her down. She spread the girl’s legs and pressed the knife down there. The cutting happened fast. If Kambili had blinked, she would have missed it. The girl let out a piercing shriek.
Someone pushed Imelda out of the way, and that was when Kambili saw their faces clearly. The girl and the older woman – Nne and her grandmother. Then the vision was cut off. “Wait”—Kambili gasped—“what—”
“Ndo Kambili, I tried to bring you back before you saw.”
“You knew my mother?”
“Nne bu enyi m—my only friend. O ya bu onye liri m—it was she who buried me.”
Then, Kambili fell again. Juxtaposed somewhere between the past and the present.
Rain drizzled, cloying the air with the scent of petrichor.
Kambili was back to the present, no phantom girls and no phantom cutters, just a shallow darkness that told Kambili she was outside and that it was almost dawn. There was a persistent pressure on her chest. Three women were restraining her. One sat on her stomach, lodging her hands in Kambili’s braids and gripping tight enough to push her head into the wet earth.
Leathery hands clamped over Kambili’s mouth so that she could not scream. The second woman pinned both of Kambili’s hands, and the last woman spread Kambili’s legs open and bent poised over her. “Jide si ya ike,”Hold her well, she hissed.
“Be fast, Mama Chi! Before the other girls hear.”
Gasping for air, Kambili tried to twist away from under the woman. The pressure in her chest increased, her lungs strained for air, and her eyes watered as she felt the Cutter’s clammy touch between the valleys in her thighs. Kambili remembered how swift the cutting was; all it would take was one slash of the Cutter’s knife.
Something unfurled like a fire seed in Kambili. Rage blossomed in her stomach, spreading through her veins like a wildfire. Kambili focused on her anger, poking around in her soul for Imelda. The ghost girl was still there, waiting for Kambili to realise what she had to do.
Kambili latched on to Imelda’s essence, drawing strength from her, accepting her heritage in all its good and bad.
Pieces of Kambili locked into place, the parts that had always wondered where she was from, why she could see ghosts, why she dreamt of a girl she had never met. And her fire, the one that had lain dormant in Kambili, she cradled it in her palms, sang to it, and awakened the flames.
Snapping her eyes open, Kambili twisted her hip, brought up her left leg and slammed it into the Cutter that stood between her legs. Bones connected with bone, feet with the neck, and a crack followed. The Cutter fell to the ground with a thud, moaning in pain.
Kambili ignored the pain in her ankle and reached for the other Cutter closest to her. The women were still shocked by the vicious flames that lit up Kambili’s body, and that was the opening Kambili needed. She latched onto the Cutter’s leg – the one that had sat on her stomach—and dragged her down. Kambili flipped over so that she was the one on top of the woman this time.
The woman gurgled. “You’re spitting in the face of tradition. Kambili I ma ihe I na eme – do you know what you’re doing? Are you ready for the consequences?!”
Somewhere within Kambili, Imelda tugged, asking Kambili for control.
No. Kambili shook her head. This was her fight. Hers and hers alone.
Kneeling over the cutter, Kambili pried the woman’s mouth open. Consequences be damned. “Thunder fire you people and your barbaric tradition!” she spat, swallowed a lungful of air, then screamed. A flood of flames poured out of Kambili’s mouth and into the Cutter’s, burning the woman from the inside out.
Kambili pushed away from the woman, staring at her. Her face was burned and disfigured, but somehow Kambili recognized her – the Okpa seller. She felt nausea rise in her throat. What if her grandmother was here? Her insides contracted and she retched, but instead of vomit, smoke came out. Kambili covered her mouth and breathed in the petrichor, letting it calm her. She had always loved the scent of air marrying mud.
Where was the last Cutter? She turned. Kambili found the woman snivelling in a corner beside the shed where they had kept the other girls. A sharp snort escaped Kambili’s lips as she bent to pick up the Cutter’s knife.
She went to the woman and thrust the knife in her face. “Open the door,” Kambili said, pointing to the shed. Her hands itched to burn the woman too, but she needed her alive to lead her and the girls back to the village.
“B-b-biko nwa m,” the woman begged.
Kambili hissed and waved the knife. “Aunty Biko, don’t waste my time. Open the door.” Kambili’s patience was running thin; she had the spirit of an angry dead girl in her, and her stomach was starting to growl, reminding her that she was hungry.
Rays of light were starting to cut across the sky as morning came. Kambili wanted the morning to bring hope; she wanted it to taste like freedom. She needed to feel like she had survived and come out on top, but she couldn’t. The thing she had come to Obatete for, the person who had brought her here, told her it was just the beginning. Imelda wanted more from Kambili; she wanted her to end Obatete. With a tired sigh, Kambili nudged the Cutter to open the door faster.
Her ears pricked at the crackle of twigs. “Kambili!” someone shouted. Kambili swivelled and squinted into the bushes. Was that?
It was a mistake—a grave one—to shift her attention away from the Cutter. Kambili did not see the Cutter reaching into her wrapper and bringing out a small dagger. Her gaze was focused on the man helping Nne out of the bushes. Her mother held a cutlass in one hand and a gun in the other.
“Nne,” Kambili breathed, watching as her mother raised her hand and trained the gun on her.
In a split second, the gun went off, and coppery warmth splattered on Kambili. She felt blood trail down her neck, down her back, and between her butt cheeks. Kambili was suddenly aware that she was still naked. She turned back, just as the Cutter fell lifeless, her hand still tightly gripping the dagger that would have found solace in Kambili’s neck. Then Nne was there, covering Kambili with a wrapper.
“We need to leave now!” Nne shook her.
Kambili pointed to the shed. “The girls. There are girls in the shed.”
Nne hissed. “Afam, open the door,” she said, her voice tinged with impatience.
Remembering the man, Kambili shifted for him to get to the door. She watched him, noticing the cleft on his chin and how much he looked like her. “Who is that man?”
“He’s from the village.”
“Nne, I’m not stupid,” Kambili said.
Nne knocked Kambili on the head and smacked her arm. “You think you’re too big for me to beat you. You’re not stupid, but you came to this place after I warned you. What do you think is going to happen now? Do you think they will let us leave in peace! Ah, what am I going to do with this girl?”
“Start by not shouting at her. Look at her Nne. She has been through a lot.” Afam reprimanded Nne as he kicked the door open.
Kambili shot him a look of gratitude. She slid away from her mother’s grip and walked into the shed. The girls in there had terror in their eyes. Some of them had already been cut. They were bare and bleeding in a corner, their mouths gagged. The ones that had not been cut were bound and gagged just as Kambili had been.
“Jesus,” Nne cried. It was different, seeing this as an observer. Her vagina ached as if remembering when it had been Nne in that shed, crying and watching as her only friend bled to death. “Go and wait outside,” she said, pushing Afam away. His hulking frame would terrify the girls even more.
Nne went to the girls and started hacking away the ropes that had been used to tie them up. Her body was rigid with anger, and something else – shame. She had tried to stop Kambili from helping these girls. She looked at her daughter, who was silently comforting a sickly-looking girl, and her heart swelled with pride. “I mere nke oma Kambili.” You did well.
Smiling, Kambili held the girl in her arms tighter – perhaps it was because of Imelda, but she could feel the girl’s life slipping away.
Kambili wasn’t sure where she would start. There was a lot to do in Obatete. She could start by convincing her mother to help or maybe bonding with the man she knew was her father (killing her grandmother also seemed like a good place to begin). Then there was the matter of being possessed. The longer Imelda stayed in her, the more Kambili wasn’t sure where she began and where the ghost girl ended. But Kambili didn’t mind, the fire in her veins spurred her. This felt right.
No one leaves Obatete, and Kambili did not plan to.
Amanda Ilozumba is an African writer from Nigeria. Her writing can be found in Reckoning magazine, Black Phoenix Ink, and Solarpunk magazine. She was shortlisted for the 2022 Miles Morland writing scholarship, the 2022 Republic New Voices essay competition, and nominated for the 2023 Utopia awards. Amanda likes to think of herself as three owls disguised as a human. She writes to tell the African story through the African lens.
*Image by Eyasu Etsub on Unsplash