My name is Kowa, and I don’t know where I am. I wish I meant this only in terms of geography, places I can easily point to on a map to lead me on my merry way home. But, no. I mean it in terms of a cage. One of flesh, and bones, and a brain that is not my own. This heartbeat is not like mine. It’s not berserk, unstable, afraid, like mine. It doesn’t play the dying game with me by faking its demise, sending panic signals to my brain to jerk my spirit alive again. This one is quiet, stable, and not my own.
They told us the weird things, didn’t they? We are spirits, or something. Honhom. Sunsum. That Oluwa couldn’t leave us to float on earth just as we were. That he put us into these cages so we could do the human things. What Nana didn’t tell me was that if I spent my days pleading silently to Oluwa to save me from myself, or if I tried to do those things on my wrist that make you fizzle out of your cage, They would prize my honhom out of my body, and put me in another. I call Oluwa ‘They’ because it doesn’t make sense when Nana says Oluwa transcends all gender and states of being, but still calls Them ‘He.’ It’s not enough.
This salvation is all I wished for, Oluwa. So, why do I feel this distress? This brain is quiet, calm. It’s not yelling at me, sending debilitating thoughts down my body to weaken me. It’s not commanding me to cry against my will, feel agony dance on my heartstrings. It’s not coaxing me to pick a blade and do those things on my wrist, those dying things. It’s calm, like I’d always yearned for. So, why do I feel distress? What am I thinking in? How are you seeing my thoughts? How am I still hearing my thoughts when this brain is not my own?
“How are you?”
Gasping, my eyelids flutter rapidly. Was I not awake before? Strange machines are beeping around me, at the pace of the heartbeat that’s not my own. Where am I?
The small lady sets my arm down gently. She asks how I’m feeling again, but I do not respond. I cannot respond. She flashes a light in my eyes, scribbles on a piece of paper, and rushes out. Later, she comes in with an old man in a white robe.
“How’re you feeling, Ekow?”
Ekow? Oluwa, who’s Ekow? “Hm?”
There are loud, rushed footsteps in the hallway. A short woman barges in, screaming and waving her cloth in the air. Two young girls are failing miserably at restraining her large body. The heart inside my chest beats slowly, calmly. But my mind… Oluwa, what’s happening?
“Madam, stay calm. Your son just came out of coma. He’s still adjusting, so let’s give him the needed space.”
Son. What is… What?
“Ekow, do you remember me?” Tears are pouring down her face in billows. Of joy? Sadness?
This can’t be. It… had better not be. I notice big, rough hands where my small hands should be, fingers short and stubby. There are scars on the wrists. But they are not mine. They are not mine.
“Who… Ekow?” I manage to say. The voice that comes out is deep, almost raspy, like a man’s. It is a man’s.
“Do you recognise these people? Your family.” The old man points at the hysterical woman, and the girls.
I shake my head slowly. “No, no. My family… Nana… This is not… Where am I? Home…”
He smiles at me, but I do not get the same warm feeling that comes when Da smiles, a warm glint in his eyes as he says, “You’re my precious daughter, Kowa,” or “You’re beautiful, Kowa.”
“You’ve been in coma. Eight months. Don’t worry, everything will make sense soon.” He guides the strange people out, and all is quiet again.
It can’t be…
But it is.
When I cried to Oluwa for days to save my honhom, I didn’t ask to lose the supple mounds on my chest, nor to get this solid frame that came with an odd third leg. All I asked was for you to end the torment in my mind, Oluwa. Was I… wrong for asking?
They come in day after day, the frenzied old woman, the girls. They bring me old pictures and tell me stories I’m supposed to know. They call me a different name. Do I remember this? Do I remember that? I shake my head each time, say in the man’s voice that’s not my own, “I don’t know these people. This picture can’t be me.” Their eyes cloud over with melancholy for a fleeting moment, but they blink it away and laugh. The mirth does not reach their eyes. “Doctor says you’ll be fine. Your memory will be back soon.” I can’t tell them I have my memory. That the memory is not this cage’s own. I smile back, and their laughter continues. Can they not see that my eyes are empty?
“I’ve learnt my lesson, Oluwa. Please take me home.”
“This is what you asked for.”
“This isn’t what –”
“Ekow!” It’s the frantic Mother woman. She sings the same song from the first day I saw her. “We’re going home today.”
“How long has it been?”
“A few weeks.”
The kind old man walks in with his small lady. He converses in low tones with the Mother woman while the lady in uniform assists me. I clothe my unfamiliar third leg, and then clothe the other two.
“They’re taking me away,” I whisper to her, “please don’t let me go. Help me!”
Her eyes are filled with understanding. She rubs my arm, smiling. I smile too, and she says, “I understand you’re a bit confused. It’s okay, that’s how comas are. You’ll find your feet, Ekow.”
I snatch the shirt from her hand as rage surges through my veins, and finish up myself. Leaning on the frenzied woman’s arm, we walk to ‘my home’ nearby. There are several strange people when we arrive, all of them calling me some name, celebrating me. The girls from before steal me from the crowd and lead me to ‘my room.’ They talk excitedly till the house grows quiet and the moon takes its place from the sun. Kissing me goodbye, they close the door, leaving me alone in the dark.
The night engulfs me, and the curse of an unquiet mind comes upon me. When I cried to Oluwa for hundreds of days to save my honhom, and They said no, I did the thing on my wrist. The one that causes your mortal casing to expire, your spirit to fizzle out. That was the only way to save me from myself, this demon psyche. But, why has nothing changed?
There’s pain leaking out of me, from somewhere. I don’t know where. My head is pounding. My heartstrings, they are tearing. Which heart? Which head? Which body?
“I won’t do it again, Oluwa.”
“You know. You know everything.”
“You knew you didn’t have the right.”
“Is my life not my own? I wanted to escape my torment!”
“And you have. Now, are you at peace?”
“This isn’t what I wanted, Oluwa. Please sever these ties.”
It’s been three days.
It’s been seven days.
It’s been some number of days since Oluwa forsook me. They left a message in my dream: this Ekow is mine, and I am this Ekow. I have lost my body, but my unquiet mind is still mine. My feelings of rage, and sorrow, and hate, and more sorrow, they feel foreign to this body, but they’re still mine.
The family is sitting at the big table, eating. There’s no father. They are talking, laughing. I see their mouths moving, but I hear no sound. I cannot share in their joy. I am not this Ekow.
The woman stops talking and stares at me. I think she’s mentioned my name. She walks over to my side and kneels. Is there anything wrong? Won’t I talk with them? I nod and laugh, but the laughter does not reach my eyes.
“My name is Kowa,” I say.
They stop talking, and face me. One of the Sister girls tries to stifle her giggle.
“You’ve been acting weird, bro. Just –”
The woman slaps the table. “Behave yourself! Your brother’s still recovering.”
“My name is Kowa. I come from a small village by the sea. I live with my parents, and my Nana. I don’t know how I got here, but I want to go back.”
The Mother woman laughs. “Is that a story you’re writing, Ekow? You’ve started writing again? Praise God!”
Darkness is clouding my head over. My fingertips grow cold. “I said my name is Kowa!”
“Ekow, calm down.”
“I’m calling Doctor!” The woman is hysterical again, her large chest heaving up and down as she paces about the room. The smaller girl is crying.
My hand trembles violently. Rising, I run my fingers through the coarse hair of my Ekow, its tight coils cropped close to the scalp. My mind is dancing about again, yelling at me, sending debilitating thoughts down my body, making me weak. It has taken over my Ekow. I have.
Save me, Oluwa. Please.
My knees give way, and I fall to the floor. Tears pour down my face as I quiver on the ground. The woman is talking on her phone, the girls are yelling. I can’t hear them anymore, because the madness in my head is louder. Much, much louder. I hug my knees and close my eyes, sinking into the torment that Oluwa will never sever from my being.
They said the bizarre things, didn’t they? We are spirits, or something. Honhom. That we’ve been given these cages of flesh and bone to use. At our own freewill. What they didn’t tell me was that, what I thought was mine, wasn’t really mine. What I thought was free, wasn’t really free.
“You said my honhom is mine, Oluwa, but not exactly mine? I can do what I want with it, yet… I can’t?”
Oluwa does not go back and forth with me anymore. That’s how I know I’m royally done for. I have no other option, then, than to do what They said I don’t have the right to do. ‘Cause to hell with it.
It’s the seventh day since the fiends threw a party in my head, my mind a Hades playground. Seven days since the family searched in my eyes for their Ekow and found an abyss instead.
Seven is a sacred number, Nana always said.
Seventh day is the day we move.
I’m sitting on the floor in my room, my head propped against the bed, my eyes staring into nothing. The blunt blade lies cold in my hand. It feels familiar, like the other day which was my last in one cage, and my first in another. I twirl it round my fingers as a wave of catharsis sweeps over me, turning it over, and over again. Over, and over again.
They’re running about in my head and down my body; Da’s smile, the warmth of Nana’s hands, Oluwa, his silence, this Ekow, his family. They flit across my eyes like awry visions.
I’m coming home.
I draw a deep breath, raise the cutting edge…
I’m fading into nothing. There are figures standing about my Ekow, nudging me, begging, “Don’t leave us, Ekow. Ekow!” I’m fading into nothing, and then, I’m hovering above everything. I don’t look back. I can’t look back. I’m going home.
My spirit soars above town, wild and free. The aureate nightlights below blink excitedly, as though they share my joy. I’m free, Oluwa. I’m free! I traverse the city and arrive at the village by the sea.
“You can’t go back.”
“You can’t return.”
“Really? Ah. Watch me.”
I’m almost home. I see the small yard, the old rusty gate, the house. Flitting past the rooms, I appear at mine. There’s a dark aura hanging within. It weighs down on my spirit. But it leaps when I see my mother and father. They’re hugging each other, rocking their bodies slowly on the bed. They’re sitting next to my body. It looks peaceful, the face. My face.
I lunge forward, ready to take over what’s rightfully mine, but something stops me. I charge forward again, but a strong wind grips my honhom, and pulls me back. A familiar wind.
“Can I go, please?”
I try again, harder, but an invisible barrier knocks me away from the body. My body. I charge at it again.
“Kowa. By the power of My Hand, you are forbidden from inhabiting this body.”
“Neither can you go back to the Ekow. Nor to any other.”
“That’ll be the end of me! I won’t do it again, please. I accept my demons, Oluwa. I want them back.”
“You seized your freedom. Now you have it.”
Nana walks into the room, head bowed. She bears a black basket with spices, oil and white linen bandages.
Ma’s weeping grows louder, her small frame trembling under Da’s large, comforting hands. Nana bends over the body and begins to perform the rites of closure.
A lot of it.
I wish I had a cage. One of flesh, and bones, and a brain that is my own. A deafening heartbeat, however berserk, unstable, afraid. I wish to feel the pain in my honhom leak into my blood, course throughout my body. Something to channel my being into. I want my body. I don’t even want the rush of good feelings. I don’t. I want my humanness, Oluwa. I can’t roam empty like this forever.
“I want the torment in my old body, Oluwa. It’s better than this. The rawness, the agony, the weakness, I want it back.”
“I’m sorry, Kowa. My Word is final.”
Nana is swaddling the body with linen, chanting under her breath. Ma sings the closure song. The room, reverberating with melody, begins to form a warm glow about us. The dark aura lifts. The door opens again. Four men clad in black clothes march solemnly to the sheathed body. They bear the corpse upon their shoulders, and make their way towards the growing crowd outside.
“Is this the end, Oluwa?”
“No. There’s never an end.”
The atɛntɛbɛn plays a long, doleful melody. The tune buoys my spirit, filling me with a new kind of emptiness I know Oluwa will never sever from my being.
“What does that mean, Oluwa?”
Atɛntɛbɛn (Akan, Ghana) – a bamboo recorder-like flute from Ghana, West Africa, which is used as both a solo and ensemble-type instrument.
Oluwa (Yoruba, Nigeria) – God
Honhom (Akan, Ghana) – Spirit
Sunsum (Akan, Ghana) – Spirit
Image by Enlightening Images from Pixabay (modified)