Stone casters have an unchanging lifestyle, a routine that they unconsciously adhere to until death. Issues like family or love are never bothers. It is just one Stone caster and her magic of foretelling destinies.
But once or twice, an alien figure creeps into the mathematical arrangement. And a laid down pattern is disrupted.
He is the alien figure that disrupts your mathematical lifestyle.
You are to become the alien-invaded equation.
Your story starts at a Chief’s wedding. The place is a rectangular field of lush green before the palace. Freshly cut banana and plantain leaves adorn the flanks, waving like green flags. Yellow rays sun-bath the field. Hard taps on royal hand-woven congas rent the atmosphere. Countless number of people in attendance. Titled men. Villagers of ordinary standing. High priests. Stone-casters; like you.
You are here on strictly on business; like the other stone casters. But you wait until palm wine and heavy chunks of roast pork are served before going about your daily activity.
It has always been a familiar process for you; casting smooth pebbles, shiny diamonds on soft green grass, and translating the patterns formed.
But today will be different. Sadly, you do not realize this. Not even when you mention to another woman that her destiny reads the death of her sons.
“The gods forbid!” She shouts.
But you act like all is under control, like she was supposed to take your words lightly. “It is what I see.”
“She’s a liar!”Someone else says. It is another of your ill-fated customers.
“I do not lie! Everything I see is bound to happen.” It comes out more desperate than anticipated.
But the crowd does not buy your defense. Other stone casters are sent for. Upon arrival they quickly take in the unfriendly atmosphere. And end up pronouncing blossom futures for your unsatisfied customers to avoid their wrath.
“No!” You say. “Do not betray your calling, Stone casters.” But your cries crash against earlobes.
Above your head, a dove cries.
Doves herald goodwill. Only those involved with the other world know and understand this.
You swallow a handful of gentle air, relieved. And look above the heads in front, as if in search of the crying dove.
The saviour comes in the form of a palace guard. Female. Tall. Pimply face. She forces her way through the mob, crowing; “Quiet! I come in the king’s name!” Her voice is deep and almost manly. Like Arabiti’s, your late sister.
Angry murmurs start up when she reaches your front. Like a buzz of angry bees. You do not wish to see the thoughts behind those sounds.
“Stone caster,” She looks you up and down.”What crime have you committed?”
You start to say something in heavy gasps. But the crowd resumes their cursing, making you stop.
“The king wants no more of these distractions.” She raises her sword, its blade glinting. The noise subsides.”Today is a festive day. Disperse.”
The crowd scatters reluctantly.
The hisses and curses come to life again; like bees searching for someone to sting.
“And you too, pebble caster.” The guard says to you.
You nod gently before picking your jute bag to leave.
You meet him on your way out. The alien figure, the one to disrupt your mathematical lifestyle. He sits by the gate, legs crossed, clothed in a white robe; begging. He beckons on you too to dip cowries in a round bowl, employing words like “kind sister” and “beautiful woman”.
Miles away, another bird cries. A hawk. It tells when your kind is close by.
You immediately realize he mingles with the other world- those magic wielding fingers.
“What do you seek here wizard?” You ask, perching your gaze on the round bowl. It was unreal, just an illusion of magic. He was surely a sorcerer of shapes. Of illusions.
He gulps, looking into your eyes. Like one trying to force telepathy. And then he realizes. “I did not expect to see a stone witch today.” He says.
You batter long-lashed eyelids back at him. Even his present form of an old man is unreal. “Well a stone witch I am.” You finally say, “My name is Iliam.”
“So why the disguise? What are you hiding from?”
At first he hesitates. Then later he tells you his head is being sought for in faraway Edo for a Queen’s murder.
You can tell his words are true. You can even tell he is innocent of the accusation. But there is no time to sympathize with him. A section of your customers, standing close and pointing at you do not escape your sight.
“Come home with me.” You sigh, “I’ve been banished from the ceremony.”
“I do not want to discuss it.”
He drags himself up-old men fashion-and inches towards you. A mischievous smile drags along his lower face. “I hope you cook well.”
From a distance-barriered by the poles of different worlds-Fathers watch as the stars of two magic wielders cross before them; and equations lose their balance.
It is sunset. Black birds with extended wings scrape the sky, moving east from west. Cricket chirrups dominate the evening, competing with conga beats from the ceremony miles away.
You arrive the hut with him. It is thatched and located on the village outskirts. Owl-nested sycamores flank the winding path to the hut on both sides. Bearded goats pace the compound.
“Is this where you live?” He asks. There is no more disguise on him.
“Yes. My father left it to me.”
His eyes dart around the compound. Goats. Fowls. Earthen pots covered with red leaves.
“Did your father make potions too?”
Both of you walk into the compound. Breeze scratches gentle dust on the cloth over your breasts, making the cotton heave up and down like sea waves.
You show him around. The rabbit pen. Your young farm. And a small shed metres away from the hut. It was to be his shelter until he was ready to move some place safer.
But later, in the dimmest hours of the day when bats see clearer and stars sit by the moon, you rest by his side. Cracking kernels. Sharing night stories. In the warmth around him, you feel loved.
You do not recognize the screeches of crows still heading east. You do not hear their warning not to forget your vision of multiple deaths in the palace.
It was easy to fall in love with him. He was your type. Carefree. And a respecter of women rights; even in such a man-dominated society.
You would clutch his hands, day and night, and run down rocky pathways to Mother Earth’s forest in search of wild boars. He would never object, never fear for your safety; and you loved him the more for it.
You had no friends, no family so no one asked who the man was. No one asked …but the Fathers and the monk guides, and your spirit sisters.
Iliam’s equation, they would cry, is falling apart. But you did not
You kneel by the muddy bank of river Ara, tracing the spirals of snail shells when you hear screeching. Tense screeching that scratches your inner ear. You look up, into the blue. And see black crows flying in a circle like hungry vultures. Something snaps inside of you.
“Alkamia!” You cry, summoning the black birds to order. The last time they gathered like this was when your Grandfather fell and cracked his head against a smooth pebble-shaped boulder.
Slowly and gently, they descend from the height. Soon they are all around you; on tree branches, on fallen logs, on stones. You are like the Mother of crows.
The smallest approaches you. Her eyes are red, her beak pointy…
“Irikemi.” You say, “The last time we met, you vowed never to come in groups again.”
“An order from the fathers forced me to act otherwise.” Her cadence is pleaful, and her voice, thin.
“Forgive me, Iliam.” She says, “Their utterances are a burden too heavy for my tongue.”
And then, before you can reply, your eye meets hers. Your dark pupil and her crimson eyes turn yellow.
You see everything become shade, become distant dark points. You see darkness.
You find yourself at the rocky peak of mountain Arabar. There are no Dragons hovering over your head, over the mountain range to welcome you. Uncertainty enclosed in a shiver runs down your spine.
From the height, you scan sun-splashed foothills, calm plateaus, and a gorge below. You’ve been here many times before. The first was when a father peered into your eyes and muttered, “This one? She’ll have a strong self-will”
“Iliam. How long we have waited your return.”
You do a turn-around. It is Shola. Your monk guide in the other world. Your gaze leads to her bald head gleaming yellow in the ruddy sunshine. And then to her long red eye-lashes.
“Why am I here, Shola?” You ask. You’ve never arrived here without prior information.
But Shola does not say a word. You notice her eyes. The only part of her body moving now. They focus first on your cloth and then they climb over your shoulders. Then they remain there. Behind you. You follow her gaze, turning your head.
It leads you to one of the sun-splashed foothills. But it is now more of a war scene. Layers of hewn corpses with spilt red and white insides lie sprawled on the green. In between the unco-ordinated arrangement are slain Dragons, swords, axes, and conspicuous little pools of sharp redness.
“Nothing was there just now,” You mutter. “What sign is this?”
“This is not a sign Iliam.” Her gaze darts between your face and the foothills, “It is as real as you. Come.”
You follow her confident steps, descending heavy rocks and rough boulders splattered with patches of brownish green. To the mountain’s foot.
“When our world was younger,” Shola starts, “Fathers would dedicate every new born to one zodiac star.”
The both of you approach a bridge leading to the foothills. From where you stand, you see the twelve zodiac stars on the blue sky.
“Ever heard of Gonzolo, the Protectoress?” Shola says.
“No” You say.
“No one speaks of traitors, Iliam. Gonzolo was one.”
“What did she do?”
Shola tells you of Gonzolo as you cross the wooden bridge beside her. She tells of how two stars-Aries and Cancer-demanded that Gonzolo be dedicated to either of them. She tells of how it caused a battle. And why the Father’s decision to end the war by dedicating the Protectoress to both stars only led to another war.
“In those days a sorcerer was not permitted to have a sexual relationship with a human born under the same star. It was to ensure the balance of the world.”
You reach the end of the bridge. The foothill now stands directly before you, only separated by a pool of red. Shola sinks both legs into the pool, navigating her way to the front. You follow.
“Gonzolo fell in love with a cancer. The crows tried warning her but She failed to listen. Until She married him.”
The ascent to the corpse-covered hill begins. You and your guide meander carefully through the bloodied bodies, heading up.
“We summoned Gonzolo here. The Fathers named her guilty.” She coughs lightly, “But there was a remedy. The Fathers wanted to help.”
You glance at the world behind you. A pile of corpses and red pools.
“But She had lost it. See, the human body has great weakness in it. Gonzolo allowed that weakness overcome her. It made her vile, unrecognisable.”
“Why do you say that?” You ask.
“A sacrifice was required. Her lover’s life.”
You swallow spittle. But it is more of an involuntary action.
“But She chose to die instead! For love. What is more abstract than that? Does it last beyond a person’s fantasy down in between his legs? Is it immortal?”
You lose track of what her point is.
“She fought everything! For love.”
Shola stops. You stop too. A red-haired woman and a large grey Dragon lie inches away. Dead. You can tell the woman is Gonzolo.
“The Dragon before you is a father. When he died, a great amount of power fell here, killing but preserving everything. That sword in his neck was Gonzolo’s.”
It is a long sword. In the Dragon’s neck. Inscriptions on its steel blade glint in the sunshine.
“Tell me Iliam. If you were the Protectoress wouldn’t you have prevented this?” She is squinting hard at you.
You shoot a glance back at her. “I would not have had anything to do with a star twin.”
“Even for love?”
“Not if I knew of the consequences.” You answer. But there is more you want to say; concerning love, concerning the sacrifice of Gonzolo’s lover.
But Shola speaks before you can, sighing, and placing a hand on your shoulder,” The human weakness should never consume you. Never.”
You sense it again. Trouble. “What is happening Shola?” You ask again.
She bends down and starts writing something on a patch of sand in the green. When she stops writing, She asks you to come and see it.
You kneel beside her. The sand is hot. And coarse. But what you feel in your chest is hotter. There is a word in curvy characters etched into the sands. equations.
“What is this?” You say, puzzled.
A calm smile comes alive on the monk’s chin. As if she is pleased at your ignorance. “An equation.” She starts, “is a mathematical statement which determines whatever event of importance a sorcerer must undergo during his lifetime.”
Around, the silent breeze gathers more potential, blowing sand on corpses surrounded by little blood pools.
“Let me give you an example.” She continues, “Blood healers are born with the equation number of 8. This comes from a calculation where a healer is the value of 1; her three possible husbands-3, and four offsprings are 4. Add up the values.”
“We have 8.” You say, “So?”
“So any blood healer who attains more or less than the value of 8 would have the Fathers to contend with.”
“Me. What is my equation?”
“That’s the point, Iliam. It is 1.”
It sounds normal to you at first. 1 is a common value. Just like 3 or 4 or 8. And then it gently sinks into your understanding. In the quietness of the ensuing silence. You start to wonder if your own events possess no values at all. Or if a subtraction lies at the end of the whole math. “Then we Stone casters must have a very complex equation.” You say at last.
Shola shakes her bald head, its crown capped by strong yellowish light. “No. On the contrary your equations are the simplest.” She sighs heavily. “Stone casters do not witness life-changing events. They never fall in love. Or make families. It’s just them and their magic.”
It dawns on you at last. You are here because of Azardra, your sorcerer of figures, your husband. You are here because of the small bulge under your belly.
“It is not possible.” You say, begging for hope.
“I wished that too.” Shola says, “But the Fathers are willing to help. To balance your equation. So tonight, your husband and his seed in you will be taken. There will be multiple male deaths in your earthly village too; to clean this abomination.”
Your ear feels heavy. Like it holds boulders under its lobes. “I do not understand you.” Your voice is almost a whisper.
“We tried warning you. The crows were always there. Even in the vision of male deaths you saw in the chief’s palace. But you failed to hear the voices.”
You feel sorer in your chest now; from your heart’s pounding. You do not want to imagine it. A world without Azardra or your baby. “How can it be? I’ve never heard about Equations until now.” Your voice is shaky.
“You are your equation, Iliam. Only you should know yourself best.” The monk says.
“I cannot let you take my unborn child.” Now you are shouting. “Or Azardra.”
Shola’s eye widens conspicuously. Like they make to step out of their sockets. At first there is shock in them. And then, vehemence sharper than the hue of red pools around takes over. “The human weakness! Gonzolo’s curse! I will not let it overcome you.”
You see something hiss from her outstretched right hand. Like the crackling of roast pork on fire. It comes for you, for the slight bulge under your belly. But you do not wait for it.
Inches away from you is Gonzolo’s sword. Stuck firmly in a Father’s neck. You throw yourself at it, away from the hiss.
It happens in a moment’s moment.
You pull the sword out, effortlessly, and crash into the Dragon’s side. You see the hissing light come. You raise the sword against it. You watch it hit the beautifully inscribed blade. You see sparks. You hear angrier hissing. Then the sparks explode.
Three minutes tick away. You wake to a solid wall of rotting stench. To bald vultures pecking, tearing at the dead. To the howls of an upset wind. Gonzolo’s blade, glinting in the sunshine, lies beside you.
You stagger up, trying to avoid contact with a maggot-ridden corpse instant. Then you take the sword. And look around.
You notice the difference. You notice life where there was once lifelessness. But it is the kind of life brought only by death.
“You did this, Iliam! You took Gonzolo’s curse. The Fathers will come after you.”
It is your monk guide. She is struggling to paddle her way out of a tempestuous pool of redness.
You feel drowsiness becloud your eyes. You know it is time to leave.
“You failed, Iliam.” Shola shouts, “All for love! For vanity.”
You want to say something in reply to Shola. You want to say something. But everything becomes a shade. Becomes a dark point.
You are back in the world of men. It is the flapping of black wings, of Irikemi and her crows that welcomes you. They are fleeing from you; from a traitor. Harloysis goes last. Before She goes, She lets you catch her gaze once more. She lets you see the redness in the corner of her eyes, the anguish in them. And the tears.
“Goodbye Iliam.” She says at last.
You bow as She flies away, hiding your own tears.
“Iliam.” Someone calls from behind.
You recognise the baritone. Deep and mushroom-soft. Your husband. You turn, drawing an unsteady circle on soggy brown earth with Gonzolo’s sword.
“You should have saved yourself. You should have accepted the Fathers’ remedy.” He says, mud squelching under his feet as he approaches you. A warrior’s axe hangs from his left hand.
You hear his voice but you do not reply. Because, now, you are unsure of anything. Of your decision against Shola. Of how and why perfect Fathers make imperfect equations. Of the true nature of love-immortality or mortality?
Azardra gets to where you stand. And cups your face in his palms. “I will be with you until the very end.” His voice is firm unlike his eyes. You notice tears in them.
You cry a sob. And embrace him, letting Gonzolo’s sword fall, allowing a bit of space between your bodies so as not to suppress the growing bulge under your belly. It is a calm moment; the last time you would be in his hold, eclipsed from everything living or dead. Eclipsed from the Fathers and their equation. “What I fight for is this; an eternity with you and my child. Not vanity.” You say.
“Then we will fight for that eternity.” He says, running long fingers through your black hair.
Finally it comes. The Fathers’ war sign. A Dragon’s wail. You raise your head from Ardisa’s shoulder, turning to look at the horizon ahead. An army of magicians clad in red on Dragons approach.
You step away from Ardisa’s grip. And pick the inscribed blade from soggy soil, clutching it with both hands in battle-ready stance. Your husband stays by your side, and starts chanting spells.
The both of you wait for the Fathers. At the bank of the river Ara.
For seven long star-less nights, the river Ara has taken messenger boats through the thirteen clans, bearing messages of truce. And tonight, She would bear another message. But it would be one of anguish. Of headless bodies clad in red, tossing and turning in her current. Of Dragons with severed necks.
She would take up a dark red hue. The colour of death. She would take the message through the thirteen clans, telling of a battle once fought against the Fathers by two rebels in love.
IMAGE: Luis Alejandro Bernal Romero