The drum of their voices was beating in my ears and I went to see them with my own eyes.
Before crossing the black universe I walked for nights, fearful child that I was, past plains on both sides of a silent road where no one met me on the way and my fear multiplied when I looked back and saw moon and stars hiding their faces, leaving me in a forest I had not known down on earth. The last of earth’s evenings stretched her hands and bid me farewell. Instead of the moon an orange disc appeared. Her new light cleaned the fields which lay ahead of me. The light burned on the landscape of millet fields and stretched into the far horizon, sweeping the thorny backs of a colony of porcupines which I saw near the hills, their strange smell sticking in my nostrils.
I no longer remember how many such fields I crossed that night. But heaven’s sky shone white while stars were black. The damp smell of porcupines hung permanently around my head, and the orange moon walked with my footsteps till dawn. The only thing I now felt was my own shivering body and chattering teeth which was a result of the cold night.
Up to that moment I had met only one wind-traveller blowing to some place. I thought he was a ghost whom God had cursed, disowned, and expelled from heaven. The stranger multiplied my fears by speaking to me without my seeing him and only his voice told me he was a man. He talked with me from inside a wind which spun with dust.
‘Who are you?’ he asked me. I said frightfully, ‘A child.’ ‘To what place are your small legs carrying you?’ ‘To God’s house in heaven.’ ‘But you are in heaven already, child, our heaven where people grow backwards! Are you from the earth?’ I nodded without understanding him. He laughed for long. I waited for him to finish. In the end the voice said, ‘Here in heaven there is only Goddess; not God. But tell me what you are going to do?’ ‘To look for my Baba who left the earth two years ago. And my Mama also. She has been many years in her grave.’ He asked, ‘How many years?’ I said, ‘She died giving birth to me, but now I am seven years old.’ ‘But how will you know her?’ I said, ‘I saw her in a photograph on earth.’ ‘I am sorry for you, child, but Goddess will be able to tell you where your Mama is. Goddess has a small hut behind those hills,’ he pointed. He encouraged me, ‘Walk farther south and you will come to Her homestead. Here in heaven we call her Min Pii Mama of Water. Good luck.’
Mama of Water? Before my mind played with the strange familiarity of the voice talking to me I recalled the day we had gone with Mama-Number-Two to the stream on earth and I saw a black insect which she called by that name. I had asked if the wet black insect walking upstream had given birth to all the water in the world and Mama-Number-Two had said yes.
The spinning wind rolled away with dust and left me standing there. The porcupines still smelled; I heard them squeal near the hills, their black-white spikes rattling with the sound of long needles, the guinea fowls whistling.
Many things disturbed my eyes when I rounded the hills. I came to the lone homestead which the wind-traveller had told me was Goddess’s just when a green sun appeared from the west. The entrance into the homestead was barred with columns of dry stems. A simple hut stood staring at me. I said heaven was not serious if that was the hut in which Goddess lived. I noticed a smaller hut standing behind the main one and was tongue-tied at what the wind-traveller had told me about people growing backwards in heaven.
But who could I ask? There were black heads in the millet fields but these were too far away from me and I guessed they were too busy to help. All were men with crying babies strapped onto their bare backs and they were shooing pigeons and guinea fowls away from the drying millet fields. I wondered where the women were. I guessed my Baba could have been there too.
The elephant of all secrets in heaven is everyone’s reluctance to tell you where Goddess is.
I waited till the green sun was high enough climbing to the navel of the white sky. Its green rays warmed my skin.
I was about to recollect my journey from the earth and all the things I had met on the way when I was again interrupted by the approach of the wind-traveller.
‘Now I am back,’ the male voice said to me, dusty wind spinning. He added, ‘Did you find Goddess?’ I said no and asked if he knew where my Baba lived. He said, ‘Goddess has all those answers for you; look for Her.’
I wanted to see my Baba. I needed to know if he, the disobedient one who was reluctant to obey rules, had finally recovered from the public beating and defeat of being floored by death before my eyes. More than that I needed to know if Baba had found my Mama the day he had arrived in heaven and now I was going to greet both of them with my bare hands. I had heard that my Mama had been very beautiful in her lifetime on earth. So it worried me that my Baba might have arrived in heaven and found Mama already married to someone else. Perhaps Mama had other children now? I would have hated it.
I asked the wind-traveller, ‘Where can I find Goddess now that the entrance to Her hut is barred?’ The voice said, ‘Here in heaven people are many. And they grow backwards. You will have to search in the millet fields. Only She can check the registers and tell.’
Even here the millet fields stretched onto the cheeks of the valleys where black men and their old babies, bare-breasted like sinners in the morning warmth, stood quarrelling with pigeons and guinea fowl to stop feeding on Goddess’s millet empire.
I did not see angels. There were no prophets. I hoped to see the valley of fire called hell but the wind-traveller quickly told me that there was no such place. Nor did I see the great house called heaven. The voice told me that Goddess loved to treat all Her creation in the same way. But the mysterious traveller also told me that Goddess liked the idea of personal effort, namely the yellow moon to the east, where white people were building a ship meant to sail in the air and a different moon to outshine Goddess’s green sun at daytime.
The wind-traveller swept deep into the valleys and left me standing at the entrance.
His advice was new to me. I was thinking about it when the smell of ripe ng’ou fig tree seeds reached me from behind. A black woman with wings appeared from the millet field behind me and walked straight to the entrance where she leapt over all the dry stems barring her path and entered the homestead. Her two wings had red feathers and mabonwe leaves. She was an ordinary woman wearing a sack skirt woven from sugarcane leaves and a beam of orange light surrounded her head the way Jesus had been drawn for us in Sunday school. The most remarkable thing about her was that she wore a headgear woven from sugarcane leaves, thick goggles which hid her eyes from me, gloves on her hands, and her big breasts were bare. Something in me thought it knew the breasts. And I soon learned that all the women in heaven rarely covered their breasts. A group of clean women in ironed sugarcane leaves appeared from one of the valleys, walking in a long line with their bare breasts, and I was told they were going to count the legs of millipedes, which earned them ten thousand dollars an hour as their husbands earned nothing by nursing old babies and shooing birds from Goddess’s millet fields.
The strange woman’s calves were wet with dew. She must have hurried somewhere that dawn and now she was returning. The black men carrying old babies chanted while they pointed at her hut, pigeons and guinea fowl rose from the millet fields in one cloud, and the porcupines rattled their spikes just when the strange woman entered her hut.
I climbed over the dry stems and followed the strange woman to the door. ‘Are you Goddess?’ I innocently asked. She now carried porridge in a large calabash and sat on a low mbero chair drinking it with cold cassava. ‘Who says so, child?’ she asked looking at me. ‘The people of heaven.’ ‘Who exactly?’ Before I could say it was the wind-traveller who told me, she requested me to enter and sit.
She handed porridge to me in a calabash smaller than hers. I sipped. The strange taste of the porridge was the reason I did not tell her that if at all she was Goddess then her hut was just as ordinary as the many I had seen on earth.
She began reading a small book with her thick goggles on. When she spoke she said, ‘I know you came from Odiya in Africa but do not worry about my small hut.’ Her reading my mind and her knowledge of my village on earth made me suspect that indeed she was Goddess. ‘Who told you the name of my faraway village on earth?’ She replied, ‘I know.’ ‘Are you Goddess?’ She said, ‘I know that you would like to see your Baba and Mama but they are in the farthest church.’ I replied, ‘Yes I want to see my Baba.’ ‘I know.’ ‘I want to see my Mama as well.’ ‘I know,’ she nodded a second time. ‘Where is ‘farthest church’?’ I wanted to know. ‘Seven moons away from here.’ ‘Will I reach?’ She told me, ‘Do not worry; I will carry you on my back very fast and show you. Wait as I wear my sugarcane leaves dress.’ ‘Why did you not wear it when you woke up?’ She told me, ‘My husband.’ ‘Did he remove it from your body?’ She replied simply, ‘We quarrelled and he was running away this dawn so I hurried after him without wearing my sugarcane leaves dress. I did create human beings on the earth you just came from but I do not know exactly what men want.’ I asked her again, ‘Are you Goddess?’ She did not answer. I changed my question: ‘You have a husband?’ She said, ‘I told you, child.’ ‘Then you are not Goddess.’ She asked why. I said, ‘On earth our preacher says God is without wife. Goddess also must be without husband.’ She looked the other way. She turned and said, ‘But I told you, child. You should read this.’
She at once gave me the book she had been reading. It was written The Davinci Code. She asked me, ‘Did you read this on earth?’ I said no. She went on, ‘In Dan Brown I created a clever human being.’ ‘Who is that?’ She said the writer of the book. ‘Why is the writer not foolish like a cow?’ She explained, ‘Brown wrote about my son what many do not know; but the American was right and wrong.’ I suggested, ‘I know your son if you are Goddess.’ ‘Who is my son, child?’ ‘Your son is called Jesus.’ ‘You got me wrong, child; my son is called Kimbangu. Simon Kimbangu. He arrived here from Zaire. The Belgians annoyed me by imprisoning him for too long on earth – longer than my other son, Mandela. And so I called Kimbangu to live here with me.’ I asked, ‘Where is your son Kimbangu?’
She led me out of her hut having put on her long-sleeved sugarcane leaves dress and pointed to the small hut I had seen standing behind hers, and said, ‘Kimbangu lives in this hut but he has been away for long now.’
I asked why while we stood. She pointed in the distance, on a hill beyond the millet fields, to a small, rugged, lonely hut on the third moon. She said her son Kimbangu had gone there to live with another man. I asked why. She said that is why Dan Brown is wrong, child, for he writes that my son married but my Kimbangu was never successful with women.
She told me how the whole heaven had descended on Kimbangu’s hut and pelted it with stones when people heard that the son did not want to marry a woman but was visiting every night a man who lived on the hill. They chased him. She had told Kimbangu to flee to the third moon where none could reach him.
All this while my memory rested with my Baba and Mama and how well they were doing on the seventh moon. I did not mind the stench of the porcupines as I climbed onto the woman’s belly. She held me the way hawks carry chicken on earth but with her two arms meeting over my navel as I faced down. She began beating her wings woven from red feathers and mabonwe leaves. The pigeons and guinea fowls, the porcupines, and black people in the millet fields looked at us again, bending in reverence and chorusing aloud, and we lifted from the homestead but I did not mind my own dizziness provided I would see my Baba and Mama at the end of our journey to the seventh moon. And then I intended to return the news to Mama-Number-Two down on earth. My hunger to see Mama and Baba resembled an ant standing alone in a football field.
We flew that way her breasts sitting heavily on my back their strange warmth reminding me of the past as I peered over the hills below and we explored the moons. I saw the brown millet fields but not the black men and their old babies. She told me that the babies whom those men carried on their backs were much older than the men themselves. It was a strange observation but it reminded me of what the wind-traveller had said about people growing backwards in heaven. I breathed in and chose to keep quiet. The guinea fowls, pigeons, and porcupines were invisible. The smell of the porcupines reached me but not in its initial intensity. I wanted to ask the woman what the porcupines were doing in heaven. But the child in me could not. My mind ran back to how we lived on earth with Mama-Number-Two.
I usually felt as strong as a hill. I had learnt to refuse to die. I had wanted to be like the clay dogs I moulded and kept under Baba’s granary. Each morning I retrieved them the dogs looked alive. I wanted to be like my clay dogs that did not die. On one occasion I had promised my clay dog fish soup but he fell and broke his neck so I said there was no need to deliver but the following day his mouth was still open telling me where is my soup young man. I wanted to tell him you have no stomach but the head seemed to answer me almost immediately that is not your problem provided you pour soup into my mouth. I had asked Mama-Number-Two for fish soup which I poured into the dog, flavour spilled on the sides of the clay mouth and I satisfied the ghost.
I learnt to refuse to die and refuse for good. I had been sitting with Mama-Number-Two near the smoky kitchen hut when Misiara the cripple walked past Baba’s homestead on earth and I told Mama-Number-Two I could not let myself limp and hobble the way Misiara did because I was strong. Mama-Number-Two nearly beat me but I said I could stiffen the tendons in my body at the exact moment the limp wanted me to give in. Mama-Number-Two had cursed, boxed me with her right fist, and told me not to say such things again if I did not want to be a cripple in my adult life on earth. I could not believe her still, for I knew then that death could be defeated by strong people, and even now as we flew to the seventh moon I intended to ask Mama and Baba why they had let themselves be beaten by death, big and strong as they had been on earth.
I wanted them to tell me with words from their own mouths why they had betrayed me. I was going to ask my Mama why she had accepted to lie down for death seven years before as my sister Esi had told me, why she had failed to see that she had hurt us by letting Esi see her standing in front of our kitchen hut in her blue dress and white plastic shoes only for Esi to hear the whole village mourning that evening because Mama was dead. Esi did not see those white shoes and blue dress after the burial and I thought she wanted me to ask if Mama had carried both to heaven or her church members had carried away these the way they always divided a dead woman’s belongings. I was going to ask Baba why he had let his strong body submit to the commandments of the air we breathe; why his muscles had nearly cried as he once lay down there in the hospital bed. Why could he not simply refuse to stop breathing and save me from realising that being dead lying in a coffin makes every pair of eyes coming to stare at you a clear beating, a naked mocking of your own powerlessness; the reason I began asking to be put face down in my future coffin to prevent my friend Mbigo from mocking my dead nose, my cold eyes, my lonely lips.
We continued flying to the seventh moon. I had been seeing yellow, orange, maroon, pink, and purple moons as we flew. But now I could not see any more moons and felt my stomach wet. The woman said it was because of the rain. I asked her, ‘Is it raining on you as well?’ ‘Just a little, child.’ ‘Why?’ She said, ‘Here the rain falls upwards.’ With that she manoeuvred her arms and I found myself lying on her back so she could shield me from the rain. I looked directly at the sugarcane leaves and ng’ou seeds on her headgear.
We had been flying for two nights and three days now. Every night her two eyes became big torches which shone from here to behind those hills. On the third night I do not remember what she did but my body told me that something changed. Now the woman beat her wings hard. The moons flew more quickly than before. The smell of porcupines still lingered.
‘We are about to reach the seventh moon,’ she told me, ‘and you will see your Mama and Baba.’ I prepared myself by breathing in and blinking my eyes so I could see both of them well. Darkness was thickening again. I heard me swallowing saliva. I was hungry to see both Mama and Baba.
Suddenly we flew over a hill. A small hut stood on it. A spinning wind was visible far in the forming night. The woman shone her eyes and I saw two men standing in a yard.
The woman shouted, ‘Are you well Kimbangu my adopted son?’ One of the two men standing in the yard below waved at us without looking. The woman spoke again and told Kimbangu to greet his ‘wife.’ I waited. She told me, ‘That is my son I was telling you about.’
Her wings beat softly. The usual noise greeted us. The pigeons, guinea fowls, porcupines, and heaven’s villagers shouted. She perched and we landed in front of a lone hut. I barely had time to see the dusty spinning wind stop there with us, a man walked out of it in a hurry, and I discovered it was the lone hut I had stood near when I first came to heaven. We entered the hut. Here was my Baba smiling at me, having solidified himself from the dusty spinning wind. He stood straight and had no walking stick. The hair on his head, which had been all white when he left me in the world, was now all black. And here was my Mama, having shed and put on the low chair her sugarcane leaves headgear and dress, goggles, and wings, the young woman on whose belly and back I had been travelling the whole heaven. As Baba smiled shyly and touched my head Mama told me: ‘Do not worry that I look as young as your Baba’s daughter; here in heaven people grow backwards – till they are small enough to be born yet again from the wombs of other women on earth.’
Image: Pixabay.com (modified)