“That is not dead, which can eternal lie.
Yet with strange eons, even death may die”
Why do you turn away from me, Papa?
Why do you ignore me? This is not like before. This is not my melancholia, not more evidence of my unhappiness.
Listen to me, Papa. Let me tell you what happened.
I ran through the bush. I ran till I felt my heart burst inside my chest. And I ran some more. My torn wrapper felt wet beneath the white shirt. Branches – canes and flogging sticks not yet plucked from the mangrove saplings – left bright wheals on my face and my arms, slapping me as I ran away from him. My blood formed a dark stain that spread from between my legs, through the wrapper and unto the outside of the shirt. This shirt, a gift from my new husband. My prince, Rafayel. The one you chose for me, Papa.
Pietro called after me as he pursued me through the soggy footholds of our swamps. He told me to stop; that he meant no harm; that he loved me and that everything would be alright.
Why had I been so foolish? When Pietro met me at the farm, why had I followed him? Why had I believed Rafayel had sent for me? Why had I believed anything Pietro said? When Pietro smiled at me with his brown broken teeth dancing around his tongue, like restless bats in the afternoon, why did I not remember the last time, the many times, I had seen him smile that smile? That smile of teeth stained brown by the smoke from the death-leaf that Rafayel told me his people burn and inhale. That smile that always left my stomach feeling like the devil had defecated in it.
Run, princess, run. He will not catch you. You are of the Ijaw. You are the daughter of warriors.
Pietro attacked me. I followed him away from the path to where he said my Rafayel waited for me. Where he said his white hairy smelly brothers needed more of my medicine for the green fever that ate away at their faces; the green fever that left solid masses in their sides.
And I believed him. And he raped me.
Ah, but I fought him. I bit. I scratched. And then I ran. The village was not far. My father’s hamlet was not far. It was early evening yet, the full moon still fighting from behind pregnant clouds for supremacy with the red, dimming sun. I would meet the men gathered around the Amananaowei’s hut; your house, Papa, huddled and arguing loudly in the inner glow of gin-filled happiness about how to share the latest trinkets from the strangers from across the sea. Trinkets and shiny things exchanged for slaves from deeper in the bush; exchanged for nuts from the father of all trees, the palm. Yes, I would make it home. I would escape the snapping branches and the loud curses from this pale animal behind me. I would tell you what had happened. I would say what this friend of your friend had done to your daughter. I would smile when you swung your cutlass and lopped his head off. There was just the river to cross. Just the stream by whose bank my canoe lay.
But my canoe was not at the spot I had left it. I screamed. For help, for someone, for you, Papa, for Rafayel, for my brother, Dienye. But the only ones who answered back were frogs and owls and bush-babies. Pietro caught me halfway across the creek.
Why the screaming, Papa? Why do the women wail? I have not even told of everything? Turn away from the river and look at me, Papa.
I remember Pietro’s hands on my head pushing me into the water, deeper and deeper. I begged him. I shouted, “Please, don’t do this.” I remembered to say these words in the little I knew of his language, Portuguese. I held my breath. I tasted the mud of the creeks.
My wrapper loosened, my breasts now brushing against the white shiny shirt Rafayel gave me as a gift. The shirt now brown with water stained by the stilted roots of the mangrove. Fight him. Pull him in too. But why am I so weak.
“Please die,” he said. Through quivering lips the urgent pleading for me to depart this life. Through the miasma of dancing images – the water above my eyes, the lilies, my hair, strands stretched out by the hot comb and carried in eddies, and the mud-speckled waves of my floating white shirt – I saw his eyes. I thought I saw them smile.
Can you not hear me? What is this you drag out of the water? Another suicide? Is that why the women cry? Is this why you tear at your clothes, Papa? Where is Rafayel, Papa?
Pietro’s teeth were the last things I remember. And then the knives. A thousand blades of hot steel slammed into the back of my head as the water entered me and then I sank. Falling away from Pietro’s hands, falling away from the floating roots of the hyacinth and the lilies. Then nothing.
I sank in darkness, seeing nothing, hearing only the rush of whispers as the water beat against the river bank, transmitted to me in waves.
Shafts of straight silver. The moon had risen. Like stripes from a horsewhip, they contorted me, arching my back, piercing pain and glorious pleasure. And I rose, not looking down, hypnotized in wonder by the moon-play on the underside of the river’s surface.
I heard voices? Indistinct, Papa, but who could mistake your voice? I came to you. I saw you with the men gathered not around your hut but at the river bank. I saw my canoe at your feet. I saw the question in your eyes. And I heard you call, I heard you all call.
“Tonye! Tonye . . .”
I heard you call, Papa. Why do you not hear me? The body you and Dienye pull out of the water distracts you. Why does Dienye cry? Who is the bloated, naked person wearing the stained-brown cloth of the foreigners?
Papa, I notice something new. Are you listening, Papa? I can swim without moving. I am waist-high in the water. My arms, slick like the oil from palm nuts, do not do any work, yet I swim. Below the surface I see nothing but the reflection of my naked breasts, and my hair, damp and strangely straight like that of the woman whose image hangs on the wall of the big room in Rafayel’s iron war-canoe. It is as though I end where the water begins.
Rafayel comes. Rafayel, thank the gods you are safe! Papa does not hear me. I come to tell you of your captain, your Pietro; of what he has stolen from me. My honour, Rafayel, my honour. Look, Rafayel, Pietro is behind you. See how he tries to hide his right hand. I choked on the chunk of flesh I bit off him.
Ah, Pietro turns. He hears me. The rapist hears me. See how the hairs on the back of his sun-burned, red neck stand like bristles on a porcupine. Oh, you are distracted too, Rafayel. By the body my people pull out of the water? Another drowning? Those have become common because of the fire-water you visitors sell. Turn the body over quickly and be done with your fascination with death. Turn the corpse over and I will give you good reason for a killing; Pietro’s death. Pietro who smiled at my pain. Pietro who thinks he has killed –
Is this me? Still wearing the foreigner’s shirt and cradled in the roots of the mangrove surrounded by my brother; my father, the Amananaowei; and my lover, the father of my unborn child, Rafayel? Did I die by Pietro’s hand; did I drown in the deep?
I see my white husband, tears in his eyes; I see him push my father and brother away. I see Rafayel take my face in his hands. Those hands. I see him breath into my lips, but I cannot feel him from here in the water. I rush at them all, stopping when I notice I have passed them already, drifted through them, no substance. No, it cannot be.
I stop and I see my father’s eyes. I hear what my father says, what my brother interprets for the Portuguese to understand. “It is a curse. A dark omen that one so young would take her own life. But she had always been sad, not content with what her people could give.”
That is not true. That is not true.
I see my father look at the white foreign dogs with new eyes, trusting eyes. I see that he has new sons already, to replace the daughter he has just lost. The daughter he lost when he handed me as a gift to the leader of the visitors from across the sea. There will be no Igbadai for me, no inquiry into the cause of this tragedy. I am lost.
I drift with it. What is time to my kind but the now, the present? My kind. I am joined by others. Floating spirits, some green-eyed, blazing little pots of fire behind half-closed eyelids, seductresses; others pale, tall giantesses with golden hair and golden-scaled fish tails below the waist; and the dark and lithe phantoms like me and with straightened hair like mine. They tell me stories, these women, these spectres, these undead. They tell me of the names the living call us, us wronged women. They tell me of the Rusalka of the cold north; the fish-women of Rafayel’s land; the Yemoja, goddesses of the slaves that my people sell; the Jengu from across the mountains to the east, progeny of Mojele and Moto. My sisters, my Onwuamapu, tell me of what we are meant to do. Stories of young lost men drawn into our embrace and our kisses. Stories of cold revenge and liquid fulfilment under moonlit nights. I do not want this existence so I drift, forever.
Weeks, years, decades, an age I spend on the shoreline singing my song. And I am worshipped with sacrifices and masqueraded festivals in the weeks before the full moon. Sacrifices given before the time when the silver shafts fill my veins with glorious light; when the children, receptive all, tell tales of me and my sisters. When the sensitive claim that they hear my songs. I see my people farm on dark putrid brown loam. I see the men fish. I see some of the new breed, offspring of Rafayel and his ilk. Like my unborn child would have been.
My people stand on the riverbank, a wonder-filled mixture of skin hues. Strange ashen men in white gowns, with bars of wood crossed topsy-turvy, chant inanities in my water; they bathe my people in short episodes, still speaking in their strange dead tongue. My people adopt a corruption of this high tongue. And soon I am given a new name. Mammy-Water.
They start to forget me.
Strange new iron canoes inhabit my waters, with round sharp circular paddles churning up the surf, leaving in their wake a spray I find pleasant. I dance with these new ones. New bronze rods pierce my depths, shiny but soon scarred with barnacles from my teeth. They leak dark oil that stains my water. Kills the fish; drives away most of my sisters. But I do not care; I live only for the moonlight and I sit on the mangrove roots watching my people change. They do not farm anymore. I see no war canoes with cargo of captured slaves for the pale Potokri. I see no dark loam, only sterile white sand. I sing my songs alone. My people forget me. They forget that I am the river who feeds them. I start to dwindle into shadow, the full moon weaker and weaker in its power to revivify me. My songs dim, becoming wind blown strings dismissively interpreted by the new priests and shamans as the whistling of sussurating pines. My sisters pass me by, urging that I become what I am meant to be; but they know not to take from those I protect. I keep my promise: there shall be no vengeance for this girl. Until –
Rafayel, I see him alone, breathing fire and smoke from a thin reed that he kisses. How long has it been? Under the full moon he is still dark, still pale, still handsome, and still horrid. I am drawn to him. He sits alone on top of one of the platforms that the new stilts suspend, forlorn, his foot treading the water. I ignore the loud drums and strings and horns I hear from elsewhere, from where the rest of his people rejoice in revelry. I rise up with the water and he sees me.
No not Rafayel, he says, when I call his name.
No, not Rafayel. Not Pietro either. This one is paler, thicker, and with golden, almost white, hair. His eyes fascinate me, grey like the northern tribe of sisters, the Rusalka. Grey and sad. He speaks like a frog and lacks the syrupy skill of Rafayel’s tongue.
“What are you?” he asks. “What do you want?”
“You,” I say. I sing my song.
He is enthralled and reaches out to me, pulling me out of the water. His touch gives substance to my incorporeal nightmare, my fingertips form in contact with his, an effect like the moon-rise. My long wavy hair, my breasts, my heat. He wants me, this lovelorn white boy; homesick for one he calls Inga.
And I kiss him. Desire is a fever in me. I do not want him dead. No, my sisters. No soul for a soul. I want some of his heat, his essence that I see pulsing within him. He gasps and I feel it leeching into me. I laugh, trashing his face with my hair. I cannot stop, my eyes closed, my long hair caressing his shoulders as I slip down with him unto the cold metal floor.
I hear the voices.
“Hey, Köln. Where’s Dirk?”
“Not at your side? Then probably with one of the local girls in a private room on the platform.”
“Private room? That one. He is too shy. Says he’s got a lovely thing in Amsterdam.”
“Then check by the pressure pumps. The edge, where he hangs out with a ciggy, now and then.”
I turn to go but he grasps my hand. I look at him now. He is grey, now. His lips a shadow of white still wet with my water. “Who are you?” he asks.
Tell them Mammy-Water. Tell them Yemoja. Tell them LaSiren.
I look back as I slip into the water, dissolving once more into liquid death. I see his brothers rush to him, this Dirk. I see him breathe his last. And I smile.