A Shoal of Lovers Leads me Home
- by Ama Josephine Budge -
The ocean was a toxic enemy, but this was Kwakua’s special place. Near enough to the ruins that the familiar taint of old blood plucked at her, yet far enough away so as not to harm the life that grew inside. In her imagination, the desolate ocean became packed with nets and flags, colours and bodies dancing on their war-painted canoes, great hosts of fisherwomen and warriors racing each other to the horizon, singing old songs with Ma’s scratchy voice, in forgotten tongues, to the heave-ho of fish coming in. Nestled comfortably, limbs wrapped about the girth of the massive tree, last outpost of a failing jungle, the trunk was awash with mutated bougainvillea vines, gnarled and tough like Ma’s arthritic hands—beautiful, but acrid to the touch and scentse. She wrapped defensive arms around her swollen stomach, and stared out at the crashing waves. She hummed remnants of memory, wishing she recalled it clearer; these days, the pheromones seemed to addle even her favourite stories, and Ma was no longer around to remind her.
As a child she’d gone foraging in the cracked walls of the sea-lapped ruin that still smelled like death. Only there grew the hibiscus flowers Ma needed for healing—black with a dark purple stigma and bright saffron anthers, pregnant with pollen. Perhaps it was because of nature’s voracious desire to cover the sites of human destruction with untameable healing life that most medicinal plants and flowers had made this place their home—the frontline of Earth’s great clean up. The thought did not perturb Kwakua; she knew their history as well as any tribeswoman.
Abenana found her there, by the water. “Come home, beloved,” she called softly, from the base of the tree.
“Come up, nihal,” Kwakua replied. Little cola-nut. It was her favourite term for Abenana. But her eyes never left the encroaching swell.
There was a sigh and a rustle, and several curses, but sure enough Abenana’s abundant black curls appeared from between the thighs of a bushel of long wetleaf. With a disgruntled snort, Abenana settled next to Kwakua, gently snaking a protective arm about her protruding abdomen. Silence coagulated comfortably between them.
“I’m starting to worry . . .” Abenana confessed, looking from the vista she feared to the woman she loved. “You’re up here more and more. You miss meals and contributions.”
“I get enough to eat,” Kwakua said. “And there are many hands contributing at the moment.”
“That’s not how it works. What’s grounding your unease? You’re only where you’re supposed to be at longtooth time.”
“Mama doesn’t tell the stories like Ma used to.” The loss of her grandmother was still raw. Kwakua turned large, brown eyes to her lover. Abenana had once told her she had fallen in love with those strange dark orbs, many harmattans ago. Before, she had always been the dreamy one, Kwakua the wry, alert forager, Faneyo the calm, grounding roots of their love. Kwakua wondered what Abenana saw in them now, as the increasingly familiar isolation stretched out before her, colder and more expansive than the never-ending stretch of darkness that gobbled up the horizon; the bottom of the sea, always calling her home.
With an effort, she dragged a free arm around Abenana’s shoulders. Her geilers vibrated slightly, adjusting then cautiously re-opening. The sensitive gill-like flaps that lined the sides of Kwakua’s body from just under her earlobes to the widest part of her prepubescent hip bones resonated with an orchestra of scents from over a mile away.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I know I’m distant. I can’t seem to help it. I just can’t stop looking out there.” She glanced wistfully at the water, which Abenana could barely face. To all others, it looked like nothing but death.
Kwakua did not speak of the fear that she could neither name or place, the foreboding that squatted deep in her gut and festered there. At this point, four months into her six-month cycle, she was getting used to not recognizing herself—but then, wasn’t that why she had pushed her lovers to conceive in the first place? To anchor herself?
“Please don’t ask me to be that which I am not,” she said instead.
“Have I ever?” Abenana asked.
“No, nihal.” Kwakua melted into her lover, nuzzling her neck with butterfly kisses until Abenana giggled. “Tell me the story of us.”
Abenana smiled. “Of us? You, Faneyo, and I?”
“No,” Kwakua responded dreamily. “Of us—all of us, how we got here.”
Abenana’s smile folded away into negative space. She said nothing. Kwakua turned and looked at her, hunger leaking from the corners of her eyes, and then the familiar words tumbled out, as if escaping something in Kwakua’s gaze that Abenana could not, or would not acknowledge.
“Almost five hundred and fifty summers now, from when this story was told to me, something called the West African Association of Environmental Rehabilitation launched the ‘Envolution Project,’ asking for volunteers to remedy humanity’s destruction of Our Land. Only a few came forward. Times were suspicious, desperate. The world was changing faster than survival allowed. These volunteers underwent changes that would turn them from what they were into what we are: the last hope of humanity. They took away that which they deemed made us dangerous. Where they were predators, hunters dominating land, sea, and sky, we are prey, one organism of many.”
Abenana’s deep voice fell into the rhythmic confidence of words that had been said a thousand times before. Words that had almost lost their meaning. None of them could now fathom what West Africa might have been, much less what an “association” was. Only the story remained, told word for word with faithful diligence. Each generation adding their own count of fifty. Nevertheless, Kwakua was always enraptured as though hearing it for the first time, ever the indefatigable listener.
“Before the last war and the terrible drought that followed, they took us, the Khana people, and left us here by the coast, where no one else wanted to live. The ground had become too hot, the sea full of poison. The blood that was spilled in the castle, so many hundreds of years earlier, had spread to the roots of the trees until their very sap was toxic to inhale. But changed as we were, we had been given scentsation to survive the hostile world that humanity had left behind. To scentse as one with all other living things—not greater or lesser, but as an equal, essential part. Until we return to the beginning and the Earth can be made anew.”
There was silence again, save the cawing sea birds and rumbling ocean.
“What do you think that last line means? What beginning?” Kwakua asked for the hundredth time.
“I do not know, beloved. It’s a mystery.” Abenana had grown frustrated with the perfunctory nature of the exchange. The repetition used to make her feel secure; now she felt trapped.
“But things are changing,” Kwakua said, unexpectedly. “It’s getting hotter again.”
Before Abenana could reply, Kwakua stiffened, her geilers trembling to attention, ears twitching in alarm.
“What is it?” Abenana asked. Kwakua did not answer right away. Only gestured that they should make their way down the tree. “Are you sure?”
Abenana’s concern was warranted. Kwakua was the tribe’s strongest scentser—no predator had managed to sneak up on her since she was a very small child—but on the ground their people were most vulnerable, and laden as she was with the life they had created, she would not be able to move fast.
“It’s in the air, but it hasn’t spotted us yet,” Kwakua breathed. “Let’s try and get under the cover of the trees before it does. We should be getting back anyway.” Abenana did not exclaim that she had been trying to say this for the past hour; she took the lead shimmying down the trunk, her sharp nails and crosshatched footpads gripping the bark. Kwakua’s geilers gaped a little, trying to lower her body temperature. Despite the relief this would have brought, she clamped them down to descend the toxic vines.
The hot sand steamed a little as she landed on it, moments after Abenana. Their outer layers of husk, rubbed green and brown for better camouflage, were painfully stark against the yellow sand and red earth. Still, they made it to the trees before Abenana’s own scentsers picked up the large scavenger now circling somewhere far above their heads. They kept a careful pace through the bush and toward home, as the jungle steamed about them, teeming with predators large and small.
Kwakua picked through the undergrowth as her feet carried her onward. Forever scentsing, her geilers rotating on the wind as they neared the now-dry riverbed, recalling when it had run fast and dangerous, and as a child she had nearly drowned, for none of them could swim and breathe. All Tribeswomen were used to taking in oxygen from nose, mouth, and geilers, and while Kwakua might dampen the lattermost in toxic environments, to cut it off completely felt as though there was a vice around her throat slowly tightening. She could almost smell it again, as though for sentsation time had melted: wading into the rapids, the water clearing her knees, closing in on her airways. Reaching for the small girl who had fallen from above, sealing her geilers as best she could against the freezing, suffocating water.
Kwakua stumbled over a root and the memory was broken. She was panting, recalling the feeling of complete submersion in the river. They would give anything to have such a rapid flow again. Now, wading through that very same river, the water barely reached higher than their ankles - a mere streak of brown. They stopped to fill their satchels anyway; no one walked past fresh water without collecting at least some. Besides, their digestive systems could sift through the mud and silt.
By the time they reached the Khana tribe, the smell of bush rat and yam stew was already wafting through the surrounding trees. Solo predators knew better than to ambush the whole tribe at night, but sentries were still posted at intervals in the surrounding trees. At the entrance, Abenana lightly kissed Kwakua before heading off to the gatherers to deposit their water and help sort through what they’d foraged for dinner and drying.
Kwakua walked to the centre of camp. Their home was, at first glance, no more than a wide glade of beaten down earth and thick baobab trunks; of cooking fires and woven bamboo canopies. Several hollowed out trees were all that marked the transition from wild bush to cultivation. Until you looked up. There, the many platforms, crawlaways, cocoons, and bushels suspended between the soaring branches of carefully nurtured baobab trees made up their true dwelling. The ancient weight bearers thrived here, and both peoples and trees had become co-dependent over centuries.
Not for the first time lately, everything seemed to speed up and blur around her: bustling business, purpose, and routine, children leaping betwixt vines and boughs. The last sweaty shreds of orange sunset lanced through the canopy above, painting a light show on Kwakua’s splayed fingers like freshly splattered blood. Beads of thick perspiration dribbled agonizingly down her back as her geilers gaped, trying to cool her down. It’s too hot, she thought to herself. It just keeps getting hotter—
“Kwakua? Are you all right?”
Her eyes cleared as she focused on the familiar features in front of her: a dark face interrupted by many darker spots, arms baggy as though she wore a skin several sizes too large. Wild hair, silver as purified moonlight. Eyes light, stern.
“I’m just hot, Mama. It’s so hot these days.”
“I know, my heart, that’s just the baby,” her mother said. “I was the same with you.” Kwakua said nothing, accepting the arm her mother offered. She was steered toward a seat and a cool drink. Somehow she felt sure that what she was experiencing was like nothing either her mother or any other Khana had felt before. Something was changing, and the fact that no one else seemed to sense or scentse it did not make her any less certain.
That night, Kwakua lay with her arms splayed. Abenana nestled into one breast and Faneyo the other, both sets of hands resting upon her belly. Kwakua wondered what was growing inside her: what it would be like, how she would find water for it when the river ran dry, whether it would have eyes like hers—deep and distant—or hair like Abenana’s, or a gap-toothed smile like Faneyo. She knew they would love it with or without her. The old story played round and round in her ears as she rubbed her stomach. Kwakua wondered if it would be the one to ‘go back to the beginning.’
Over the past few months, a veil had come down between Kwakua and those she loved, pulling her further and further away, and there didn’t seem to be anything she could do to stop it. Her mind was constantly pulling her back to her other love—that coldest and most formidable of consummations and endless liquid graves. Shoals of small wet mouths seemed to close in on her sensitive flesh. Kwakua reflexively moved to grip her stomach, disturbing Faneyo on her right side. She stirred, absently caressing Kwakua’s geilers in her sleep.
Kwakua shivered in delight at the touch, and, desperate to evade the terrifying, irresistible draw of the deep, she clutched at that feeling, familiar and attainable. She shifted her weight until her swollen nipples rubbed up against Faneyo’s lips. Somewhere between waking and sleep, dream and nightmare, her lover took her into herself. After a few minutes that could have been hours, Abenana woke to find her beloveds entwined and panting, wet, open and inviting. She slipped her hands between Faneyo’s thighs and found her hard and ready. The three heaving bodies made one another’s many openings weep with desire and satisfaction. They’d always had this, the three of them, for many harmattans now. Love, yes, but this, too. Days and nights of dry, dusty air and rich, wet monsoons, rainwater mixing with their salts, breeding love, conceiving life. Faneyo went stiff and erupted, her shaking limbs tipping the other two into climaxes of their own. Kwakua snarled, raking sharpened fingernails down Abenana’s back, drawing blood. Abenana yowled into Faneyo’s hair and came all over their thighs. They collapsed into one another’s limbs, quaking, stroking lips, gasping kisses and whispering breaths. Kwakua threw herself into this feeling, this moment, the aliveness of her body and those entangled about her. She felt connected to every living thing for miles around. She could scentse it all: dying wood smoke, drying leaves, rodent droppings, shucked snake skins, the riverbed rasping for water. And far away, a mountainous ocean swelling uproariously, ready to drown them all.
The night the baby was born, the Khana people, those who were neither very old nor very young, donated their evening water rations to Kwakua, who lay sweating, shaking, parched on the medicine woman’s platform surrounded by herbs and cloths. A new Khana was born only once every few years, so it was always cause for celebration. Her mother sat behind her head, sponging down her brow, and Faneyo and Abenana were there, too, on either side, each gripping a hand. Faneyo looked even worse than Kwakua did, her dark skin turned somehow grey and clammy. She’d always hated the sounds of pain, and her beloved had been screaming in agony for hours now. The baby just did not want to come. Kwakua could not blame it - tonight was not a good night to be born.
The air was abuzz with tension, the black sky thick and bloated, low like an oppressing palm. Yet all could scentse that the clouds were full of anything but rain. Kwakua howled again as Edenta, the medicine woman, put her whole hand inside her, trying to turn the baby. When she withdrew it her fingers were webbed with blood.
“Hold,” she said, calmly asking the impossible. “Hold. Deep breaths now. Get ready, that’s it, hold, hold, and breathe, and—now! Push! Push!” Kwaku’s entire body convulsed around the small being inside of her. She was desperate to get it out. At that moment, the sky split and a huge bolt of lightning struck the parched forest—once, twice, three times. Everyone held their breath until the silence was broken by the baby’s cry—an unmistakable exclamation of new life. The tribespeople on the platform and those below cheered joyously. Yet there remained an undercurrent of fear to their jubilation. Ma and Edenta exchanged anxious glances. Thunder boomed, vibrating the trees that had cradled their people for many hundreds of years.
“Mama,” Kwakua panted as her child was wrapped in undyed cloth and placed in her arms. Her mother looked down at her, and the concern on her face melted away as she beheld her child and her baby’s baby. The look contained a strong and unwavering love, the comfort of legacy—a certainty their people would go on. Then Kwakua saw the lightning strike again.
It seemed to come down upon their very heads, but was in fact some distance to their right, striking the tallest tree in the grove. There were screams as the upper canopy, starved so long of rain, danced to life. Fire spread to the heart of the tree—and to the heart of the Khana. The trunk split in two as easily as a bamboo reed, and every tree connected to it shuddered from the impact. Ancient crawlaways were torn from their bases and long intertwined roots were ripped free, as families broke and burned. They watched with excruciating slowness as their tribe was uprooted and brought crashing to the earth. As their home was destroyed. As their people died.
Abenana recovered first. “Up, Kwakua, up! Move!”
Everyone sprang into action, picking up children and elders as best they could and making their way down the trunk of the medicine woman’s platform. The fire from their mother tree was spreading fast. Once it got going they knew nothing would be able to outrun it. Their ancestors had taught them well, left them many stories from the great drought. They knew no one could survive such a fire. Mama called for scouts to check the ruins for survivors who could run, but she knew chances were slim. Kwakua held her newborn baby close and trusted to shaking limbs fast fuelled with adrenaline, to Abenana and Faneyo as they half carried, half dragged her off the platform and down the tree. Kwakua’s bare arms were grazed painfully as the rough bark clawed at her, leaving tributes of blood along the way. She tried to use her free hand to navigate her bloated, bleeding body. Tears streamed down her cheeks, though she barely noticed. All around her bodies seemed to fly down the tree, evacuating far more nimbly, even burdened as they were with children and all the belongings they could carry on their backs.
Ancestors, be with me, she prayed as her footpads gratefully touched the earth at last. Then they were running. Abenana and Faneyo, one on either side, urging her on. But she was too slow, too slow. Mama continued calling for the lithe to help the children and the burdened, but she did not pause to search for survivors. They knew that even if any had survived the collapse, they would not be able to outrun the fire.
Kwakua was terrified she might crush the tiny baby pressed against her thundering breast, but it was still breathing, still crying loudly, its tiny pinkish-brown geilers likely burning as they took in air for the first time. The ground was heating up beneath their feet, and the air was thick with smoke. Still they pushed on. On toward the sea. It was the only place left to go. They scrambled over the riverbed, now almost completely dry, and Kwakua’s whole body screamed at her to stop, to rest, to give up. To thrust the baby into the arms of her lovers and let the jungle take her.
But there was another voice, one stronger than her exhaustion. An urgent, inexorable intonation. Even as she tried not to listen, Kwakua knew she needed its strength to save her baby. With one last burst they made it through the break of bush and sand along with a confused cacophony of other life forms that had managed to flee the conflagration. Then a burning brand sizzled out of the darkness behind them, catching Abenana’s arm, filling the air with the caustic smell of burning flesh. She screamed. Faneyo ran to her, whacking the brand away from where it had stuck to her flesh, and pulled her back from the line of trees. Kwakua stumbled after them, barely able to see, senses attuned only to her still-crying baby and the low crash of the waves ahead. On they stumbled, alone now—none of the other tribespeople were with them. If any others had escaped the blaze, they could not say. Onward, toward the beach, and to the darkness beyond.
When they were near enough to the water that the stench of burning was lessened by the salt in the air, they turned at last to behold the devastation. Their home was ablaze, a final reclamation by Our Land. Abenana dropped onto the sand, clutching at her still smouldering arm. Faneyo was immediately at her side, tearing off a strip of sleeping cloth from around her middle to bind the wound. Behind them, Kwakua’s breathing slowed and she thought of her Ma, whose bones now lay under a mountain of burning vegetation, and of her Mama, who now stood, or walked, or died she knew not where. She shushed her baby, placing an already leaking nipple into its searching mouth. She hummed a tune older than the ruins that now stood outlined in firelight to their left, as the putrid marination of smoke and salt finally overwhelmed the smell of blood that seemed to soak those ancient foundations.
Kwakua turned and faced the ocean, her first mother, and at last she understood.
“Until we return to the beginning and the Earth can be made anew,” Kwakua murmured to no one in particular. Her beloveds, clutching one another and watching the disintegration of the only home they had ever known, barely noticed as she wandered toward the waves, which seemed to lessen in intensity the closer she came. As her footpads broke the surface, to Kwakua’s surprise there was no pain at all. The expected fire, singeing, and searing pain associated with the toxic anger of the ocean did not come. It felt not wet but warm, like Abenana’s soft, weeping openings. It had been many harmattans since she had thrown herself into the river’s clutches, but she still remembered what it felt like to drown. Would this be any different?
By the time the cries of her lovers reached her, Kwakua was already beyond their grasp. If she had turned she might have smiled at them, might have gestured at them to follow, but all she could to do was keep on, away from all that she had known and loved, and travel onward to the beginning. She burned then as the waves crested her hips and salt water flowed into both her geilers and her still-raw birth canal. But she submerged herself nonetheless, feeling her baby’s gums clamp down about her nipple as it, too, felt a penetrating pain. Yet she kept on, thrashing in the surf until the pain at last subsided.
Kwakua opened her eyes; saw the swirling dark that surrounded her as it separated into murky brilliance—beams of light, flashes of silver current—and breathed.
© 2018 by Ama Josephine Budge
Ama Josephine Budge is a science fiction and art writer moved by queer, Black, speculative, pleasurable, and ecological futurities, currently based in 2018 London. Ama’s fiction and non-fiction has been published internationally by Aperture, The Independent Newspaper, Dispatch Feminist Moving Image, Media Diversified, Skin Deep, Consented, CHEW Magazine, B. Dewitt Gallery, and Autograph ABP. Ama is also the convener of anti-conference I/Mages of Tomorrow and initiator of pleasure activist collective Self Love and Ecstasy aka SLAE. www.amajosephinebudge.com / @amjamb