Mother pressed the sweltering blade deeper into my left thigh, ignoring my scream this time. The blood was a thin streak of bluish-red. She sighed and wiped it off my thigh with her fingers. She raised my breasts and drew a semi-circle under each one with her blood-stained fingers, muttering prayers in her language. In the half-light of the kitchen, I wondered if anybody could see us through the window, my legs parted, my devout-Christian mother making ritual incisions on my body. She was not going to lose another daughter, she said. Jésù would understand. She rubbed ash on the cut on my thigh and kissed it three times, calling my name after each kiss. A current of pain ran through my body, but I was all out of screams. She led me to the bathroom, where she washed me with a wooden sponge and ocean milk. She continued the prayers, with references to Ọṣun and the God of Israel; a curious mix of faiths. After each line of prayer, I said àmín and sucked my teeth.
She burned incense as I settled into bed. She sat on the floor, silent as a mute bird, and stared at the wall, her face a greyish canvass of wrinkles, her browning hair unwashed for days. Her eyes had a new dryness to them that could only come from being emptied of all the tears in the world. She had been like that for days now, since my twin sister’s death.
Her forlornness had settled into the whole house in a way that made it difficult to breathe. Her grief was a shadow that darkened the walls and turned the house into an unending night. You could not see a thing unless you lit a candle, and even that soon became melted wax. Mother might have been a Christian, but she could not deny what she was. A m’ookun would always be a m’ookun. And m’ookun did not handle grief well. When in mourning, they brought the night with them wherever they went. The darkness had settled into her body too, her almond skin turning into worn, blackening flesh. She looked decades older.
Whenever I looked at her, I could not tell if what I was reading in those stone-cold eyes was grief, or anger. I closed my eyes and pretended to snore. She got up and left the room.
The day after Momo died, a furry, headless snake was found at the riverbank. Eyewitnesses swore they watched it dig a hole and crawl into it.
A horde of mourners flocked to our house after the news of her death had spread. Everybody in the neighbourhood came with a lantern. Some had come to console Mother and me. A few had come to witness the wonder of the house that was full of night while the sky outside was on fire, beaming with the sun’s bright flame.
But most of them had come to see my sister’s body. It was an absolute horror someone like her had died. And they loved horror, didn’t they? They had come to pull at her flesh, and cut strands of her hair, and pluck her emerald eyes and a few toes, and suck the juice out from her navel with rafia pipes. All of these would sell for a fortune on the black market. An oracle is believed to house magic in her body parts. Why Mother allowed the people to mutilate her daughter’s body like that, I did not know. Without being buried, her soul would never find passage into the Otherland. But I suppose that was the point. Mother did not want her gone forever.
On the day we were born, a huge storm had hit the whole city. Trees were uprooted, sands rose to the skies, and the rivers bled into homes, leaving a wreckage of bodies and broken furniture in their wake. Mother said it was because a m’ookun—a half-human, half-spirit—giving birth to twins upset the balance of creation. But that was not the true disaster that came from our birth.
My sister came out looking like me, but a bit fractured, a bit peculiar, a bit something else. Her eyes were green, like a white woman’s. Her hair was a startling white that looked like the milk-white rains of July. On her left wrist was a mark, rough and deep like a scar. It resembled a snake. It was the mark of the òrìṣà, the pantheon. That was how the midwives knew: Momo was an oracle. She was certainly born differently.
But that was not the disaster. She was not the disaster. It was me; dull, unremarkable me—born with no sign of magic or divinity whatsoever.
Momo could tell people’s fates. Folks came from everywhere to hear what their futures held: how much money a venture would get them, how their children would turn out, how long their bodies would be able to house them. Mother no longer had to work. Momo’s gifts made us quite wealthy, you see; brought us enough money to even buy memory-erasing potions—the permanent kind they sold at Ms Dara’s. I do not remember why we needed those. But then, neither of us has any memory of my father, so there’s that.
I was protective of my sister. She had unbelievable magic, yes, but she was also vulnerable—a frail, frightened thing. She hated the dark. She often woke up from nightmares—from a nightmare, the same nightmare, almost every night. She never seemed to remember the bad dream, but immediately she woke up screaming, the room would become heated, and twin shadows of two women would dance on walls. We called them the shadow women. I started to sleep in her bed, holding her tightly just to make her feel safer, less alone, less scared of the dark.
We were famous in school. Momo was the girl with unspeakable magic. And I was her sister, a celebrity by association. But Momo soon started attracting the wrong attention. The fat-nosed Nigerian faith dealers from the northern coast had infiltrated our markets with Christian faith pills and turned our world upside down. Half the country was high on this new gospel about a suicidal white man worlds away. Momo became an abomination in their eyes, a manifestation of the devilish. A boy once told her to suck his dick, that no matter how powerful she was, he had now learned that she was made from his rib. So, to suck his dick, he said. The sweet, flightless bird, Momo, was terrified and decided to avoid boys every day in school. But, a true gentleman, the boy was kind enough to take back his offer after I rammed a pencil in his ear.
I was not punished by the school. The headmaster let me go free. He did not care for me, but I had something on him. I knew he was fucking Mrs Hauwa, the married woman from the school cafeteria. It also helped that he got free life forecasts from Momo. Yet, Mother had had enough. She withdrew us from school. She did not want any trouble. Perhaps, she also believed the story about Momo and was ashamed of her. The woman had turned Christian after all. Shortly after, she stopped allowing Momo to see anyone. She would lock her inside and tell people she was ill.
I loathed Mother for that. But I was not all too bothered. You could only hide Momo away for so long. She had the rest of eternity to break free. She was an oracle after all, and everyone knew oracles did not die. They turned themselves into trees or possessed animals after hundreds of solitary, unfulfilling years on earth.
Yet, here we were, with a dead oracle to mourn.
When you are born a twin, you are born with a life partner. Mine was Momo. We might not have been attached at birth, but our souls were Siamese. When she first bled as a woman, we were thirteen. Her blood first came in tiny droplets, and then quick showers that turned the bathroom to a pool of red. I did not know what to do. Mother was not at home and we both feared she was going to die. She was an oracle, yes, but the sight of blood was enough to make us rethink her immortality. We were petrified. Mother had had Anani, her friend, the witch, curse the windows and doors so nobody could get in the house while she was gone. But that also meant we could not leave. I held on tightly to Momo, both of us crying. I brought out the toilet bleach. If she was going to die, then I would follow her.
When Mother returned, I told her what had happened. She called for Anani. She had seen a lot of bleeding in her days but this looked nothing like a woman’s flow—with gushes of blood that threatened to paint the whole room red. Momo’s skin had turned white, pupils dilated. She would usually not need Anani’s input, but we were talking about an oracle here; who knew for sure what this symbolised? The bleeding had stopped by the time Anani arrived, but Momo was unconscious. Anani examined her body, as though to confirm for herself that my sister had become a true woman. She let out a deep, guttural laugh, almost mocking in tone. She looked at Mother and me, as if there was something she wanted to say. Then, she looked away and left the house.
When Momo woke up, Mother said we had to celebrate her becoming a fertile woman. We cooked her favourite meal—lemoncake with peppered àkàmù and roasted catsnake. I watched her silently as she ate, her white hair a pristine vision of dreadlocks. She looked even more vulnerable then, like a simple gust of wind could blow her away. I wanted to hold her, shelter her.
I loved her in ways I did not know my body was capable of loving. You could slice my veins open and take me to a lab, extract my emotions for her and have a barrelful of love chemicals to rival Valentine’s Delight in the Ethiopian bazaars on Tafari Street.
She was an absolute wonder. It was like staring at myself, only more beautiful. I laughed as she started to wolf down the food. There was something about those green eyes of hers, which knew so well how to express hunger. Hunger for food. Hunger for boys.
The first time we snuck out of the house, there was a peer party happening down the street. We were sixteen and all our age-mates in the city were going to be there. It was a ceremonial initiation into adulthood for us all. Mother said it was a feast for the devil to devour souls. So, we waited for her to fall asleep before we escaped.
It was a street party, an open bash where palm wine flowed and highlife spoke life into our bodies and fireworks decorated the night sky. Baby birds even choreographed a special number for us. Yes, it was that elegant sort of party.
It was also the party where Momo met Subaar’.
It is not a long story: at first, we thought he was a foreigner, with his pawpaw skin and sea-blue eyes. During the party, we all formed a circle to watch a juggling contest. He won with ease. Asked to name his prize, he said his wish was to dance with the prettiest girl at the party. We were both surprised when he came towards us to pull Momo out of the crowd. I screamed for joy. I could not tell if the joy was mine or hers. For years, our emotions and senses had synced. I could tell what she was feeling at random times. She could put her hand in boiling water and I would feel the heat searing my skin too.
After the party, Subaar walked us home, Momo giggling all the way. I did not really know what she saw in him. But she seemed happy. And that was a good thing. When we got back home, she said she did not care if Mother punished her for sneaking out. She had found a boy. And that was a good thing. I did not tell her that we had to be careful—that shehad to be careful—since she did not know him that well. She finally knew someone who would make her feel like a woman. And that was a good thing. That was a good thing.
Until it got her killed.
Once, she woke up from a nightmare, the nightmare, screaming and kicking. I was jarred awake. I held her firmly, trying to calm her down. She went quiet as the twin shadow women appeared on the wall again. This time, only one of them was dancing. The other just stood still.
Momo started to sneak out more frequently. Subaar’ lived only a half-hour walk from us, ten minutes if you took the camel tube. I would be on the lookout, hoping Mother did not wake up looking for her, hoping she returned home safely.
One time, while I lay alone in bed, I felt a vibration on my skin. I thought nothing of it at first, until a gentle warmth ran all over my neck, down to my collarbone and chest, settling softly between my breasts. A soft wetness started to spread towards my left breast, covering my nipple. I bit my lip, trying hard not to let out a moan of yearning. There was no one else in the room, but I did not care either way. The soft, wet sensation spread to my right breast and this time I could not hold back my moan. It ran down my navel, towards my pubic hair, brushing it lightly before I felt it, like a lubricated tongue, between my legs. I cried softly into my pillow as the desire took over my body, leaving my legs shaking. Then, the sensation stopped suddenly. Just before I could start to wonder why, I felt it deeper, stronger inside of me. The hard thrusts of air got me wet and dripping. After a few more thrusts, a white liquid leaked out of me.
I cleaned myself off in the bathroom, bothered about what had happened. It was the best feeling of my life, yet dread hung over me like a cloud.
I sat in bed and waited for Momo to return. When she did, I jumped at her and hugged her.
“Momo, something just happened to me while you were gone.”
Her clothes were sticky. She was sweaty, breathing heavily, a mischievous smirk on her face. I looked at her once again and I knew. I knew. It all made sense.
“You just had sex with Subaar’.”
I, too, had just had sex with Subaar’.
I did not think he was dangerous, until he started to demand she spend more time alone with him. He wanted her to move out of the house and into his. He was only a few years older than us and I wondered how he was able to afford his own place. He even started to come into our house as one of our friends, after Momo begged Mother to allow us have visitors at least. Mother was none the wiser, thinking him a good friend of ours.
“Be careful,” I told Momo.
But she did not listen to me. They had sex everywhere in the house whenever Mother was out. She said it was wild and fun and ecstatic.
Then she fell sick.
She did not need to tell me the symptoms. I had seen it in her eyes. I could borrow her body for a few moments to know how she was feeling. Mother did not know what to do. She called Anani the witch in to examine Momo, who had never fallen sick in all of her sixteen years—unlike me. Anani confirmed what I already knew: Momo was pregnant.
What Anani had never told us was that an oracle was not supposed to know a man or woman. It threatened the purity of their essence. Such knowledge of peculiar beings was available only to witches. That was why Mother had remained friends with Anani even after she became addicted to the Christian gospel. But we should have known better than to trust the counsel of a witch; they feed on the misery of others. By knowing a mortal intimately, Momo had broken away from her connection to divinity. The foretelling was gone. The immortality was no longer promised.
“Why didn’t you warn me before, you devil?” Mother asked Anani, the house bathed in a rush of red light.
“Was I the one who told your whore of a daughter to open her legs?”
Mother slapped her, a backhand slap that sent her staggering back.
“You will pay for this,” Anani said.
“I should have never trusted a witch. You delight in everybody else’s misery.”
Anani stared at Momo long and hard. She left the house and we never saw her again.
Momo was alone at home once, while I was out buying foodstuff. I returned home to find her standing in the middle of the bedroom, blood running down between her legs. She ran towards me and collapsed in my arms, her small, delicate body leaning on me for support. Her body temperature was high.
“I had to take it out,” she said, barely conscious. “I had to.”
I washed the blood off her and put her to bed. When she woke up, she was tranquil, more at peace with the world and with herself.
“Thank you so much, Momo,” she said.
Momo was her name, not mine.
“Where’s Subaar’? I need him.”
“Forget him,” I said, squeezing her hand. “Listen, I am the only one you can trust.”
“I know. I know.”
I smiled. “You must be hungry. Let me make you your favourite.”
The house was soon filled with the buttery smoke of oiled catsnake writhing in fire, the sickly-sweet smell of freshly-baked cake, the citrusy scent of crushed lemons, all rivalling the spicy flavour of àkàmù sprinkled with tiny rodo peppers.
There it was again—the green-eyed hunger. I grinned as she ate it all. When the plate was finally empty, she pulled me in for a hug. She held on for a while. When she let go, I kissed her forehead. “I love you, sister. Now, get some sleep.”
She did not wake up.
After all the mourners had left with the different body parts, I sighed and settled into bed. Then, a knock came. Mother. I rolled my eyes as I asked her to come in. But it wasn’t her.
“What are you doing here?”
Even in grief, he looked gorgeous, like that first night.
“I… I didn’t know what to do. I was just…”
“Come here, come here,” I said to him as he fell into my arms, crying.
By then, everybody had heard of Momo’s death from complications during an abortion. I hadn’t told anyone whose baby she had been carrying. I even lied to Mother that I had not known any man around Momo. He was safe. He must have cried for an hour before he let go. He started for the door.
“You can stay the night if you want to,” I said.
“I don’t think that’s a good idea,” he said.
I walked up to him, pulled him by the collar of his dashiki, and kissed him deeply. He seemed to hold on to the kiss before pushing me away.
“What is wrong with you?”
“Nothing, I just want you.”
“This is wrong.”
“Can I not have something for once?”
“What is happening? Where is this coming from?”
“I have wanted you since the first day we met. And I still want you now.”
I took off my clothes before he could gather his thoughts. He stared at my breasts and then my thighs. He could have been looking at the incisions Mother had made, but I am sure his thoughts were about my pussy. His eyes lingered there, a brief flame of desire in them, before he looked away.
“What? Do I not look like her?”
I grabbed a white dreadlock periwig from the shelf. “I could look just like her if you want. I could wear green contacts. It would be like she never left.”
“You are a fucking bitch.”
“No, she was. She was.”
My rage was taking control of me. Momo and I had been so alike we could have been the same person. We went everywhere together. We loved each other more than anything in the world. We had and wanted the same things. And that was the problem: wanting the same things. I had wanted a home I could sing in, but she knew of no other way to use her voice without drowning out mine. I had loved her so much it was the closest thing to disappearing.
“What have you done?” he asked.
When you have spent your whole life devoted to serving someone, to saving them from themselves, bled for them, allowed yourself to fade into their narrative, at some point you start to crave a life of your own. You start to have dreams of your own. And when the universe decides to play a joke on you, links your minds and bodies, you know there is only one way to save yourself, to protect any idea of self you might have.
“But… I don’t understand. I… I thought you loved her.”
“I did. I still do.”
“So… wh— What changed?”
“You. You came and changed everything. I wanted you. I wanted her life. I wanted my own life.”
“You killed her out of jealousy?”
He ran out of the room, the abject stench of terror filling up the space he had left. I sighed and sat on the bed. There was a shadow on the wall. It was the shadow women. It was the first time I was seeing them without Momo summoning them with her dreadful dreams. But this time, there was only one of them. It was just one shadow woman, dancing, not sharing space—breathing her own air. How riveting. Sometimes you want to be the hero of your own story. Is that a crime? I took a long look at the dancing shadow woman—so beautiful, so alone. I walked towards the wall and danced with her. In the half-light of the room, my door ajar, I wondered if anybody could see me: white periwig on my head, my naked body swaying to a music that did not yet exist, dancing with my shadow. What ridiculous beauty.
— Kanyinsola Olorunnisola (from Bakwa Magazine)