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Nnedimma Mbachu

Nnedi Okorafor-Mbachu

Okorafor-Mbachu is a writer of fantasy, magical realism and science fiction. Her stories predominantly take place in West Africa or places like Africa. Her first novel, a young adult fantasy tale set in a futuristic place based on Nigeria, was titled Zahrah the Windseeker. It was published in 2005 by Houghton Mifflin. The Nigerian edition will be released in Nigeria in February 2008 by Kachifo Ltd. Zahrah the Windseeker was shortlisted for the Parallax Award and Kindred Award in 2006, a finalist for the 2005 Golden Duck Award and nominated for a Locus Award (Best First Novel) 2005. It is currently shortlisted for the Garden State Teen Book Award.

Her second novel, The Shadow Speaker is a fast-paced fantasy tale with science fiction elements set in a futuristic West African country of Niger. It will be published by Disney/Hyperion Books for Children in October 2007. Nnedi has published many short stories and essays and won several awards including first place in the Margin Magical Realism Short Story Contest, third place in the Hurston/Wright Awards and finalist in the prestigious Writers of the Future Contest.

Nothing is new.

Everything has happened before and will happen again. You will be another person in another time in another place like this with this same choice to make. Let me tell you about yourself many lives ago, when you had this choice to make, the same odd and unlikely lesson to learn. This time your name was Nourbese and your dilemma was with your husband, Osaze.

Love was easy for you to give, especially to Osaze, who was the one you were meant to be with. Everyone in your village knew this, so when you two decided to get married at the age of fifteen, no one objected. Both of you were an oddity in your village but not because you were anything so amazing, genius or unique. Actually both of you were fairly normal children…well, except for the exceptional love that existed between you two from the day you met.

You and Osaze met five years before. During the festival of the sun, the day when the sun rose the highest and hung the longest. It was a wonderful day because there wasn’t a cloud in the sky. The air smelled sweet with the scent of budding lilac flowers. The land you lived in does not matter. It was a place very far from here with dry sandy grounds and gnarled wide growing ancient trees. The people there wore long flowing garments that kept the body cool. And their lives revolved around both the sun and the large variety of flowers that grew year-round in the dry heat.

The day you met Osaze was a day of leisure for the community and everyone gathered in the village’s common area that sat in the center of the expansive croplands. The food people feasted on would be foreign to you now. Flowers of all shapes and sizes and textures. But not the flowers you know. These flowers were like meat to a leopard, like the hearty soups, sandwiches, stews and roasts you like to eat. These flowers were their sustenance.

There was singing and dancing. There were friends and family who were finally able to talk leisurely and catch up on things. You had come with your parents and siblings, two younger brothers and an older sister. Your parents had brought a large mat and you and your sister were sent to buy some food that you would eat before the sun reached its highest point and the dancing began.

Somehow, in the crowds, you got separated from your sister. At the age of ten, you had a bad sense of direction. You tended to get carried away with your surroundings, your attention taken by the sweet, sour, and salty smell of roasting, boiling and frying flower petals. All the sweeping colors of people’s clothes, the blue sky, the soft sting of the sandy breeze. The sound of people talking, bees working, the click of grasshoppers, the zip of humming birds. You were so overwhelmed by it all, that you lost sight of your sister, who always walked with purpose and speed.

You were looking up at a large blue wildflower that was being visited by several ruby red hummingbirds. Behind you, the festival crowds were coming and going. That was when you realized that you’d forgotten to keep an eye on your sister. You gasped, realizing that you were lost. You looked around frantically, nibbling at your nails. But all you saw were unfamiliar people. You stepped away from the large blue flower, unsure of which way to go.

Someone tapped you on your shoulder and when you turned, you met smooth brown eyes. His skin was the color of honey dripping down the brown stem of a wall flower. He was of a lighter shade than you were, yet he must have spent much time in the sun because something about him glowed. He held an oily looking bulbous yellow flower out to you, its stem was long and green and slightly transparent, as if it were full of water. It gave off a sweet tart scent that made you think of lemons and sweet cane candy. He had what looked like a hundred of these same flowers balanced on his head.

“I don’t have any money,” you said, but you couldn’t stop looking at his eyes and the way his hand did not shake as he held the flower out to you.

“But your mother will,” he said. “Where is she?”


“You’re lost.”

You frowned and looked away.

“I’m just…looking around,” you said.

“No, you’re lost,” he said, shaking his head. “I know lost when I see it.”

“You don’t know anything,” you said. “All you know is what I tell you.”

“My father says there is plenty one can know about someone without them even speaking,” he said. He was still holding the flower out to you. And without a word, though you didn’t know why and you had no money, you took it. You took it and held it to your nose and smiled at him and he smiled back at you. And you two stood there shoulder to shoulder watching the crowds for several wordless minutes in front of that tall blue flower crowded with hummingbirds.

Can ten-year-olds fall into a love deeper than that of a man and a woman of a hundred years? A love deep like a forever blooming flower? Impossible, you say? You say impossible because you don’t know any better, haven’t had the chance to learn. You will.

Back when you were Nourbese and Osaze was in your life, you knew nothing but love. You two spent much time together from that day on. Osaze lived only minutes away from you and every morning, before school, before it was time to garden, before you did your other chores, you’d find each other and sit ear to ear and close your eyes.

It was something no one else of either of your clans was capable of. You two were the first and the last. You swam in each other’s minds, thought out the problems of the world together, built empires in your heads, grew acres of fruit and vegetables in your souls.

The place where you two tended to spend the most time became a garden in itself. All types of flowers grew around the spot next to the garden of white cupped flowers behind Osaze’s house, where you two would sit and travel within your minds. The spot where you both sat became cushioned with green soft moss.

Yours and his parents were bothered and in awe of the love you two had for each other. Thus they left you two alone to do as fate had obviously decided. The day you two were married at the age of fifteen was a quiet day. Few people attended. To most, you and Osaze were married the day you met. The actual traditional ceremony was an afterthought. Your mother didn’t even know why it was necessary.

After that day, however, you two never left each other’s side. So this day was necessary. It marked the next phase for you and Osaze. You worked in the fields together, went to school together, studied together, lived together, spending half the time with your family and the other half with Osaze’s.

When you were both nineteen, you finally decided that it was time to consummate your marriage. You had not waited on purpose. It was more that you were so intimate, that it never occurred to you. When it did it was like the sky opened up and swallowed you and when it set you back down in the sand, you’d looked at each other and imagined the sky full of fluffy clouds. From that day on, you were never seen farther than two feet from each other. It was around this time that people began to refer to you and Osaze as Osanour and you were fine with this, for you two had begun to feel like you were one.

You thought as one mind, part male, part female, all compatible. Because plants grew well around you, people often sought and paid for your blessing of their crops, for the community was one supported by the land. And your blessings always yielded results.

A house was built for you in the center of the community croplands. Here you resided enjoying the hot sun, dry but fertile land, and each other’s love. You grew so close that even your hair began to knit together. Your closeness attracted your hair like roots to water, especially during the night. And soon, you literally couldn’t move more than two feet from each other, for you were connected by a thick thick rope of coarse hair. Your hair was a dark dark brown, his was a sandy brown. And so the rope was like honey and root tea.

When you were thirty years old, you didn’t know what to do when you became pregnant. You had forgotten that you were capable of producing something that was not part of you. You had forgotten that no matter how much you loved Osaze and no matter how much you were called Osanour, that you were still also Nourbese. He had forgotten that, though he wasn’t capable of producing children, you were.

When your body began to change, and you both became aware that you were no longer just you, Osanour, there was unease. Your belly grew so huge that it became difficult for you to press your body against Osaze when you slept, as you had done since you got married.

Your space felt invaded by a foreign presence that wasn’t that foreign. It was other. When you pressed your ears together, you still swam within each other’s minds, experiencing thoughts and emotions, but there was now something else. Another voice, one that giggled and clung. One that was full of images of neither of you could interpret.

You began to feel you needed space from Osaze. Just a little. A few more feet. Your body grew so hot in the sun, as it expanded. Osaze’s hands grew more eager as your breasts began to swell and your scent changed to something irresistible to him. It badgered him at night and he covered your face with kisses as you slept, his hand on your belly, making you feel too warm.

You began to feel bothered when people called you Osanour. You wanted your name back because you were you, no matter how much you loved Osaze. You were you. You were the one with child. You insisted this but no one listened, so used they were to seeing you and Osaze as one. It seemed that to the community, the child inside you just became a part of Osanour, too. And you didn’t like this either.

You started to cry often for no reason and Osaze could not console you. Osaze understood fully that things were changing and he began to brood. He couldn’t bear to know that you were unhappy. And his neck constantly hurt because you were always pulling your head away from his as you tried to get more space.

You both knew when the baby was due to come and you knew what you would name her. You’d name her Ikuku, the term for the sacred winds which were believed to hold everything together. By then, you had made your decision.

“Today,” you told him, one night. “Because the baby will come tonight.

Neither of you wanted to do it, really. But it was the only way to put things back in balance. No longer would your hair hold you together. Ikuku would. You walked to your parent’s home where you knew you would find your mother and father working in their garden.

“Papa,” you said, your voice slightly shaking, your hands pressed into the small of your back. “Osaze and I need you.”

“You and Osaze?” her mother said, releasing the rope of vine she was pruning. She looked at your father and you noticed that there was a slight smile on her face. You see, you were her child and when you met Osaze, she knew she had lost you to him for good. Or so she thought. She always dreamed that one day, you’d at last come back to her as Nourbese, her daughter. Today was that day.

“Yes, mama,” you said. “Your granddaughter arrives tonight.” You paused, knowing that once the words were spoken then they would come true. You felt Osaze’s arm come around your waist and rest on your belly.

“We need you…to separate us,” he said, looking her father in the eyes. Then he looked at the machete her father had in his hand.

Osaze’s parents were also called to bear witness to the event and by the time they arrived an hour later, a crowd of cousins, uncles, aunts, and villagers had gathered.

“Please papa,” you desperately said. “Do this quickly before more people come.”

By this time, you’re eyes were like a rare rain cloud and Osaze clung to you as if to let go would cause him to fall. Osaze’s parents huddled with your mother as your father sharpened his machete with a stone. You were very aware of the whispers. Several people had even come up and pleaded with you and Osaze not to separate.

“Please,” one man said, placing his hand on Osaze’s shoulder. “Our crops will fail, o.”

“Why are you doing this?” a woman said, taking your hand and squeezing. “Why not wait until after baby?”

“You have made this place flourish,” an old man said, his wrinkled light brown hands clasped tightly together. “Now you want to make it die?”

“You will die if you do this,” an old woman said with tears in her eyes. “And then your baby will.”

At this, Osaze had looked at you and you looked away. And again, you had mumbled the response that you had mumbled to the others, “It must be done.” It was a sacrifice that needed to be made. But this time, you shivered. You weren’t sure if the process would kill you. You weren’t sure if the hair had become more than what it was. When cut, it would it bleed? What a tragedy it would all be if all three of you died.

And if we don’t die, well, what if it hurts? you thought. If the pain was too great, the child would suffer trauma, too. But if you died…your father would cut the baby out of you. Your mother had told you about such a thing that had been done when a pregnant woman’s heart had stopped. The child that had been cut from the woman’s body was one of the children you’d grown up and played with before you met Osaze.

Doubts filled your head and maybe they made your head too heavy, for you still laid yourself on the sandy ground when the time came. You and Osaze had purposely lain three feet apart to give enough space to cleanly expose the thick cord of golden brown of twisted hair. You were face to face but when you looked at Osaze he would not meet your eyes.

You wanted to reach for Osaze’s hand as you lay there but you didn’t. Osaze didn’t try to reach your mind, either. You patted your belly as the child gave a soft kick.

“I will do it now!” your father loudly announced. He was sweating freely, large drops tumbling down his forehead and from his thick white black afro. But his hands held the machete tightly, firmly.

You glanced at the rising machete, which glinted in the desert sunshine. And then you shut your eyes just as the machete came down. But Osaze kept his open, so you were able to see it happen anyway. You’d never forget how the first chop left a deep gash in the hair. It made a meaty sound and reminded you of the first gash made in the neck of a bull when it slaughtered. A perfect deep, mortal slice. You were certain that you smelled the copper smell of blood.

Now it would have to be finished. You saw stars before your eyes and you felt Osaze’s closeness retreat. It was like letting out your breath after you’d been holding it for nine months. It felt…good.

Your father chopped and chopped. And you could hear the gasps of the crowd with each chop. You could feel your head able to move back a bit more with each chop. Until the last chunk of hair gave and you both came loose. Osaze slowly sat up, his long rope of hair flopping on his shoulder, but he was looking at you. You were farther away from him than you’d been in a decade.

“Osaze,” you whispered as your mother helped you up. Osaze’s mother came and helped, too, for you were quite heavy with your pregnancy. Your father just stood there staring. He’d later bury the machete he’d used in the sand.

The rope of hair on your head felt heavy and light at the same time. You leaned on your mother and straightened out your long green dress to hide the anxiety you felt from being so far from your true love. You took a step toward him but before you could get closer something in your belly gave, and liquid splashed down your legs into the sand.

“Osaze!” you screamed. He was running to you before you even spoke and had you in his arms before you could take another breath. You were not too heavy for him to hold up. “Take me home,” she said. You looked behind you. “Mama!”

“I’m coming,” your mother said. And so did your father, Osaze’s parents, your aunt and the rest of those standing around.

Osaze didn’t leave your side the entire time. He placed his warm hands on your cheeks and absorbed as much of your pain as he could. Afterwards, he’d have burst blood vessels dotting the whites of his eyes and speckling his neck. As dawn approached and the birds of the desert began to sing, the voice of your first child sang to the air. She was a fine and healthy child.

After that day you and your husband were called by your respective names and, as two individuals with a profound connection, you raised your baby. Your daughter took much pleasure in running from you to Osaze and back to you, her strong legs relishing in the exercise. And when she was two, she learned to climb the tough stems of the flowers in the flourishing croplands.

So you see, once again, you learned that sometimes love is best when two are separate.
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