The first time Wekesa Mwani came to Ayanda’s home, he brought with him his famous panga. The cleaver hung from his leather belt and slapped against his calf as he walked, unchallenged, through the gates and gardens into the Sekibo house. After all, it was Wekesa’s father Yana Mwani who paid for the guards on patrol and their automatic rifles.
Out of her sisters, Ayanda was the quietest, and the most observant. She was friendly to everyone in the house, from the chef to the sentries. For the first time in her life, the house felt like a prison, and those guards and servants became wardens.
The first time Wekesa Mwani came to Ayanda’s home, he didn’t bother to knock. He stepped through the door way as if it were his own, and wandered through the house until he came upon Ayanda’s family eating dinner.
Her father stood at once. “Wekesa—” he yelped, only to stutter into silence as the intruder drew the blade from his belt.
The panga was a curiously ancient weapon for the son of a gun-runner, but Wekesa was famous for it. The stories about how he liked to cut down his father’s enemies were whispered in the marketplaces, and told with relish in schoolyards. Wekesa and his reputation kept Yana’s opponent’s wary.
Without greeting or explanation, Wekesa swept her father’s plate and cutlery to the floor so that he could sit on the edge of the table. He laid the cleaver across his thighs with careful patience.
“Have you heard,” he said airily, “that the police took Yana’s shipment this morning?”
Ayanda breathed shallowly, fear constricting her chest and throat.
“I . . . I hadn’t heard—” her father whispered.
Wekesa grinned at the four girls seated around the table. Ayanda and her sisters. “You have such a beautiful family,” he said. “tell me your names. How old are you?”
Elewa was the eldest, and the most intelligent. Armed with charm and a reputation for legal gymnastics, she was ready to replace her father as Yana Mwani’s accountant and pocket-politician. She spoke first. “Elewa,” she said. “I am twenty-three.”
He nodded sagely, and moved his attention to Ayanda next. “Ayanda. Nineteen,” she said.
The words sounded weak and breathless in her own ears.
Beautiful Fanaka and sweet Dalia followed suit at fourteen and six years old.
“Only six?” His eyebrows rose in playful surprise. “But you look so much older!”
His forefinger had tapped on the blade of the panga with a small, dull sound heard around the otherwise silent room. His eyes turned back to Joseph Sekibo. “I’m surprised a busy man like yourself can make time for family dinners.”
Joseph Sekibo jerked to his feet and dropped his wrung and wrinkled napkin onto his seat. He spared a glance for his wife. “I’ll be back,” he said. “it’s just a misunderstanding—”
“Don’t worry, Joseph,” Wekesa interrupted again. “I’m sure they’ll be excellent hosts.”
But because he had not obeyed the traditions of welcome, he was not a guest, and they were not hosts. Disregarding the greeting ceremony meant Wekesa was prepared to hurt, or kill, any member of the Sekibo family.
Her father left. Ayanda knew that he went into the city to bribe, blackmail, and trick Yana’s weapons out of the government’s hands. He and Yana were old friends—the gangster kings of Khabamett. Born and raised in the slums on the other side of the bay, the decaying tin shanty-town known as the Slide.
Bloodshed and manipulation saturated their shared history. When they were starving, gutter-bred boys, a sangoma told them that together they would become the most powerful men in Khabamett. But only together, and so they remained bound by their superstition.
Once Yana and Joseph fulfilled the sangoma’s prophecy, Yana’s faith turned into possessive paranoia, and Joseph belief turned to fanatic religion. He would never betray Yana, just as Yana would stop at nothing to keep Joseph loyal, but never trust him.
Ayanda and her sisters watched Wekesa and his infamous panga. They froze like rodents in the hypnotic gaze of a snake. Their clever and diplomatic mother said nothing, and even Ayanda, who was known to be fearless, did nothing but sit and wait.
The second time Wekesa Mwani came to Ayanda’s home, he waited for the gates to open for him. He joked with the guards as he allowed them to search him. He smiled as the door opened. The day was warm, and bright, broken by the occasional, sweet-smelling breeze blowing from the peach orchards on the edge of Kabhamett’s crater.
The second time Wekesa Mwani came to Ayanda’s home, he didn’t bring his infamous panga. Instead he carried extravagant gifts. For Elewa he brought a yellow silk dress, cut in the recently popularized Asian style. For Fanaka and Dalia he brought gold necklaces, and for Ayanda he brought a small crystal bottle filled with sickly-sweet rose and ylang-ylang perfume.
Each daughter accepted these gifts with many bows and gestures of deference. Ayanda made all the motions of the traditional welcome her father expected, filled with a peculiar mix of calm detachment and boiling hate.
Wekesa smiled at her, just for her, his eyes sparkling with humor and triumph. “I hope all of you will wear these offerings to dinner tonight, although I know it is impossible to make the Sekibo daughters any more beautiful.”
Joseph Sekibo laughed, a big belly-laugh. “You have your father’s tongue, Mr. Mwani. Yana once managed to talk us out of a night in jail with his flattery.”
“I would like to hear that story,” Wekesa said. He still stood at the courtyard of the Sekibo house, with the gardens arrayed behind him. Twilight muted the colorful flowers and familiar landscape.
It was Ayanda’s father who began the traditional formalities. “Please,” he said, reaching out to take Wekesa’s shoulder, “Wekesa Mwani, come inside and share a meal with my family. My wealth to provide for you, my walls to protect you, my words to guide you. May our ancestors join at our hearth and fill our stories so that tonight we share one fortune and one favor.”
Wekesa nodded gravely. “This house brings honor to me. I will join with you, place no burden not willingly carried, and make no gesture to willfully harm the Sekibo family.”
The words were old. Far older than the house. Perhaps, in some variation, as old as the land they stood on. To break such an oath was to betray the ancestors, but Ayanda didn’t believe in the ancestors anymore. She didn’t believe in the old stories, or the rituals they now performed.
Even her mother, the lovely and well-bred Chikri Sekibo, curled her lip at the open display of vulgar superstition. But these customs had bound Yana and Joseph together as children. And in their minds had given them the power to rise above their enemies.
The Sekibo family bowed as Wekesa stepped across the threshold. He first embraced Chikri as a beloved Aunt, then exclaimed at the growth of the Dalia. “You are at least two inches taller!” he said playfully.
Then he turned to Ayanda. “And how are you, fearsome Aya?”
Ayanda did not answer. She hadn’t spoken for many days now, but no one had noticed in the days of stress and uncertainty. Now they frowned. Now her father worried and her mother pulled her aside to ask her whether she felt ill. She smiled to set them at ease, but the gesture was painful and forced.
Today was a good day. Yana Mwani had his guns, and her father had his money, and Wekesa had come to set their minds at ease and reward them for their loyalty. Not one word about his purpose or their business was spoken over dinner. Everyone but Ayanda went to bed heavy with liquor and superficial assurances.
She knew what kind of monster Wekesa Mwani was. He was more than a son of Yana Mwani, more than his patronizing gifts, and the lies that rolled off his tongue at dinner. She knew more of the wickedness of Wekesa Mwani than could be told by the liquor that soured his breath or the bloody history of his panga.
Because she knew him, she waited patiently in her dark bedroom. She listened for the whisper of the insect-netting around her bed, the slight breeze as he slipped underneath it. She relaxed her body to feel the careful, slow dip of her mattress as he reached in the darkness for her mouth. Just as he had that first time he had invaded her home.
The hilt of the paring knife was warm in her palm.
Six hours after he walked through the threshold and received her father’s protection, a servant followed the trail of his blood and bleating cries to find the honored guest in the dining room, unconscious and clutching at the mutilated flesh between his legs.
Wekesa Mwani lay on her father’s desk, on display to a tense audience. Ayanda’s mother, father, and eldest sister huddled, as far away from Wekesa as the room would allow. Ayanda’s father gripped his cellphone so tightly that the plastic case made little groaning sounds in the silence between Wekesa’s whimpers.
Jama Ibori, the medicine woman, was known to their family, the successor of the sangoma who divined Joseph and Yana’s legendary ascent. She came quickly, even in the darkest part of the night. She carried her knotted bag of muti supplies and no indication of curiosity about her patrons or her patient. But then, a sangoma was privy to all kinds of secret knowledge gleaned from the ancestors. It was one of the reasons a medicine woman could be trusted when a family and their connections needed to avoid the attention of the police.
“We need a surgeon,” Elewa muttered. She chewed her nails to the quick in just a few short hours. “A real doctor.”
If this was an insult to Jama Ibori’s skills, she didn’t respond to it. The medicine woman was in her early thirties, but dressed in a traditional linen gomesi. Ayanda only knew the square-collared dress with short, puffed sleeves, left-breast buttons, and knotted sash from films and old pictures of tribal Africa.
With Wekesa’s bleeding controlled, Jama lit bundles of herbs and filled the room with acrid smoke. The scent lay thick and sweet on Ayanda’s tongue. She watched, the muti-woman stitch up the wounds, rubbing oils and ash into Wekesa’s wound.
Anything from lion fat to cobra skin and every herb and mineral known to man made muti, but only a sangoma knew which combination hurt or healed a person. Only a sangoma could call on the ancestors to set magic and power into the ingredients.
Jama Ibori showed her a small smile when she noticed Ayanda’s eyes on her handiwork. “If you like,” she whispered, so that she would not be overheard by Ayanda’s pacing father or stone-still mother. “I could give him the parts of a pig. Or a mouse.”
Ayanda shook her head, but not because that kind of muti was forbidden. Even if she believed that the muti-woman could do it, she wouldn’t agree. It was better this way. She had taken from Wekesa, and to give anything back would admit guilt when she felt nothing of the kind.
The sangoma shrugged and began to stitch Wekesa’s skin closed, chanting out spells. Ayanda squinted through the candle-light and smoke. It must have been a trick of the poor light, but she could almost have sworn that Wekesa’s skin had already started to scar.
His cries came to moans and then disappeared into little hitching breaths like that of an upset child. His life was no longer in danger, but he was still unconscious. For the moment the Sekibo family was safe, at least safe enough to talk about what came next.
But no one spoke.
It was the muti-woman who cut through the silence first. She stripped off her clinical gloves with a satisfied smacking sound.
“Where is the rest of him?” she asked as she washed her hands in a basin of clean water.
She was the only one who could look at Ayanda while blood and Wekesa’s bile still coated her silk nightgown. “In my bed,” Ayanda said, with more strength and steadiness than she felt. “Or near it.”
Finally her mother began to cry, and her father’s face locked in anguish. They were speechless. It was Elewa who spoke.
“Why, Ayanda?” she asked. Her hands were shaking, and her face was pale. “He should have suffered justice, not you.”
“Mwani guns line our pockets,” Ayanda said dully. “Mwani soldiers protect these walls. You think Yana Mwani would have punished his son? Or would he have lost even more trust in Baba’s loyalty?”
“I would have stood by you, Ayanda,” her father said weakly. “No matter the cost.”
She didn’t believe that. Despite all his talk of tradition and the ancestors, his family always came to Yana and his business. “Wekesa wanted to divide you and Yana,” she informed her father instead. “If you stood by me, Yana would see it as disloyalty. Even if you didn’t, he would still see rebellion in any of his misfortunes.”
There was another reason she didn’t give voice to, but one that she had thought about almost constantly in the past two weeks. The punishment handed to Wekesa would not be enough.
If she said something afterward, and if Yana Mwani acknowledged his son’s crime, Wekesa would be shamed, his name stricken from family records. He would be cast out of his house without guidance or protection.
Ayanda would gladly suffer those indignities for the chance to hurt Wekesa personally and with all the force she felt necessary. The Sekibo house still stood on the shoulders of the Mwani empire, and Yana would take this opportunity to bind Joseph firmly to his side.
Wekesa would come after her, but she was no longer a Sekibo. He couldn’t justify punishment on her parents or siblings to his father. By the ancient laws the gangster-kings followed, she had broken the word of her father, and the spirit of their home. She had no claim to the Sekibo wealth or connections.
Ayanda was no longer a part of their world. Even now, standing in her father’s study, she felt the separation.
“I will pay eighty-thousand sifa for all of it,” Jama Ibori said, breaking into the strange, still moment.
“What?” her father whispered.
But the sangoma ignored Mr. Sekibo. Her gaze fixed on Ayanda’s face. She gestured carelessly to Wekesa’s bandaged groin. “Eighty thousand sifa will buy you your own house, or a ticket out of the Khabamett, maybe to the States,” she said. “That flesh can make powerful muti.”
Elewa gasped, not at the fortune being offered, but at mention of bad muti, the kind that brought down the wrath of the government which in most other ways was indifferent to the crimes of its people. “You can’t,” she said. “You can’t.”
“Is it mine to sell?” Ayanda asked.
The sangoma smiled crookedly. “You took it. You can do with it what you like.”
“The ancestors will never forgive you,” Mr. Sekibo said quickly, stepping forward, but not quite between Ayanda and the muti-woman. “Ayanda, it is bad muti.”
“Where were the ancestors when I needed them, Baba?” she asked, slowly wiping her hands on her nightgown. Wekesa’ blood was sticky between her fingers, but cracked and crumbled into flakes from her knuckles as she opened and closed her fingers. “Even if I believed they watch over us, I broke the host-laws: I have no ancestors anymore. No family.”
Every emotion she felt in the past two weeks filtered through a net woven from anger, grief, and apathy. She had not thought about after the events, beyond an acceptance of her punishment. Hazy daydreams of death fueled the madness in the weeks since Wekesa’s attack.
She had imagined starving out in the bush alone, or drinking a potent mix of the cleaning agents kept under the stairs. She wasn’t suicidal, but hoped that when the rage and hate had abated, she might be. She squashed the romantic notion, now that she had committed her revenge and still shied away from the thought of her own death.
But then what was she going to do? With eighty thousand sifa she could be a rich woman in the West, guarding over her hoard, and always looking over one shoulder for Wekesa’s revenge. If she did not accept the money, she would be a homeless wanderer in the East, dying young, hungry, and alone before he could find her.
Neither path was appealing. Either way, she traded one prison for another.
She looked up at the medicine woman. “Forty thousand sifa,” she said. “The other forty thousand you can keep, if you let me come with you, and teach me to be a sangoma.”
The other woman’s smile was cold. “Clever. Not even this one here will chase a sangoma.” She prodded Wekesa’s thigh. “But I know you don’t believe in the ancestors. You think I am a con artist.”
Ayanda met her gaze fearlessly.
The sangoma cocked her head to the side and considered Ayanda. “It is the ancestors who choose their speakers, but perhaps this is the path they have drawn for you. Forsaking your ancestors . . . you will have no filter for their world, no perspective or bias. You are a spirit alone, little more than a ghost or demon.”
From a pocket in her dress, she produced a handful of oddly shaped trinkets. Bones, twigs, and coins. “Shall we see?” she asked. “What destiny you have wrought for yourself?”
Without taking her eyes from Ayanda’s, she threw the talismans high into the air.
As they rose to an apex, time slowed to a crawl. At the top of their arc, time stopped completely but the charms still spun.
While they did, Ayanda could feel the world shifting, the fabric slithering, pulling, wrinkling around her. Something inside her changed as well. It was the same sensation as a dislocated joint being snapped back into place. She was a sangoma. It was her destiny and the design of the universe, so much greater than man or god.
She could see the lines of her sister and her mother and father. They were all woven together, a beautiful tapestry of memories, emotions, and dreams. A thousand possible futures played out in the thread between them, too many colors to count, too many colors to see.
But all around Ayanda, the frayed threads swayed, unanchored, and directionless. They were shiny, fine, and grey. No life danced in those gossamer strings. She reached out, and while her arm stayed at her side, a ghostly appendage did rise at her side and brushed the single dead strand.
Ayanda thought she had known emptiness in the past two weeks.
But as the talismans spun in that frozen moment, she realized that was a fraction of true nothingness. She was completely and utterly hollow, a pocket of non-existence in a world of life and magic.
Around her bubble of isolation made from those severed filaments, red and black hands appeared, slapping on the barrier that separated her from their world. The ghostly palms drummed like rain on a tin roof, unceasing and engulfing.
She knew from some ancient instinct, that the hands belonged to her family’s ancestors, They mourned. They tried to reach out to hold her, guide her, and scold her.
But they could not. They were bound to the cords of the Sekibo family, the fabric she had torn herself from. Spirit-torn daughter, treasured sister, descendant-lost, they whispered in one strange voice made of many voices—old, young, male and female. Beloved. Chosen. We wished so much more for you.
But those voices were not the only ones she heard.
Deceiver. Traitor. Flesh-stealer. Line-ender.
The words came faster and faster, garbled with speed and sheer volume. The threads grated against her soul, stripping it raw. Her heart was empty, and the nothingness expanded, engulfing her.
She had forsaken her ancestors, and by the ancient rules, they could not welcome her to an afterlife.
Released, Ayanda stumbled back, and fell to her knees, strangling her scream into a yelp of pain. Jama caught her collection of talismans with practiced ease.
“Ayanda?” Elewa said, jerking forward as if to steady her younger sister or help her up. It was their father who stopped her from reaching out, capturing her wrist and pulling it away.
“No,” he said hoarsely.
Ayanda was left looking up into the muti-woman’s face, and the power contained there.
“You have been chosen. They spoke to you, and you heard them,” Jama said, each word harsh on Ayanda’s ringing ears. “Do you still wish to serve them, even if you can never join them?”
Ayanda blinked dazedly. The afterimage of the endless forest of hands burned in her memory. Her shattered atheism meant nothing now. Her heart ached with the memory of that emptiness, the curse she had brought upon herself. The sorrow ached inside her belly like rotten fruit.
“Yes,” she said, even as tears slipped down her face.
She folded her back until her forehead touched the floor, and for the first time in two weeks she cried. She sobbed until her lungs hurt and her head ached fearsomely.
The medicine woman helped her back onto her feet. Once she was standing, she was faced with her mother’s misery. Chikri Sekibo had been silent all this time, gazing upon Wekesa’s body and her daughter with the same confusion and fear.
“Aya,” she whispered. “We can fix this. We can—”
Beside her, Joseph Sekibo stepped back, pulling Elewa with him. Ayanda wished she could comfort them. Two weeks ago she cared for nothing but her family’s happiness.
Even after all the events of the night, the old impulses were hard to ignore. She wanted to curl into her mother’s arms and poke fun at her father until he smiled and laughed from his belly, vibrating Ayanda’s whole body with the sound.
But their grief wasn’t hers to fix anymore. She wiped the tears away from her own eyes. She turned away from them to where the sangoma wrapped up her bottles, drums, incense, and needles.
Jama offered a clean kanga to Ayanda, who wrapped the soft cotton fabric around her shoulders. Her new mentor took her arm gently to draw her out of the room and away from the Sekibo family and Wekesa’s unconscious body. “Take me to your room.”
Ayanda led her through the halls, cooled by the winter night. She shivered in her nightgown. The stones numbed her feet, and the servants peeking out at her from the hall were half-dressed in warm cloth. They gasped and muttered prayers as she passed in and out of their lantern-lights. At the sight of the muti-woman trailing behind her, they quickly disappeared back into their rooms switching off their lanterns as if to hide from evil spirits.
The pace of Ayanda’s heart picked up as she neared the scene of her crime. Of Wekesa’s crime too, though she slept in the same bed for two weeks since then. Rather than return to her bedroom and the grisly sight laid out inside, she leaned on the wall beside the door and waited. The sangoma slipped through the door and into the dark interior.
She drummed her fingers on the wall at the small of her back and breathed the cold air deeply. Her legs shook threatening to buckle under her weight. “Did you find it, Auntie?” she called back through the dark portal into her old room.
“Easy enough to spot,” the sangoma said cheerfully as she emerged from the room, tucking a bloody jar into her bundle. “And my name is Jama, not Auntie. I’m not so much older than you.”
She held something out in the darkness. “This is yours, I believe.”
Ayanda took it before she knew what it was. The shape in her hand was instantly recognizable. A knife. The knife.
“I won’t kill for you,” Ayanda said, keeping very still. “I won’t kill for your muti.”
“If I believed you capable of such a thing, I would not have agreed to take you in,” Jama said drily. “Wekesa lived, after all. Your hands were very steady.”
Ayanda’s suspicion did not subside. She watched as the medicine woman stripped off the clinical white gloves. Jama witnessed an audition of violence, and muti-murders occasionally filtered into the news before the government could censor them. “Then why give me this?” she asked lifting the knife between them.
The sangoma’s deep breath was loud in the darkness and silence of the house. “Because it is an object of significance. Muti is a practice of ritual, of sacrifice, essence, and context. That knife is powerful. With it you severed your link to your ancestors, and a blade that can cut through the spirit world is worth more than a hundred million sifa.”
“Then why wouldn’t you take it?”
Jama shrugged. “Because to me, it is just a kitchen knife. A small kitchen knife.”
She took Ayanda’s elbow and turned her, unresisting, back the way they had come. It was easy to see Wekesa’s path, the bloody tracks made by his large, bare feet. “This is your first lesson, Ayanda,” Jama said. “You may not have the help of your ancestors, who would give your muti power, but that does not make you powerless. It makes you different. It makes you special. It gives you context.”
“But I am . . . alone,” Ayanda whispered. There was no other way to describe that aching emptiness.
Jama heaved a sigh. “Yes,” she said.
The medicine woman’s words held a strange hypnotic power over Ayanda. Nobody came out to say goodbye. The servants stayed in their rooms. Ayanda allowed herself to be led down the main hallway.
“You have betrayed your family, and the punishment is as old as the gods. Without kin, you will wander hungry and cold, alone and empty until your spirit loses all memory of humanity, and you become like the old demons of the desert. But that is a long time away, and your life will be long.”
The front door alarm had been cancelled to let the sangoma inside the Sekibo house. No one barred their exit. Ayanda’s chill had seeped into her bones, but she did not shiver as they passed by the armed guards that kept watch over the house and grounds.
The Sekibo home was large, and the garden was kept lush and full even in the middle of winter when the nights were cold enough to freeze the gathering dew. Fountains and sprinklers moved warm air and water through the garden. Two large, deep swimming pools, lit from the inside, illuminated the garden and front gate.
No one stopped them. The sangoma was a supernatural force, above such mundane weapons as the automatic rifles the men carried, more powerful and ancient than the walls of the compound. She wore antiquated linen clothing with beaded jewelry, and carried her own bag, but not even Ayanda’s mother could compete for the elegance with which the muti woman held herself.
The motion-sensing cameras all turned with Ayanda and the medicine woman’s progress down the long drive, like peasants watching an emperor on parade.
They stopped at the gates, and without uttering a command, they opened slowly, the mechanized hinges whining as they were roused from slumber. Between the ornately wrought iron bars, the densely concentrated city of Khabamett unfolded before Ayanda. She had never been without her parents outside the gates, and had not often wondered what kind of life lay outside the walls of the compound. Everything she had ever needed had been brought straight to her. School, friends, toys, parties—she had never been denied anything and, as a result, at the age of nineteen, she still felt like a child.
Jama inhaled deeply, her eyes open wide and sparkling with vigor even this late at night. On this side of the bay, the Rise, the houses of rich families and extravagant tourists were well lit and patrolled regularly. On the other side, the distant and dark half of the crater, were the slums. It was the place they called the Slide. Firelight danced against that mountain of squat, square buildings and the echo of gunfire carried haltingly on the wind.
Between these two slopes, Khabamett rose in glittering towers and dusty hills.
“Will you keep the child?” Jama asked quietly as the gates slid to a stop in front of them.
Ayanda’s hand strayed to her belly. “Child?” she asked stupidly.
Ayanda stared out into the world. Between these two sides of the crater and the bay, the glass and steel building rose in a glittering mountain. So much had changed. She clutched her fingers tightly into the silk over her stomach.
“It smells like a boy, if it makes any difference to you,” the sangoma said, letting go of Ayanda’s arm and shifting the lumpy bundle of her supplies to her other hand.
“I don’t know, Jama,” Ayanda said at last. “I cannot decide a thing like that tonight.”
Her voice was distant and quiet even in her own ears, but Jama heard her. The medicine woman gave a little shrug. “Whatever you choose, I know the good muti both ways.”