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Maria’s Children

There wasn’t much for us boys of that little fishing village to do but fish. Wake, fish, eat, fish, sleep, fish, rinse and repeat. It was one endless cycle of sea-worn canoes and heavy nets and stinking fish. But it was the life we were used to, and we were content with it; we knew no better—there wasn’t much to imagine about the world outside of Badagry. For us, the world began somewhere just after the horizon of the Atlantic and ended on the bridge connecting Badagry to Lagos. Only the elders ventured over that bridge, and for the sole purpose of selling fish, nothing more. The boys remained on the gulf, playing at being fishermen, venturing far out onto the sea against all admonitions of our fathers. They were away, after all. They would never find out.

And so we took to venturing out onto the sea every weekend when our fathers left for Lagos with truckloads of a weeks’ worth of fish to be sold, daring each other to see how far we could go, to see who was so “chickenshit” and “pissy-panted” as to sail back for the familiarity of shore and solid ground at the first sign of a rogue wave (and thus endure a week of relentless ribbing until the next week’s chickenshit was crowned and inducted into the cramped halls of Chickenshitters). Only my older brother Muktar, and his two closest friends Soji and Yakubu hadn’t been inducted into this Hall of Shame. They were the boldest, the wildest, and the oldest—they were all fifteen; the rest of us chickenshits ranged from between ten to thirteen. They were our heroes, these three. They represented everything we aspired to be, and we wanted to please them in any way possible.

The jaunts out onto the unknown waters began as something of a test of masculinity amongst us boys, and my brother, who always went the farthest, was soon recognized as the leader our group. One day he went so far out that he vanished into the thickness of that early morning mist which had settled on to the Atlantic like a blanket of depression and we were reduced to mere silhouettes of ourselves, panic-stricken and wondering what had happened to Muktar. We stood there, shivering in the canoes, dancing precariously on the waves, all thinking the same thing but never daring to voice it: Muktar was dead; something out there had gotten him. But then Muktar appeared out from the mist, the grinning hero, clutching a decayed box to his chest.

“Treasure!” he bellowed, his grin wide. “I found treasure, boys!”

We hurried back to our house, this party of eight boys, and locked ourselves in the little room Muktar and I shared.

“Light a candle, Segun,” Muktar said to me; it was dark in the room. The mist had followed us back to the mainland, and if the sun had risen somewhere; its rays couldn’t get through.

I hurriedly lit a candle. The guttering flame bounced off our bright eyes, filled with wonder and amazement as we stared at the drenched wooden box.

“You didn’t even open it,” said Yakubu, and there was contempt in his voice. Yakubu was almost as tall as my brother and he was more muscular. If there was anyone to rival my brother as the leader of this little band of chickenshits, it was him. He knew it. My brother knew it. Everyone knew it. “How do you know for sure that it is treasure?”

Muktar looked at him, his eyes laughing. He squatted and caressed the top of the box, brushing away seaweed. “Do you want to bet?”

Yakubu’s eyes flicked to Soji, as if asking for help. We all knew a bet was Muktar’s favourite way of asserting who was in command, of putting them in their place.

“No need to bet,” Soji said curtly. “Just open the damn thing.”

Muktar flashed a triumphant grin, rubbed his hands together, and then teased open the lid of the box. It came off easily.

It was treasure, alright.

Two golden goblets, a long loop of pearl stones, seaweed, a beautifully carved algae-covered hand mirror, large silver coins, more seaweed, remnants of what must have once been books, gold spoons, a rusted pocket watch, even more seaweed.

“Ha ha!” cried Muktar, digging his hands through the pile of coins and throwing them in the air. “I told you!”

Soji made to grab a gold spoon but Muktar slapped his hand away, tutting. “Nah, bro, it’s mine.”

“Where did you find it?” I asked. It was the question we all wanted to know. Where did my brother go for solid thirty minutes?

“I just found it floating,” he said, admiring the pocket watch. “At first I thought it was a shark or something—but it just kept bobbing and bobbing, on the waves. So I paddled to it, saw it was a box.”

“But did you open it there?” Yakubu asked.

“I was more concerned about getting back,” said Muktar, a little irritated. He gestured at the teeming box. “Lucky me, yeah?”

Yeah, lucky him.

“Can we at least see it?” Yakubu asked stiffly.

Muktar flashed his trademark grin, licked his lips. “Of course.”

We passed the contents of the box amongst ourselves, admiring them, feeling their coolness against our palms, turning them over. The pocket watch was too large to fit in one hand; I held it up reverently in both hands, carefully popping open the lid. It was still working. I hadn’t been expecting it to; the rich seaweed in the box and faint sheen of algae on most of the treasure was proof that the box had long been at sea, tossed around, waterlogged . . . the box itself was rotten—and yet the watch ticked away, telling the time of a faraway land, no doubt. Somewhere in the world it was some minutes past four—morning or evening, only God knew. I passed the watch along and collected the hand mirror offered to me. The hand mirror was unusually heavy and meticulously carved, fine work of impeccable workmanship—the complete antithesis of my deceased mother’s cheap, plastic hand mirror. I turned it over to the back, tracing its intricate carvings, following the lines as they looped and turned over each other. I turned the mirror to its reflective surface and wiped the algae off the glass. It shone brightly, reflecting my mesmerized eyes—

“That’s enough.” Muktar yanked it out of my hands, placing it carefully on the table. He collected the rest and arranged them gingerly on the table, his little prized collections.

“So what are you going to do with them?” asked Soji.

Muktar considered for a moment. “I will sell them. All but the watch—I like that one . . . I’ll keep it for myself.”

I looked at Leke. He was a little round boy of twelve years and the original chickenshit. “Sell me one golden spoon,” he said.

We all burst out laughing. “You can’t afford it, chickenshit,” said Muktar, a condescending smile on his lips. “Your father can’t afford it—matter of fact, no one in this town can afford these things. That’s why I’ll go to the city to sell them.”

We all looked at Muktar. The flame of the candle cast dancing shadows on his face.

“Are you mad?” Soji finally said. “You know we’re not allowed to leave this place.”

Muktar looked at Soji, his lips curled into a sneer. “That’s what I thought,” he said softly. “You’re chickenshit—”

We laughed.

“Don’t call me chickenshit—” Soji began.

“I’m not asking you to come with me,” Muktar cut across, “but when you see me counting my money, don’t ask me for some.”

The stench of putrefying fish woke me early the next morning. Putrefying fish and raised voices. I sat up in bed, blinking stupidly as I attempted to gain bearing of my surroundings. It was still dark outside, but God, that smell . . .

“Muktar,” I whispered into the darkness, reaching over to my brother’s side of the bed. It was empty.

I leapt off the bed, fumbled for my slippers, then rushed out of the house towards the raised voices. The stink of fish hit me like a punch to the belly and I doubled over, stifling a retch. When I was sure the urge to vomit had passed, I yanked my shirt to my nostrils, then made my way to the small crowd that was gathered on the shore, pointing at the sea and looking worried.

In the water, bobbing unceremoniously with their underbellies to the sky was the greatest amount of fish I’d seen in my life. They were all dead, hence the stink, and bloated in a grotesquely disturbing way. The waves carried them, tossing them, spitting them on shore like an abomination, as though even the sea sought to rid itself of them. They were everywhere; they covered the entire surface of the water, they filled the elder’s tethered canoes so much that some were half immersed in the water from the dead weight of so much fish; on shore they defiled the sanctity of the beach.

I found my brother and father and ran to them. “What happened?”

“The gods happened,” answered my father, his mouth pressed into a grim line. My brother rolled his eyes at me; no one but my father and his friends believed in the gods. They were of the old generation, a superstitious bunch.

“The gods killed all these fishes?” I asked, incredulous. “Why?”

“They’re angry,” he said, speaking with such conviction that I wondered (as I’ve wondered a thousand times in my short life) if he had a direct line to the gods, if he couldn’t have challenged them when they stood back and watched as my mother died from smallpox when I was only four.

“I’ll have to consult with the elders to find out the object of the gods’ irk,” Father said, “and then we will have to offer sacrifice to appease them.”

I swallowed, a strange chill creeping up my spine. I remembered the last time the gods had needed to be appeased by sacrifice. For several weeks the baker’s son’s screams filled my dreams.

Muktar picked up a fish by the tail and held it up gingerly, screwing up his nose as he turned it in his hands. The bloated belly burst open, giving off a soft sound, one not unlike the soft quiet hiss of carefully ejected flatulence. Something dark-green and slimy seeped out of cut.

“Drop that thing, you foolish boy!” Father barked at Muktar and he flung it away hastily.

Father wandered off to join his friends, no doubt to consult with them on the object of the gods’ irk. I watched as Yakubu and Soji made their way over to us.

“Well, what do you think?” asked Yakubu, folding his arms and nodding at the Atlantic. “The gods?”

“Please,” Muktar scoffed and they laughed. “Maybe oil or something. There is an oil rig far out in the ocean. Maybe some of the oil leaked into the water and polluted it.”

“Yeah,” Soji agreed. He kicked a fish. “Or maybe it’s the treasure you stole yesterday, ehn?”

Muktar looked sharply at Soji. We all did. What if . . . ? What if it was actually true? What if Muktar had taken something best left alone, and something out there was now greatly displeased?

They burst out laughing, and their laughter was a knife that sliced the tension. “Chickenshit!” cried Soji. “You should have seen the looks on your faces!”

“It wasn’t fear,” said Muktar, playfully punching Soji, “it was worry about your mental faculties . . . ”

“Yeah, yeah,” said Soji, “said the chickenshitter!”

They laughed and descended into their usual ribbing of each other, and their voices fell far away. Now that the seed had been planted, I couldn’t shake off the thought that easily. What if the death of these fishes was a direct result of Muktar’s findings?

What if?

Something ticking woke me up. It started as a faraway sound, something deep in the recesses of my subconscious, and it was bearable, the ticking, so far as it was far away. It was even, rhythmic, hypnotic. I could sleep to this. It wasn’t distracting. It was background noise. I could sleep to this—

The ticking began to swell. Now it was distracting. I couldn’t sleep to this. It was loud, grating, uneven, frantic—

My eyes flew open and I sat up. The drawer rattled open and it took me a moment to realize that the sliver of glinting silver was Muktar’s pocket watch. It was ticking, ticking.

I stood up and walked over to the half-open drawer. I squinted suspiciously at the watch before taking it in both hands. It was cool, almost cold, and it responded to my touch; I wasn’t quite sure what I had heard was the harmless ticking of the hands; it seemed like something was inside it, something trying to get out—clawing to get out. The pocket watch began rattling in my hands and I had to grip it firmly so the lids wouldn’t fly open. Something was definitely inside, and whatever it was, I didn’t want to see it.

I licked my lips, and tasted the fear there. The coolness of the watch had now morphed into something warm and soon it was going to be swelteringly hot, and I wouldn’t be able to hold it close and whatever was inside, whatever wanted so badly to get out, would be set free! I looked around to the bed, to call on Muktar for help, but he wasn’t there. I was alone in the room. Alone with this ticking clock—

The ticking stopped abruptly—replaced by regular ticking. It was the ordinary ticking of a watch, not that hellish, frantic scratching. I noticed that the watch was now cool again in my sweaty palms. I popped it open.

There was nothing there, just long spidery hands on a backdrop of gold plated roman numerals. It was 1:00 a.m. Weak-kneed with relief, I replaced it carefully in the drawer. I closed my eyes and wiped the sheen of sweat from my forehead. When I opened my eyes again they fell on the hand mirror, and it took a moment for me to realize it didn’t reflect my eyes. The glass was covered with something smoky—mist. I wiped it, but the mist remained. With slightly shaky hands, I raised the mirror to the moonlight and turned it so I could see clearly.

It wasn’t a mirror anymore; it was a screen. I could see the Atlantic, its black waters restless, thrashing about as if irritated—or perhaps displeased with something. The mist was heavy over the waters, thick and very nearly as black as the smoke that had risen from the baker’s son’s body when he was sacrificed. Something loomed from within the cloud of mist. Something black and large and grotesque and—

It was a ship.

Muktar came home with another box of treasures. There was a wild look about him, a brightness to his eyes, as though he had just seen a ghost, or witnessed something spectacular. He was dripping wet, and cradling the small chest of treasures under an arm as though afraid that the ghost he had seen would sneak up on him and yank it out of his arms. He clung to the chest of treasures and wouldn’t let me see. He was shivering—from excitement or cold I couldn’t tell. Maybe both. He locked the door behind him and dashed over to the drawer, muttering something to himself.

“Did you touch my treasure?” he asked. His back was to me, and his voice wasn’t one I recognized. It was hollow and empty like the barrenness of a well in the heat of harmattan. I did not like his voice, and so I remained mute. Muktar whipped around, his eyes blazing. “Did you touch my treasure?

“N—no—”

“Liar.” He lunged for me, seizing me by the neck before I could react. He lifted me easily off the floor and slammed me against the wall, choking the life out of me, a mad glint in his eyes, one I had never seen before. He leaned in closer and growled in my ear. “You fucking liar! Don’t touch my treasure! Don’t touch my treasure! DON’T TOUCH MY TREASURE!

Muktar flung me across the room. I landed headfirst into our pile of dirty clothes. From beneath the pile of dirty clothes I heard Father yell, roused, no doubt, from his sleep by the ruckus: “If you boys don’t stop that horseplay and go to sleep, I swear I’ll come and whip you both silly!”

Father’s voice seemed to bring Muktar back to his senses; he looked at his hands, blinking rapidly, his chest heaving in utter disbelief at what he had done. He rushed over to me and crushed me in a wet hug.

“Sorry, little bro,” he said and kissed me feverishly. “I don’t know what came over me—sorry!”

I couldn’t reply. I was still dazed. Muktar pulled back and looked at me, worry etched on his face. Perhaps he saw something in my eyes; he bit his lips and then stood up suddenly, retrieving the chest from where he had dropped it.

“You want treasure? Here I’ll give you something—”

He cracked open the lid and breathed deeply. He had expected a box full of treasure—I had too. But lying austerely on its plush maroon cushions without a care in the world was the finest flute I had ever seen. Muktar lifted it delicately, turning it over in his hands, caressing the fine wood of it, the carvings, the holes. He regarded it for a moment or two longer, and then handed it to me.

“Here,” he said, “it’s yours now, little brother.”

He stood up, ruffled my hair, climbed into bed and fell fast asleep, still soaking wet.

I played the flute all day long. I was a natural; the ease with which I coaxed the notes out of the instrument baffled me as much as it baffled my friends. And though they jostled and pleaded for a chance at the flute I refused them. I didn’t want them slobbering all over my instrument. Somehow I knew they weren’t good enough for it; only I was good enough for it. Muktar merely beamed, as though he had been privy to the hitherto undisclosed knowledge of my musical prowess (“I did the right thing giving you that flute, didn’t I? You’re a natural!”) I didn’t bother asking how he had come upon the flute, or what he had been doing about in the dead of the night . . . or his momentary loss of all sanity. I knew I should. I knew I should ask how he had come about the flute, but that would be looking a gift horse in the mouth, and so I didn’t.

The gods had given the elders an answer: a virgin girl should be sacrificed if fish was to be returned to the ocean. The dead fish that littered the shores had been rounded off and burnt in one mighty bonfire that sent pillars of black smoke billowing high up to the heavens. I played my flute and danced round the bonfire with my friends, feeling elation swell up in me like yeast. Tomorrow was the day Mama Taiye’s virgin daughter would be served up to the gods in a similar manner. Taiye was my friend, and tomorrow she would be burnt. Burnt like the fish. The thought of it sent something bitter sliding down my throat.

I found Taiye crying behind the blacksmith’s stall that evening. I was walking home from the market, blowing my flute, a bag of oranges over my shoulder. The sea breeze carried the sound of her sobbing to me. Light, anguished gasps of utter despair that squeezed my heart and sucked the melody right out of my mouth. Taiye was hunched over, her face buried in her dress, her frail shoulders heaving as she sobbed.

“Taiye,” I said gently as I settled down next to her. She stopped sobbing and slowly lifted her head, her large glassy caramel eyes coming to rest on me.

“You’ve heard, haven’t you? I’m going to die.”

Taiye was beautiful, and I liked her a lot. I think she liked me too—I wasn’t too sure. But she was good to me, and that was ok. She looked at me, waiting for me to say something, but words failed me. She wiped at her eyes, sniffing.

“Kehinde is really sad. She says she will take my place, that no one will know since we’re twins, but I don’t want her to. I don’t want her to die. The gods will know we tricked them, and then they will be really mad, and they won’t bring the fishes back, and the whole town will starve—”

She broke into renewed bawling and I pulled her towards me in a hug. I let her wet my shirt with her tears. My mouth was dry, and I could feel a lump in my throat, and my eyes brimmed full with tears. I hugged Taiye tightly, rocking her back and forth till the sun set, and the sea breeze became chilly. Finally she stopped crying.

“Play me a song, Segun,” she said.

I put the flute to my lips and began to play a damning tune to the gods.

The ticking woke me up again and I was loath to respond this time around. I was tired and my eyes hurt from bawling myself to sleep, my lips exhausted from blowing infuriatingly at the skies, willing all the expletives in the world into the harsh notes, hoping the gods could hear them, hoping they could suck—

The drawer rattled open so violently that the entire night stand skid a few inches from its initial position. I turned to look at Muktar, but he was nowhere to be found. Where did he go? I had the feeling he would return with yet another chest of treasures.

I jumped out of bed and caught the pocket watch just as it popped out of the drawer. It ceased rattling instantaneously, and I was only able to register the last vestiges of a transient heat, as it rapidly cooled to its near-freezing temperature. I popped open the watch. It was 1:00 a.m.

The ship was closer in the mirror. It had broken through the mist and had now revealed itself in all of its revolting magnificence: it was a large black thing with large forbidding sails that billowed like dragon wings. On the hull, barely visible in the moonlight was its name:

MARIA CELESTE

Muktar returned that night with more treasure.

The gods, the bloodthirsty infidels, were happy. It was the happiness of the brain, the salivary glands, the stomach, at the whiff of aroma, the promise of bountiful food. The gods were happy and they drooled, their spittle running down the sides of their mouth, falling down to earth in torrents, slapping us as we stood watching the High Priest lead Taiye to the altar. It rained heavily, and I wondered how they planned to coax fire from drenched wood. Maybe the gods weren’t happy after all; maybe they didn’t want this sacrifice. Maybe Taiye didn’t have to die after all.

Mama Taiye thrashed and rolled in the sand. Her wrapper had come loose, and her saggy breasts swung in the breeze as she wailed and yanked at her hair. Kehinde stood grim faced by her mother’s side, her eyes on her twin. Taiye was just as calm. Unnervingly calm. Patterns had been drawn onto her face and body with chalk, and her only piece of clothing was a white wrapper tied across her slight form. She climbed onto the altar and lay on it, staring at the stormy sky, her face turned up to the spittle of the gods.

The Priest began to chant. My heart leapt to my mouth. They always came back, these people. Those who were sacrificed for the gods always came back, or so my father says. There is no greater honour. They dine and wine with the gods and get to return to the earth wizened with knowledge of celestial things. Don’t weep for her, boy, she’ll come back.

Maybe Taiye had been told the same thing too; maybe the Priest had whispered it to her. But somehow I doubted it was true. Why would her mother be so distraught if it was true?

The flames licked up the wood greedily. They climbed up the sides, undaunted by the wind or the rain. Taiye turned her head, and her eyes found me.

“Throw that thing away,” she said, looking at the flute in my hand. “It doesn’t belong to you.”

The flames started on her, and she began to scream.

The fishes came back to the ocean, and there was bountiful harvest that week. The gods had been satiated, and all was right with the world again.

Not quite.

There was tiredness to Muktar, one that seemed to weigh him down with each passing day. One that chipped at him, at his essence, so that he was there but not really there. He was irritable, and prone to violent outbursts. He was paranoid and overprotective about his treasures (which he had now amassed in great quantities that they could barely fit into the drawer). He disappeared every night and returned with more treasure, more tired-looking. He left some of himself behind wherever he found the treasure.

The clock ticked and rattled 1:00 a.m. every night.

The ship filled the hand mirror more and more.

I blew my flute and tried to dance but I was tired. Too tired.

I woke up that night to the dutiful rattling of the watch in the drawers. But I wasn’t bothered; I’d locked it tightly before going to bed. I turned over to get more comfortable and found, unsurprisingly, that Muktar was not in bed. He had gone treasure hunting again.

It took me a while to register why I felt so cold; the door to the room was ajar, as was the door to the living room which led outside. Really, Muktar? Now that Father was away he couldn’t even bother to shut the door behind him. A violent wind was tearing through the house, cold and salt-laden, causing the curtains to flap like dancing ghosts. I leapt off the bed and saw—

Footprints.

Sandy footprints drying on the blackened floorboards. The prints led around the bed twice, as though whoever owned them had paced around before exiting. And here, through the doorway, the prints were smudged. And though I told myself it was the wind that smudged it, I knew better; the owner had dragged something off . . . or someone.

A scream rent through the night air, high and shrill and bloodcurdling. It lent a sinister timbre to the howling of the wind.

“Muktar!”

I dashed out of the house. A storm was raging outside; the wind beat up the beach sand into dancing tornadoes that ripped through the tethered canoes and wooden houses like knife through butter. I shielded my eyes as something soft and wet and squiggly slapped me in the face.

Fish.

Countless fish were falling from the skies. No—not from the skies; from the sea! Through the chaos of the storm I saw the Maria Celeste, moored to shore like a forbidden beast, its black sails flapping like dragon wings.

Then I saw them. Little children too numerous to count, standing eerily still in the midst of the storm. Black as the waters, frothing and morphing like the sea around them, they stood just where the raging waves crashed against the shore, not daring to venture any further. All but one, a sand demon, who was dragging my screaming brother to the ship.

“Muktar! No!” I broke into a run but the wind slowed me down.

“RUN! SEGUN, RUN!” Muktar screamed before the waves took him and the sand demon that had him burst into nothingness.

NOOO!” I ran but the wind knocked me off my feet, spun me round and round and slammed me face-first into the sand.

I stood up, coughing and spluttering, tears stinging the back of my eyes. Then I heard the loud blaring of the ship’s horn. The captain appeared before me, dressed impeccably, offering me a smile that chilled me to the bones. He had in his hands a large rusty chain.

“Now, now, boy, you have something of mine,” he said. His voice was like the roar of the seas.

I thrust my trembling hands into my pocket and withdrew the flute.

“Oh no, no,” he shook his head and laughed a laughter devoid of mirth. “I don’t mean to collect it from you, not when you play it so well.”

I struggled, found words. “But . . . I don’t want it. Take it!”

He frowned and turned the chain in his hands. “That’s bad form, boy, to turn down a gift. That’s something to fix about your manners—but no matter, we’ll have plenty of time aboard Maria to do that. Maria’s a loving mother, you see. She does love to discipline her children—”

I turned and fled. The sand opened its mouth and swallowed my feet and slowed me down. The captain’s chain closed around my ankles. He yanked me back into his loving arms. I screamed, thrashing in his arms. Why wasn’t anyone coming to our rescue? Couldn’t they hear us?

“They’re asleep,” said the captain, reading my thoughts. “Now, boy, play me something on that flute.”

He turned and carried me into the ocean, walking towards the black dragon moored in the waters, his water children flanking us. I thought I saw Muktar, but I couldn’t be sure. But I knew he loved to hear me play and so I placed the flute to my lips and played a tune of my own composition:

On and on and on we go.

About the Author

Tobi Ogundiran is a Nigerian writer of speculative fiction. His short story “My Name Is” was a runner-up in the Bloody Parchment Short Story competition last year and has been selected for publication in the anthology Bloody Parchment: Remains of an Old World. You can find him on Twitter and Instagram @tibexx01.