“Look at your sister,” the boy said, grinning mockingly. “Sitting on her own and talking to an ija-ja. Who spends all their time talking to a bush baby? She’s crazy too.”
The rest of the children in their age group laughed, some pointing fingers at her sister sitting under a tree and talking to a little creature with huge amber eyes.
“I’m warning you, Tamo,” Ahu hissed through clenched teeth. “I’m warning you, hold your tongue.”
“You’re warning me?” Tamo pointed a finger at her. “Your family is full of madmen and cowards! What can you do?”
Ahu’s hand left the itosi and landed as a fist across Tamo’s jaw. Tamo’s eyes widened as he fell to the ground, stunned and open-mouthed. His eyes watered as he brought a shaking hand to his jaw.
“Ahu!” he screamed. “You hit me.”
“Say one more foolish word, and I’ll make sure you lose one of those ugly teeth.”
“Y-you think you’re so s-strong,” he stammered as he struggled to his feet with the help of his friends. “But you’re just a coward like your dead father!”
Ahu’s fists quivered. She shook physically with anger.
Tamo opened his mouth to speak, but quickly closed it when he glanced at Ahu’s balled fist. They glared at each other for a long time before Ahu turned her back on him, kissing her teeth.
“That’s all you can do,” he shouted at her retreating figure. “Punching and scratching and fighting everyone. If you’re so strong, why didn’t you go into the Iyanibi forest to get the herb that would have saved your mother, eh?”
Ahu spun around, shouting and dashing towards Tamo, but the boy was already sprinting towards his family compound. Despite his big mouth, he was a fast runner.
“If I had known where the herb was I would have gone, you cursed fool!” she screamed at him. “I will go. And I will get the herb, bring it back and shove it down your throat, Tamo. Mark my words!”
She tried to scream some more, but the words got caught in her throat so that a sob escaped instead.
“Mama,” she sobbed, very quietly so no one heard her words. “I would have gone if I knew.”
“It’s alright, Ahu,” A gentle voice said as gentler arms wrapped themselves around her shoulders. “It’s alright. Don’t let them get to you.”
She turned to face her sister, Ihumbi, with her ija-ja perched on her shoulder. Ahu wiped the tears off her face and brushed off her sister’s arms. “Leave me alone.”
“Ahu…” Ihumbi tried again to console her sister.
“I said leave me alone!” she shouted, stomping off in the direction of their home.
* * *
Ihumbi woke with a scream. The itosi around her neck fluttered against her chest. Something was wrong. She looked over at Ahu’s sleeping place. It was empty. The cloth laid upon the soft foliage was undisturbed; Ahu never went to sleep last night. Ihumbi jumped to her feet, her fear rising with her heart beat as she desperately tried not to accept what she suspected her sister had done. She ran outside.
“Ahu!” she called out. “Ahu, where are you?”
She ran around the dwelling hoping to find Ahu’s sulking in some corner, but she was nowhere to be found. But deep down, Ihumbi knew what had happened. Still she wanted to be sure. With trembling fingers, she lifted up her itosi, holding it up by the string and saying her sister’s name. For a moment the feather twirled around, dancing in its own wind. But then it suddenly drifted forward to her left, gently floating in midair. Ihumbi gasped even though she already knew that was the direction her sister had gone. Down that way lay the Iyanibi forest.
“Ahu!” she screamed as loud as she could, hoping it was not too late for her voice to reach her. The itosi remained inclined in that direction.
“These are birds of a feather,” their father had said when he gave them the charm. “One will always find the other.”
There was only one thing left to do. Ihumbi whistled, and her ija-ja came scampering down the rooftop, rustling the dry fronds. It hopped unto her shoulder, and she broke into a run heading for the forest.
Out of breath and with very little courage, Ihumbi stood before the first line of trees. The day was just breaking. Iya’s first rays were just beginning to pierce the night skies. She stared at the tall trees that towered above her like reaching arms twisted in agonized prayer. Past the trees, darkness and thick foliage were all that lay before her. Who in their right senses would go into Iyanibi, the dark forest, a place where only bad things thrived, a place whose name meant “where Iya would not go?” Who would enter a forest that even Iya, the brightest in all the lands, had forsaken? She shivered in the warm night, and the ija-ja on her shoulder shuffled restlessly.
“No go,” the ija-ja chirped. “No go, no go.”
“Quiet, Jaja.” she hissed. She breathed in deeply and held up her itosi, letting it direct her steps.
Nothing prepared her for the darkness ahead as she crossed the first line of trees. It settled upon her and everything else like a thick cloud. The air was dense and heavy with moisture trapped between the thick roofs of leaves and the floor of the forest. It was so dense, she might have grabbed a fistful of it if she tried. Ihumbi stood still, the sound of her breath and heartbeat filling her head as she waited for her eyes to adjust to the darkness.
She slowly began to make out terrifying shapes and forms. The thumping within her chest quickened. A few more moments and she realized that the shapes were nothing but huge gnarly and twisted roots of the trees that filled the forest. The terrifyingly thick roots twisted, curled and shot out in different directions like a misshapen spider’s web, sleek and wet with moss and dew.
Iyanibi was everything she feared it would be. It lived up to its name. Not one sliver of Iya’s light passed through its dense roof. It was dark and damp and smelled of moist earth and dead leaves. It smelled of a hundred seasons gone by, like a place where ancestors came to die. It felt alive and very old, and Ihumbi knew that old things harbored terrible secrets.
She moved forward, feeling her way through the forest, one hand holding her itosi and the other out in front of her. The forest floor was uneven and unusual—like it was finding it hard to decide whether to be hard or soggy, steep or flat. Ihumbi found her face on the ground more times than she bothered counting, tripping over the forest’s mesh of undergrowth.
“Jaja, no like,” the ija-ja said, fidgeting on its owner’s head, tail curled around her neck, its tiny fingers anchored in the thick tufts of her short hair.
“Shhhh, Jaja,” she hissed as she paused to see which direction the itosi leaned towards. “Can you smell her, Jaja?”
The ija-ja sniffed the air, jerking its head from left to right.
She sighed. The earthy smell of the forest and whatever more lurked within it was too strong for her ija-ja to smell anything else.
“Please be safe, Ahu.” She prayed silently.
She felt the increasing weight of the air the deeper she went. The chilly air caused her skin to prickle and even Jaja’s furs bristled. When she had walked for a long time, she sat on one of the deformed roots and stared upwards at the darkness above. She was sure Iya had since reached his peak but still not a single sliver of his light entered the forest. Ihumbi leaned back into the trunk of the tree and let herself cry for the first time since she awoke. Her feet ached, and her body was covered with small injuries from tripping over roots and undergrowth, but most of all, her heart ached with fear for her sister. She hated Ahu for making her worry like this. Ahu was the strong one, the one who outran boys as easily as she beat them down to the ground.
“Ahu was born trying to prove something to the world,” their father had told their mother when they were very little, “Maybe it’s because she was the one who came second.”
Ahu was the one who kept her safe ever since their mother died, strong headed and protective. They fought all the time, but Ihumbi would never have wished for another sister in her place.
“No cry Ihumbi,” Jaja said, hopping from her shoulders on to her laps. “Jaja sad when Ihumbi cry.” It stared at its mistress, its big round amber eyes gleaming eerily in the dark.
She sniffed and stroked its fur.”Jaja sing for you if you no cry.” It puckered its tiny lips and began to whistle a tune Ihumbi had taught it, one her mother sang for them long ago. The ija-ja’s whistle was loud and sweet, and it made Ihumbi cry even more.
She stopped crying when she saw something flicker. She jerked her head in the direction from which she thought it came. It wasn’t a flicker. Itwas a lone firefly drifting gently ahead of her. Another one blinked into place just beside the other and then one by one other fireflies lit the darkness. They filed the air to her side, swaying and dancing to her ija-ja’s whistling.
“Come, Jaja.” She jumped off the root on which she sat and slowly moved towards the fireflies.
The fireflies danced in slow beautiful patterns, moving in swirls and circles. Ihumbi found the dance captivating, and she had the sudden urge to dance with the fireflies. But Jaja leaped unto her shoulder, jumping up and down frantically.
“No go, no go!” It chirped.
“Stay still, Jaja.” she slapped its small hand.
“No go!”It shrieked and pulled at her hair.
Ihumbi yanked it off her shoulder and tossed him down. “Behave yourself Jaja.”
She edged closer to the fireflies, amazed by the brightness of such tiny creatures. She reached out to cup one in her hands and suddenly they stopped dancing. Everything went still, even the sounds deep within Iyanibi went silent. The fireflies winked out rapidly, one after the other, and the grass around her began to tremble. Ihumbi faltered backwards, a growing feeling of fear rising within her. She jumped at the sharp sounds of snapping twigs as the tall grasses before her parted. Something pushed through the grass, something she did not immediately recognize as a head.
Though she had never seen one before, Ihumbi knew she was face to face with an asan. What else would have a lizard’s head the size of two bulls and horns that curled out from the sides like a ram’s? The beast stepped out of the bush on four powerful clawed legs, dragging a serpentine tail behind it with muscles writhing beneath its scaly skin. She saw the bristles on its back, thick strands of hair-like spikes, each with its tip aglow, the same ones—she realized with horror—she had mistaken for fireflies. It’s scaly skin glistened under the glow of its bristles, wet and slimy, the color of dirt and decay, smelling as if it had crawled out of the dankest part of the forest.
The asan lowered its great head until it was only a hair’s breadth away. Standing right in the gaze of the creature’s slitted eyes, Ihumbi’s tiny body suddenly felt like a bundle of twigs. For a moment, girl and beast stood staring at each other. The beast’s lips curled back to reveal rows of pointed teeth, wet and gleaming with saliva. Ihumbi could tell the beast was very pleased to see her. It opened its wide jaws and shrieked at her, splattering her with warm sticky mucus, its breath foul with the smell of decaying meat.
After what seemed like a season, the asan‘s shriek stopped, but instead of silence, another scream rang out through Iyanibi. It took Ihumbi a moment to realize she was the one screaming louder than she ever thought possible.
* * *