I looked up from my plate of saabo. Bayuo glowered at me the same way I imagined he did at weevils when they invaded his crops. I smiled back.
“Hello there, brother,” I said. “What brings you here at this time?”
I glanced pointedly at his short shadow, the most obvious indicator that it was still too early in the day for him to have left the farm. His scowl deepened. Bayuo could never conquer his envy over the fact that I could afford to eat lunch in the shade, while he and the rest of my siblings had to do labor-intensive work throughout the week. He didn’t consider my work to be a legitimate source of income. According to him, I made money simply by cheating the universe’s balance structure, getting something from doing nothing—which simply wasn’t the case. I considered myself a resourceful person, and if I could use my gifts create freer, more flexible employment for myself, there was no good reason for me not to.
“There’s a woman at the house,” Bayuo said. “She’s looking for you.”
“Is she? That sounds promising. Tell her I’ll be with her soon. I just have to finish my lunch first.”
I could almost hear Bayuo’s stomach rumble as I said that. On a regular work day, all he ever had was breakfast and dinner. Make no mistake, though; the fact that I ate lunch regularly didn’t mean I was fond of splurging. On the contrary, I saved so intentionally that my little sister used to ask if I owed someone a debt. I was only saving towards my dream: to be so financially independent that I could leave this country and wander forever, anywhere I pleased, anywhere in the world, until the day I got too tired or too bored to keep travelling—because if there was one thing I hated, it was being tethered to one place.
“Get someone else to pass on the message for you,” said Bayuo. “I, personally, have work to do.”
He stalked away, and I calmly finished the rest of my saabo.
Back at home, a woman with short-cropped hair and angular features sat on the front steps. She reminded me of a crowned hawk-eagle. She wore a loose boubou that would have reached down to her ankles if its fabric weren’t scrunched up from the weight of the swaddle she was cradling on her lap. Whatever lay within the cloth adamantly refused to stop screeching.
The woman looked at me silently, appraising; probably making sure whoever had referred her to me hadn’t lied. Her gaze lingered on my bushy freeform locs, which I’d been growing over ten years. They were long enough to reach my buttocks, cascading down my shoulders and perfectly positioned to cover the nipples of my barely-there breasts, which were more or less the size of Bayuo’s. Her eyes roved over my face, pausing at my sideburns and the line of hair above my lips. They travelled down beyond my narrow torso and traced the widening curve of my waist. The only piece of clothing I had on was a raffia skirt which stopped just shy of my knees. I could see the woman taking stock of my slender yet muscular figure, perhaps wondering what exactly lay beneath my skirt, and adjusting to the ambiguity of my body. Masculine. Feminine. Both. Neither.
Satisfied, she raised her eyes back to my face.
“Betweener,” she said. She spoke Dagaare with a very faint accent and I briefly wondered what her native tongue was. Sisaala? Gonja? Maybe Dagbani?
“I am that,” I acknowledged. “But I personally go by Nbelenyin. And you are?”
“You can call me Ma.”
That wasn’t a name; it was what I’d have called any older woman whose name I didn’t know—but if she wanted to keep her identity secret, let her. It was none of my business.
“How may I help you, Ma?”
Ma rose to close the gap between us, unwrapped her swaddle of clothes, and held it out to me for a look.
“Blood of my ancestors!” I swore.
The creature she held almost didn’t qualify as human. This child was barely alive. It screamed louder when it saw me, the shriek of a kontonbili accidentally caught in a hunter’s trap. It looked like it hadn’t had a meal since the day it was born. Its flesh stretched tautly over its bones, and its shoulder blades, cheekbones, and chin all threatened to tear through its skin at any moment. That would have been enough to terrify me, but it was the eyes—so large, sunken, and devoid of childhood joy—which made me visibly shudder and recoil.
“Her name is Ngmennakomantware,” said Ma. That name was a desperate prayer—may god give me my own. “She’s almost a year old, constantly sick, closer to death every day. Her spirit is looking for a way out of her body and I need you to make it stay.”
Ngmennakomantware wailed again and the sound rattled in my skull. By the looks of things, her spirit was at least halfway back to where it came from already. I didn’t think I could do much about it. Besides, this wasn’t the kind of work I engaged in.
“I’m sorry, Ma, but the bigbanmé—the returning children—are independent spirits, entirely in charge of their own affairs,” I patiently explained. “Even Betweeners like me don’t have the authority to interfere with them.”
Ma reacted so violently, I feared she would drop the baby.
“My child is not bigbanmé!” she spat. “Her soul is human! Human!”
I retreated. “Hey, take it easy, no offense intended. I’m just saying, you know, certain spirits like showing up just to torment mothers and leave. If you just let them go, you might eventually birth a real huma—”
“Listen to me carefully, Betweener,” Ma interrupted. “I know a non-human spirit when I see one, and I can swear by Ngmen that my daughter does not have one. Her human spirit is stuck on the other side, and I need you to find it and set it free to cross over completely!”
My own clients didn’t usually frighten me—usually the other way around, with people treating me so cautiously you’d think I was a god—but Ma was getting dangerously close to scaring me away from my own home. I tried to be more careful with my next words.
“There might be a slight misunderstanding here,” I said. “See, I go to the spirit world to deliver messages to dead relatives that their loved ones didn’t get a chance to tell them in person. Or to track down ancestors to ask for clues on how to break generational curses. Simple things, you know? Cross over, ask questions, return, and deliver answers. Freeing reluctant human spirits, though? I’m sorry, but that’s way outside my skill set.”
I hoped that would convince Ma to turn around and go home, where Ngmennakomantware might finally die in peace. But she only stared at me, and I didn’t dare blink.
After a few moments, she said, “Betweener, come with me. I need to show you something.”
Common sense told me that following an uncooperative woman with a half-dead baby was a horrible idea, but I was more scared of what she’d do if I refused.
She took me to the back of my house, where a woven cane basket with a lid lay partially obscured by a small bush. She shifted the baby to her left arm and used her free hand to lift the basket’s lid. Gingerly, I leaned over to peer inside, and gasped.
The basket was full of cowry shells, the most I had ever seen in one place, more than I could have hoped to make even after years of saving. With this much money, I might never have to work another day in my life. I could start living my dream lifestyle at once! Of course, I was instantly suspicious.
“Where did you get all this?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine anyone amassing this much money through any method other than witchcraft.
“Where it came from isn’t important. Just know that everything in this basket is yours, if only you can make Ngmennakomantware’s spirit stay.”
Ah! How many times did I have to tell this woman that I didn’t have the power to do what she wanted?
“Please,” she begged. “I need my baby to live. Please.”
I massaged my forehead, trying to ease the stress. I had to find a way to placate her, to at least give her something. Otherwise, she clearly wouldn’t leave me alone.
“Okay, tell you what,” I said. “How about, for a small fee, I cross over to the spirit world and try to locate Ngmennakomantware’s soul? Just to, you know, find out what its problem is and why it’s trying to leave so soon. When I have answers, I’ll come and report back to you.”
Right there, Ma set the baby down, scooped up two handfuls of cowry shells and dumped them in my arms. “An advance, then,” she explained. “Everything else when the final job is done.”
Locating the spirit was the final job.
“Eh… sure. Where can I find you once I return?”
“I’ll be around. Just do the job.”
I shrugged. “Yes, Ma.”
Most people’s bodies are too disproportionate to slip in and out of one reality—but moving between worlds is like crossing a river on an extremely thin log with perfect, unwavering balance. It comes quite naturally to Betweeners, though. Fluidity is woven into our very flesh.
The odor of civet secretion assaulted me immediately I arrived in the spirit world. I gagged so hard, I had to take a few moments to remember how to breathe again.
I landed in the same forest every single time I crossed over, surrounded by grass as tall as my waist, trees five times my height, and nearly nothing else. But the spirit world is like untamed nature that responds to the will of those who tread it. When I looked up, the branches parted to let in the sunlight. Exactly where I stood, the grass was barely as tall as my ankles, and it continued to shrink for me with each step I took.
“Nbele-bele-belenyin,” sang a mocking voice.
I spun towards it and saw the civet emerge into the light with a glint in its evil eyes and a smirk on its face. Its large, spotted backside heaved as it approached. I shuddered. Civets were the only creatures in either world that really freaked me out, and the spirit world was full of them. They were like the Betweeners of the animal kingdom. The first time I encountered one, I couldn’t quite tell if I was looking at a canine or feline creature, a type of weasel or hyena. Civets were in a league of their own, thriving in their ambiguity and leaving their marks in either world through their awful, smelly secretions.
“Nbelenyin!” the animal continued. “How de-de-delightful to see you here again. I wonder what the mission is this time?”
It was circling me, compelling me to keep swiveling with it, because I didn’t trust civets outside my line of sight.
“I’m looking for a spirit whose name I don’t know yet,” I said. “There’s a child connected to it in the living world who’s dying quickly.”
“A child!” the civet crooned. “How precious, precious, precious! But surely, if its spirit is so rebellious, not even a Betweener ought to get in the middle of its affairs?”
I chose an arbitrary direction and started walking, hoping to get away. Unfortunately, the vile creature followed me.
“My client is rather persistent,” I said. “And besides, I don’t intend to get in the middle of anything. I’m just going to find the spirit, ask it a few questions, and go. Like I usually do.”
The civet snorted, and I suspected it was laughing at me.
“Just how much are you invested in this child, Nbelenyin?”
“Not in the least. I’ve already been paid more money than this trip is worth. I’m just trying to pacify my crazy client.”
“He-he-heeh! Yes—that’s what I thought,” it said. Then it leaped onto a low branch and vanished.
Once the civet was gone, the forest too disappeared. I was now standing in a city of colorful vegetation, with every plant I could think of and many more I couldn’t even name. A few of the landforms—the ground, rocks, anthills, and the like—were made of soil, but the rest were made of pure earth minerals like iron, copper, diamond, and gold.
There was an infinite number of directions to turn now, and I had no idea which would lead me to Ngmennakomantware’s spirit. Luckily for me, though, I was surrounded by the very creatures whose navigation skills never failed.
“Excuse me,” I said to a nearby crow. “I’m looking for the spirit of a child named Ngmennakomantware. It’s a particularly stubborn one, doesn’t seem to want to stay in the living world, but is—as I’m told—definitely human and not bigbanmé. Would you happen to know where I can find it?”
“The spirit you seek goes by Nkongaa in these parts,” the crow replied. “He lives in the Ivory Valley.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, but I walked away frowning. If I’d needed any confirmation that Ma’s agenda was a bad idea, the fact that her daughter’s spirit was called “I Won’t Go” in this world was more than enough.
I soon landed in the section of the spirit world where all the hills were a creamy, smooth ivory. Trying not to lose my footing, I descended into the valley between the two largest hills and there, I met the spirit I was looking for.
Nkongaa was not what I expected. The body I’d seen in the living world belonged to a one-year-old girl, as frail as loose feathers. But Nkongaa, who sat in a wooden rocking chair with ankles and arms crossed, and a chewing stick in his mouth, took the form of a human male whom I’d estimate to be at least seventy years old, had I met him in the living world. He had a balding spot at the top of his head, around which thick, gray hair still grew and connected to a moustache and beard of the same texture. He sensed my presence without looking at me, and the first words out of his mouth were his name.
“I won’t go,” he informed me, with his eyes fixed on an ivory hill in the distance.
“Right, pleased to meet you too. Mine’s Nbelenyin,” I said. “I’m not here to make you go, by the way.”
“Don’t lie to me, Nbelenyin,” said Nkongaa. “You wouldn’t be the first Betweener to try persuading me to return to the living world. I said I won’t go.”
“And I fully respect that decision,” I said, nodding solemnly. He looked at me for the first time since I’d arrived, and his eyes were full of distrust.
“Are you trying to trick me?”
“Me, a trickster? Oh goodness, no! I leave that kind of thing to the spiders. Betweeners, while occasionally confusing to the eye, don’t present ourselves as anything other than what we are. With us, what you see is what you get. We’re as straightforward as they come.”
Nkongaa took the chewing stick out of his mouth to spit, and I cringed at the sight of the mangled garcinia kola root. It looked like he’d been chewing that nasty thing for years.
“Then what,” he said, replacing the stick between his teeth, “Do you want?”
“Merely an explanation. If you don’t mind, tell me why exactly you won’t go, so I can satisfy whomever it may concern in the living world. It might be your best bet to get them to leave you alone. People like answers, you know? I’ve learnt from experience that humans do lots of ridiculous, annoying stuff when we don’t have them. I’m just here to help.”
I sat down on the ground before him, crossed my legs, and cleared my throat. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Nkongaa spat again, then tossed his chewing stick onto the ivory earth, which instantly swallowed it up. “How many lives have you lived, Nbelenyin?”
The question caught me off guard.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “This might be my first one. If there are lives behind me, I have no recollection of them.”
“Consider that a privilege,” Nkongaa growled. “You know how many lives I’ve lived? Eighty-three. Ever heard of a spirit who’s lived eighty-three lives?”
I had to admit, I had not. If you asked me to describe the relationship between worlds in one word, I wouldn’t have to think twice before I chose “balance.” For whatever was given, something else was taken away, and vice versa. For every spirit returned to the spirit world, another was born into the living. When ancestors lost interest in returning to life, new spirits were created—born into the living world for the first time, to pay off the deficit caused by those who opted out of the rebirth cycle. As such, the human populations in both worlds consistently increased. All things hinged on principles of balance. That was why Nkongaa’s story was so surprising; there was nothing balanced about one spirit being reborn eighty-three times, when there were so many others the universe could choose from. For Ngmen’s sake, I’d be exhausted after four!
“Never in my life,” I answered.
“You see! Nbelenyin, every life after my first has been progressively worse than the one before it, and the living world seems to have deteriorated a lot more each time I return. You don’t often feel your past lives in the living world, but then I die and come back here, and it’s like I’ve gained another millennium’s worth of tiredness. I don’t sit in the Ivory Valley all day because I don’t want to walk around; I’m here all the time because I don’t have the strength to leave! I feel the weariness of having lived, more potently than any other spirit you’ve likely ever met. The one thing I’ve craved, for Ngmen knows how long, is permanent rest from toil, hardship, and carnal needs. But each time, just when I think I’m free, I feel that tug calling me back there! I won’t go! I say, I won’t go!”
By the time he ended his rant, he was shouting and crying, and, to my surprise, my eyes were a little moist as well. I had to fake-cough a few times to make sure my voice wouldn’t crack with my next words.
“Well, that was a… very reasonable explanation, I think. Thanks a lot. I’ll be sure to pass it on. And, uh, I hope things work out for you, so you can, you know, rest here for an eternity if you need to. I mean, I personally couldn’t imagine being tethered anywhere for even two centuries, but hey—everyone and their own brew of pito, right? Well, I’ll be on my way now. Thanks again,” I said, standing up and shaking my locs out.
“Nbelenyin,” called Nkongaa, just as I was preparing to step back into the living world.
“I’ve always hated asking for favors, but I’m asking one of you now. Convince whoever’s trying to bring me back to just let me stay here. I really don’t have the strength for an eighty-fourth life, and I don’t care if you have to kill the baby yourself.”
I winced. “Well, homicide generally isn’t one of my preferred conflict resolution techniques, but I’ll do my best to help within humane limits,” I promised, then stepped out of the spirit world before anything more absurd could possibly be asked of me.
I rematerialized suddenly in the bedroom I shared with my siblings. A little unsteady on my feet, I stumbled, and my knee collided with the wood of Bayuo’s bed. I yelped and hopped backward, crashing into Bayuo himself.
“Blood of my ancestors!” he shrieked. “Can’t you cross over more elegantly? Why are you always crashing into something—or someone—upon entry?”
“Because something or someone always happens to be in my way!” I paused, noticing the silence from within the house. “Wait. No one else is home yet. What are you doing back so early?”
His face turned grim, and all traces of our sibling rivalry temporarily vanished.
“Looking for you.”
“The woman, the one from a few days ago? She came back to the house, and you weren’t here, so she sought me out at the farm. She’s impatient, and Nbelenyin…” His eyes scanned the room as if he expected something to jump out, and he lowered his voice to a whisper. “I think there’s something very dangerous about this woman. She might be clinically insane. She’s made something… Well, you should come see it for yourself.”
I followed Bayuo to our front door. Ma was perched on the very same steps I’d met her on before, with a swaddle in her arms as usual. I exited the house, and when I was far enough away from the steps, I turned around to face her.
“Good evening, Ma,” I greeted.
She glowered at me with more disdain than even Bayuo had ever been able to muster. “It’s been days, Betweener, and you still haven’t finished the job. My baby is still sick and getting worse by the hour. I thought you might need a little more incentive to complete your mission.”
I sighed. “Look, Ma, you’re not my only client, and I’ve been working on several requests in a short span of time. Besides, I’ve done what I promised to do—I found your daughter’s spirit and discovered its problem. See, this soul has lived eighty-three lives already. You hear that? Eighty-three! Ngmennakomantware would be his eighty-fourth, and he’s dead exhausted. Even I could see it. You know how ancient and tired you have to be to look old in spirit form? He’s spent, Ma. Certainly not the kind of soul you should want in your baby girl.”
“You think I came to you because I wanted you to tell me to let my only child die?”
“With all due respect, Ma, with a soul that old, even if we cured Ngmennakomantware’s sickness now, she still might not make it past childhood. I know what you asked me for, and I repeat: soul restoration really isn’t in my skill set. I’m just a Betweener—a messenger, if you will. What you want from me is either witchcraft or just plain old impossible.”
“Ah. I see.” With exaggerated calmness, Ma rose to her feet. “Then have fun making that choice.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Witchcraft or impossibility. The choice is yours to make. I’ve already made mine.”
Bayuo must have been right about this woman being mad, because I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying. She started shifting her arms, and that was when I realized I hadn’t heard a peep from the swaddle throughout our interaction. Was Ngmennakomantware already that much closer to her death?
Ma turned the swaddle vertical and shook all the cloth to the ground. I gasped.
Standing on Ma’s palms was a wooden statuette—a kpiindaa—made of ancestral wood, about twelve inches tall. It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary kpiindaa; it was too easily identifiable. Although, like other kpiindaa, it was a smooth, carved stick that depicted no genitalia, the one she held had several intricate, sectioned carvings, going down at least half the stick’s full length. I had no doubt whose locs—whose body—the figure was meant to represent.
For a few seconds, I couldn’t breathe.
“It’s taboo to make kpiindaa of people who are still living,” I said quietly. As if she didn’t know that when she was making it.
“Do you know what would happen if I burned this kpiindaa, Betweener?” she asked, the first hint of a smile I’d seen so far on her face.
“Yes.” It would kill me and lock me in my body, leaving me unable to cross over, even after death. I’d never met anyone wicked or insane enough to do something like that. “Why are you doing this?” I whispered.
I didn’t notice I was crying until the wind blew cold air on my face.
“Make my daughter’s spirit stay,” said Ma. “By any means necessary. Because if she dies… then so shall you.”
Ma picked the cloth up from the floor, re-wrapped the taboo kpiindaa, and walked away, leaving me rooted to the spot. Once she was gone, Bayuo did something he hadn’t done for many, many years: he came and embraced me. Only in his arms, with his moist cheek against my forehead, did I notice that he was crying too.
Leaves crunched under our feet as Bayuo and I stalked through the forest with the moon as our only light source. We’d snuck into the house while the rest of our household slept, and we could only hope they’d find us alive in the morning. Bayuo, although bigger, taller, and older than me, was walking uncomfortably close to me, clutching at me nearly every time he heard a sound besides the leaves. I was terrified too, but not because of the darkness or the bush.
My worst nightmare was coming true. It wasn’t the threat on my life that shook me so much as the thought of being tethered to a dead, rotting body on earth forever.
“Nbelenyin,” Bayuo whispered, interrupting my thoughts. “What if a poisonous snake suddenly attacks us?”
It was ridiculous that Bayuo was fussing about meeting snakes by accident, when the person we were going to meet on purpose deserved far more of our anxiety.
“At this time? Snakes are cold-blooded. They come out to bask in the day’s warm sunlight. At night, they sleep in places well-hidden enough that annoying humans like us can’t disturb their precious slumber. Oh!” I thrust an arm out to halt him. “Don’t move!”
“What is it? What is it?”
We’d have missed the remarkably camouflaged cave entirely if we’d gone any further. Outside, it was covered with tree bark, and branches and leaves cut from nearby trees spread out from its roof. Kontonbili, for all their meddlesome antics, didn’t like being too easy to find.
“What do we do now?” asked Bayuo.
“The polite thing, of course.”
I knocked, decisively but not aggressively, on the tree-bark door. For a few moments, nothing happened.
“Maybe it didn’t hear you?” said Bayuo. “Knock louder.”
“Oh no, darling,” came a shrill voice from behind us, causing us both to spew out curse words. “Not unless you want to wake the snakes.”
The creature who’d spoken winked at Bayuo, and he’d have swooned if I hadn’t steadied him. He looked at her the way new people sometimes looked at me; it was one thing to know of a spirit person’s existence, and another thing entirely to encounter them sensually.
I wasn’t particularly tall, but the top of the kontonbili’s head barely cleared my chest. There was no doubt, however, that she was fully grown. Her hair grew in freeform locs like mine, but hers were much thicker, pure white, and only shoulder-length. She wasn’t wearing a top, and her nipples were almost level with her navel. A chain of beads looped around her loins more times than I could count, starting low on her waist and ending halfway down her thighs.
“I’m not particularly fond of curse words,” she continued. “But they’re always the first things out of humans’ mouths whenever I meet them. Strange, isn’t it?”
On another occasion, I might have been delighted to find that a spirit being had a sense of humor—but I’d lost mine the earlier that evening, when my life and afterlife had been threatened by a madwoman with a demonic statuette.
“Yeah, sure, very strange,” I said. “Listen, I have a dilemma I don’t think any human can help me with.”
“Of course, darling. That why everyone comes, isn’t it? Why don’t you tell me all about it over a nice calabash of pito?”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said, before Bayuo could respond. Kontonbili could be helpful where no other creatures could, but they were unpredictable tricksters as well, and far from trustworthy. Asking one for help was risky enough; consuming anything they offered was entirely out of the question.
“Ah, well. Your loss, surely. Now what is it you need help with, darling?”
I explained my situation to the kontonbili while Bayuo supported my trembling shoulders.
“Ah yes, I see,” she said, when I had finished. “Rather messy problem you have there. So! How do you plan to solve it?”
“What? For Ngmen’s sake, I don’t know! Why do you think I came here? A madwoman is trying to kill and bind me if I don’t save her damned baby!”
“Ahahn.” She nodded solemnly. “Sounds like you need to save the baby, then.”
“I don’t have a clue how to save the baby! Weren’t you listening? Its spirit is determined to remain in the spirit world. All I have on me is a smart tongue, and although it can be occasionally persuasive, it’s certainly not witchcraft.”
“Ahahn. Sounds like you’re asking for witchcraft to save the baby.”
This was absurd.
“I am asking,” I said through my teeth, “For a way… to save… my life!”
“Oh dear. You look like you’re getting worked up. Sure you don’t want some pito to calm you down?”
I sighed and turned to Bayuo, about to suggest that we quit wasting time and go back home, when she continued, “The soul you met in the spirit world is split; held partially in the spirit world by the power of its own will, held here by the power of your client’s. But there’s a way to fix that condition.”
“You could have told me that a minute ago,” I muttered.
“Show us how to do it,” said Bayuo. “We’ll do anything.”
“Oh yes,” said the kontonbili. “I already know you will.”
I crashed to my knees in the roughest spirit world landing I had experienced in ages.
“My oh my!” said the amused civet. “Nbelenyin’s back again so soon? I wonder what the mission could possibly be this time?”
“The mission this time,” I grunted, getting up and dusting myself off, “Could possibly be none of your business.”
“Oh my, oh my! Gotten ruder overnight, have you?”
“Please, just leave me alone, civet, I beg you.”
“As you wish, Nbelenyin. But be wise,” warned the civet as it faded with the forest. “Be wise…”
Back in the Ivory Valley, Nkongaa looked like he hadn’t moved anything but his jaws since we’d last spoken, although, thankfully, the chewing stick between his teeth was a fresh one. As I approached, he gave me a smile so expectant, it threatened to melt my heart.
“Nbelenyin! You’ve returned! Did you tell my story? What was the outcome?”
“I’ve returned indeed,” I said. “With both good news and bad news. I’ll start with the latter, like a good storyteller, so we work ourselves up to the redemptive part. So! The mother of the child—the one your spirit’s locked in—is quite the obnoxious woman. She intends to continue doing everything she can to keep the child alive.”
Nkongaa’s face fell. “Ah. I see.”
“However, that’s where the good news comes in! I have found a way to fix a soul-split, like the one you’re currently suffering from; to join it and tether it to one world, and one world only.”
His eyes grew wide with astonishment and hope. “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. And that’s not even the best, part, you know? This method tethers the soul to one realm permanently. You’ll never have to be reborn again.”
Nkongaa was momentarily speechless. When he spoke again, his voice was so low, I had to read his lips. “Are you telling the truth?”
“Everything I’ve said is true, swear on Ngmen.” He visibly relaxed after hearing that.
“And how did you discover this method overnight?”
“I asked a knowledgeable person for help.”
“Kontonbili?” he asked. Well, you couldn’t fool a guy who’d lived eighty-three lives, could you?
“Yes,” I admitted. “But I know she wasn’t lying. I got a different kontonbili to verify everything the first said.” And thanks to all that walking, Bayuo and I hadn’t caught even a minute of sleep last night.
“Yes, that’s good. Kontonbili are their own creatures. They could work just as easily for our good as for our demise. You were wise to seek verification.”
I shrugged. “What is a Betweener, if not a skillful navigator of spiritual affairs?”
Nkongaa smiled. “Alright then, superhero, what do I have to do?”
I smiled back. “Thought you’d never ask.”
From the woven satchel I’d strapped to the back of my skirt, I pulled out an iroko flute and handed it to Nkongaa, who turned it over several times, inspecting it.
“I think I recognize this instrument,” he said. “It looks like a tambin. The kind the Fulani make.”
“It looks like it, yeah, but this object was made in Dagaabaland, and you’re only holding half of it. It’s a simple process: you blow into this half, the creature who has the rest of your soul inhales into the other half, and just like that, your split is healed and permanently fixed.”
“So, all I have to do is blow?”
“All you have to do is blow.”
Nkongaa’s eyes welled up slowly, and a few tears spilled over. His voice broke on his next words. “Nbelenyin… I couldn’t even begin to thank you for—”
“Stop right there. Emotional scenes aren’t in my skill set either, so please don’t get weepy on me. Just blow.”
With his wet face and blurry eyes, he nodded slowly, then blew once into the tambin.
“A very strange sensation,” he commented a few seconds later. “I think I’m getting… heavier.”
I had no more strength left to pretend nonchalance. I started crying too.
“I’m so sorry, Nkongaa,” I whispered.
His expression transformed with immediate comprehension, and he growled.
Nothing I’d said had been false—it was just that I’d given him the wrong end of the pipe. The one he should have blown into had been placed in Ngmennakomantware’s mouth by Bayuo once I’d crossed over. The soul-split was mending in the living world and not the spirit one.
“Nbelenyin! What have you done?” shrieked Nkongaa, as the last of him vanished from the spirit world forever.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, but he was no longer there to hear me.
I sat down, buried my face in my hands, and wept with more sorrow and guilt than I’d ever experienced in my life. There was no way I’d ever learn to stop hating myself after this. I cried for what felt like hours.
When I opened my eyes again, I was in the civet forest. The civet itself sat before me on its hindquarters, staring into my face and sneering.
“Poor Nbelenyin,” said the civet. “Feels weird, doesn’t it, to be tethered?”
“Can’t you see I’m not in the mood, you disgusting creature? Please go away. Or better yet, I will.”
I stood up, furiously wiped my tears with my palms, and took a few steps forward. I should have landed back in my bedroom already, but no matter how hard I concentrated, each time my feet touched the earth, it met the grass of the civet’s territory. I tried jogging and even running, but I couldn’t get out of the damned forest. The civet looked on in amusement, uncharacteristically quiet. It clearly knew exactly what was going on. I turned on it angrily.
“Why can’t I cross over?” I asked.
The civet stretched itself out, yawned, and lay down. “Isn’t it obvious, Nbelenyin? You’ve clearly lost your balance. Balance is the principle by which the universe operates, and it looks like this time…” It paused to yawn again. “You’re the payment for the deficit.”
I froze. Then I screamed.
“Ah, look,” said the civet. “Your tethers are already starting to show.”
I followed its gaze to my chest, where my breasts were suddenly almost the size of my sister’s. Intuitively, I brought my fingers to my upper lip, and they came away with clumps of shedding hair.
“Poor Nbelenyin,” the civet mocked. “What a pity she’s not a Betweener anymore.”
Ivana Akotowaa Ofori is a Ghanaian storyteller. Self-styled as “The Spider Kid”, she is a weaver of words in many forms, including fiction, non-fiction and spoken-word poetry. She has been longlisted twice for the Writivism Prize, first for nonfiction and second for fiction. Some of her work appears in the Flash Fiction Ghana anthology, Kenkey for Ewes and Other Very Short Stories. When she is not reading or writing, she is likely to be raving online and in person about frustrations with school and life, or about her great love for the color purple.