A SHOAL OF LOVERS LEADS ME HOME – A Short Story by Ama Josephine Budge
BLACK DISCOURSE is a multidisciplinary studio and oral tradition incubator, curating from the global black experience.
We connect black conversation to the world, through experiential design and media production.
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As a child, Kwakua had gone foraging in the cracked walls of the sea-lapped ruin that still smelled like death. Only there grew the hibiscus flowers Ma needed for healing - black with a dark purple stigma and bright saffron anthers, pregnant with pollen. That was her ancestors the sickness took her. Driven perhaps by some voracious desire to cover the sites of her ancestors destruction with untameable healing life, most medicinal plants and flowers had made this place their home: a frontline of Earth’s cleansing era. The thought did not perturb Kwakua; she knew their history as did all her people.
The ocean, the storymothers whispered, was a dangerous and toxic enemy, but here in the gnashing maw of its teeth was Kwakua’s special place. Near enough to the ruins that the familiar taint of old blood plucked at her bones, yet far enough away so as not to harm the life that grew inside. In her imagination, the desolate ocean became packed with nets and flags, colours and bodies dancing on their war-painted canoes, great hosts of fisherwomen and warriors racing each other to the horizon, singing old songs in Ma’s scratchy voice, in forgotten tongues, to the heave-ho of fish coming in. Nestled comfortably, limbs caressed the girth of the massive tree; last outpost of a failing jungle rising up proudly from the red dust, the trunk was awash with mutated bougainvillea vines, gnarled and tough as arthritic hands. Beautiful, but acrid to the touch and scents. Kwakua wrapped defensive arms around her swollen stomach, staring out at the crashing waves. She hummed remnants of memory, fragments of pheromone-addled stories, and Ma was no longer around to retell them just so, just the way she liked.
Abenana found her there, in the tree, by the ruin, by the water. “Come home, beloved,” she called up softly, ever wary of listening ears.
“Come up, nihal,” Kwakua replied, less cautiously. Her eyes never left the encroaching swell.
There was a sigh and a rustle, and several curses, but sure enough Abenana’s abundant black curls appeared from between the thighs of a bushel of the long wetleaf that succoured the nutrients of the palm. With a disgruntled snort, Abenana settled next to Kwakua, gently snaking a protective arm about her protruding abdomen. Silence coagulated comfortably between them.
“I’m starting to worry . . .” Abenana confessed, looking from the vista she feared to the woman she loved. “You’re up here more and more. You miss meals and contributions.”
“I get enough to eat,” Kwakua said. “And there are many hands contributing at the moment.”
“That’s not how it works. What’s seeding your unease? You’re only where you’re supposed to be at longtooth time.”
“Mama doesn’t tell the stories like Ma used to.” The loss of her grandmother was still raw.
“Your Mama is an excellent Storymother as you know, she carries the spirit of all grandmothers on her tongue.’
Kwakua turned large, brown eyes to her lover. Abenana had once told her she had fallen in love with those strange dark orbs, many harmattans’ ago. People described them as three parts of a coconut: Abenana the tough worrisome exterior, Kwakua the dreamy nimble pulm, Faneyo the calm, liquid roots of their love. Kwakua wondered what Abenana saw in them now, as the painful isolation stretched out before her, colder and more expansive than the never-ending stretch of darkness that gobbled up the horizon. A distance that was at once new and increasingly familiar, a barren ocean floor, beckoning her into it’s depths.
Abenana’s smile folded away into negative space. She said nothing. Kwakua turned and looked at her, hunger leaking from the corners of her eyes, and then the familiar words tumbled out, as if escaping something in Kwakua’s gaze that Abenana could not, or would not acknowledge.
“Almost five hundred and fifty summers now, from when this story was told to me, something called the West African Association of Environmental Rehabilitation launched the ‘Envolution Project,’ asking for volunteers to remedy humanity’s destruction of this place. Only a few came forward. Times were suspicious, desperate. The world was changing faster than survival allowed. These volunteers underwent genetic changes that would turn them from what they were into what we are: the last hope of humanity. They took away that which they deemed made us dangerous. Where they were predators, hunters dominating land, sea, and sky, we are prey, one organism of many and intimately connected to all.”
Abenana’s deep voice fell into the rhythmic confidence of words that had been said a thousand times before. Words that had almost lost their meaning, for none of them could now fathom what West Africa might have been, much less an “association”. Only the story remained, told word for word with faithful diligence. Each generation adding their own count of fifty. Nevertheless, Kwakua was always enraptured as though hearing it for the first time, ever the indefatigable listener.
“Before the last war and the terrible drought that followed, they took us, the Khana people, and left us here by the coast, where no one else wanted to live. The ground had become too hot, the sea full of poison. The blood that was spilled in the castle, so many hundreds of years earlier, had spread to the roots of the trees until their very sap was toxic to inhale. But changed as we were, we had been given scentsation to survive the hostile world that humans left behind. To scentse as one with all other living things—not greater or lesser, but as an equal, essential part. Until we return to the beginning and the Earth can be made anew.”
There was silence again, save the cawing sea birds and rumbling ocean.
“What do you think that means though? What beginning? And when will we know we’ve reached it?” Kwakua asked for the hundredth time.
“I do not know, beloved. It’s a story, and a history, but perhaps it’s a dream too. A wish, not a premonition.” Abenana had grown frustrated with the perfunctory nature of the exchange. The repetition used to make her feel secure; now she felt trapped.
“But things are changing,” Kwakua said, unexpectedly, breaking the familiar mould. “It’s getting hotter again.”
Before Abenana could reply, Kwakua stiffened, her geilers trembling to attention, ears twitching in alarm.
“What is it?” Abenana asked. Kwakua did not answer right away. Only gestured that they should make their way down the tree. “Are you sure?”
Abenana’s concern was warranted. Kwakua was the tribe’s strongest scentser—no predator had managed to sneak up on her since she was a small child—but on the ground their people were most vulnerable, and laden as she was with the life they had created, she would not be able to move fast.
“It’s in the air, but it hasn’t spotted us yet,” Kwakua said. “Let’s try and get under the cover of the trees before it does. We should be getting back anyway.” Abenana did not exclaim that she had been trying to say this for the past hour, although Kwakua felt it unspoken in the air. She took the lead shimmying down the trunk, her sharp nails and crosshatched footpads gripping the bark. Kwakua’s geilers began to gape a little, instinctively trying to lower her rising temperature. Despite the relief this would have brought, she actively clamped them down to descend the toxic vines.
The hot sand steamed a little as she landed on it, moments after Abenana. Their outer layers of husk, rubbed green and brown for better camouflage, were painfully stark against the yellow sand and red earth. But they took on a shuffling sort of ramble that echoed the bundles of dried out vegetation, that sometimes drifted across the arid plains. They made it to the trees before Abenana’s own scentsers picked up the large scavenger now circling somewhere far above their heads. They kept a careful pace through the bush and toward home, as the jungle steamed about them, teeming with predators large and small.
Kwakua picked through the undergrowth as her feet carried her onwards. Forever scentsing, her geilers rotating on the wind as they neared the nearly-dry riverbed. She recalled when it had run fast and dangerous, and as a child she had nearly drowned trying to save another smaller girl, for none of them could swim and breathe. She could almost smell it again, as though for sentsation time melted away; wading into the reeds, the water clearing her knees, closing in on her airways. Reaching for the vanishing hand who had fallen from above, sealing her geilers as best she could against the freezing, suffocating water. Their people had a magnificent capacity for breath and as such, were accustomed to taking in oxygen from nose, mouth, and geilers, so whilst Kwakua might dampen the lattermost in toxic environments, to cut it off completely felt as though there was a vice around her throat, slowly tightening.
Kwakua stumbled over a root and the memory was broken. She was panting, recalling the feeling of complete submersion in the river. They would give anything to have such a rapid flow again. Now, wading through that very same riverbed, the water barely reached higher than their ankles: a mere streak of brown. They stopped to fill their satchels anyway; no one walked past flowing water without collecting at least some. Besides, their digestive systems could sift through the mud and silt. By the time they reached the Khana village, the smell of bush rat and yam stew was already wafting through the surrounding trees. Solo predators knew better than to ambush them here, even at night, but sentries were still posted at intervals in the surrounding trees. They signed silent greetings to the two foragers, safely home again. At the entrance, Abenana lightly kissed Kwakua before heading off to the gatherers to deposit their water, and Kwakua’s hibiscus, and help sort through what the other morsels they’d foraged for dinner and drying.
Kwakua walked to the centre of the village. Their home was, at first glance, no more than a wide glade of beaten down earth and thick baobab trunks; of cooking fires and woven low-hanging bamboo canopies. Several hollowed out trees with propensities for storage or heavy craftwork were all that marked the transition from wild bush to cultivation. Until you looked up. There, amid the leaf-obscured stars, extended more platforms, crawlaways, cocoons, and bushels than Kwakua had ever taken the time to count, a floating universe, suspended between the soaring branches of carefully nurtured baobab trees, made up their true dwelling. The ancient weight bearers thrived here, and both peoples and trees had become co-dependent over the centuries.
Not for the first time lately, everything seemed to speed up and blur around her: bustling preparation, vague conversations, greetings, purpose, mild arguments, and age-old routine, children leaping between vines and boughs, between now and before. The last sweaty shreds of orange sunset lanced through the canopy above, painting a light show on Kwakua’s splayed fingers like freshly splattered blood. Beads of thick perspiration dribbled agonizingly down her back as her geilers gaped, trying to cool her down. It’s too hot, she thought to herself. It just keeps getting hotter -
“Kwakua? Are you all right?”
Her eyes cleared as she focused on the familiar features in front of her: a dark face interrupted by many darker spots, arms baggy as though wearing a skin several sizes too large. Wild hair, silver as purified moonlight. Eyes light, stern and penetrating.
“I’m just hot, Mama. It’s so hot these days.”
“I know, my heart, that’s just the baby,” her mother soothed. “I was the same with you.” Kwakua said nothing, accepting the arm her mother offered. She was steered toward a seat and a cool drink. Somehow she felt sure that what she was experiencing was like nothing either her mother or any other Khana had felt before. Something was changing, and the fact that no one else seemed to sense or scentse it, did not make her any less certain.
That night, Kwakua lay with her arms splayed. Abenana nestled into one breast and Faneyo the other, both sets of hands resting upon her belly. Kwakua wondered who was growing inside her: what she would be like, how she would find water for her when the river ran dry, whether she would have eyes like hers - deep and distant - or hair like Abenana’s, or a gap-toothed smile like Faneyo. She knew they would love this child, with or without her there to raise it. The old story played round and round in her mind as she rubbed her slowly swelling stomach. Kwakua wondered if it would be the one to ‘go back to the beginning’.
Over the last few months, a veil had come down between Kwakua and those she loved, pulling her further and further away, and there didn’t seem to be anything she could do to stop it. Her mind was constantly pulling her back to her first infatuation - that coldest and most formidable of consummations and endless liquid graves. Shoals of small wet mouths seemed to close in on her sensitive flesh. Kwakua shuddered under their stimulating assault, disturbing Faneyo on her right side. She stirred, absently caressing Kwakua’s geilers in her sleep. Kwakua shivered in delight at the touch, and, desperate to evade the terrifying, irresistible draw of the deep, she clutched at that feeling, familiar and attainable. She shifted her weight until her swollen nipples rubbed up against Faneyo’s lips. Somewhere between waking and sleep, dream and nightmare, her lover took her into herself.
After a collection of precious moments that could have been minutes, or hours, Abenana woke to find her beloveds entwined and panting, wet, open and inviting. She slipped her hands between Faneyo’s thighs and found her hard and ready. The three heaving bodies made one another’s many openings weep with desire and satisfaction. They’d had this, the three of them, for many harmattans now. Love, yes, but this, too. Days and nights of dry, dusty air and rich, wet monsoons, rainwater mixing with their salts, breeding love, conceiving life. Faneyo went stiff and erupted, her quivering limbs tipping the other two into climaxes of their own. Kwakua snarled, raking sharpened fingernails down Abenana’s back, drawing blood. Abenana yowled into Faneyo’s hair and came all over their thighs. They collapsed into one another’s folds, quaking, stroking lips, gasping kisses and whispering breaths. Kwakua threw herself into this feeling, this moment, the aliveness of her body and those entangled about her. She felt connected to every living thing for miles around. She could scentse it all: dying wood smoke, drying leaves, rodent droppings, shucked snake skins, the riverbed rasping for water. And far away, a mountainous ocean swelling uproariously. Ready to drown them all.
The night the baby was born, the Khana people, those who were neither very old nor very young, donated their evening water rations to Kwakua, who lay sweating, shaking, parched on the medicine woman’s platform surrounded by herbs and cloths. A new Khana was born only once every few years, so it was always cause for celebration. Her mother sat behind her head, sponging down her brow, and Faneyo and Abenana were there, too, on either side, each gripping a hand. Faneyo looked even worse than Kwakua did, her dark skin turned somehow grey and clammy. She’d always hated the sounds of pain, and her beloved had been screaming in agony for hours now. The baby just did not want to come. Kwakua couldn’t blame it - tonight was not a good night to be born.
Ancestors, be with me, she prayed as her footpads gratefully touched the earth at last. Then they were running. Abenana and Faneyo, one on either side, urging her on. But she was too slow, too slow. Mama was calling for the lithe to help the children and the bearers, but she did not pause to search for survivors now.
Kwakua was terrified she might crush the tiny baby pressed against her thundering breast, but it was still breathing, still crying loudly, its tiny pinkish-brown geilers likely burning as they took in air for the first time. Air already riddled with smoke. The ground was heating up beneath their feet, and the air was becoming hard to breathe. Still they pushed on. On toward the plains. They were the only place left to go where this fire might not reach them. They scrambled over the riverbed, now almost completely dry, and Kwakua’s whole body screamed at her to stop, to rest, to give up. To thrust the baby into the arms of her lovers and let the jungle take her, even as the heat scorched her back, kissing her soles with a thousand blisters
But there was another voice, one stronger than her exhaustion. An urgent, inexorable intonation. And even as she tried not to listen, Kwakua knew she needed its strength to save her baby. With one last burst they made it through the break of bush and sand along with a confused cacophony of other life forms that had managed to flee the conflagration. Then a burning brand sizzled out of the darkness behind them, catching Abenana’s arm, filling the air with the caustic smell of burning meat. She screamed. Faneyo ran to her, whacking the brand away from where it had stuck to her flesh, and pulled her back from the line of trees. Kwakua stumbled after them, barely able to see, senses attuned only to her still-crying baby and the low crash of the waves ahead. On they stumbled, alone now—none of the other Khana were with them. If any others had escaped the blaze, they did not know. Onward, toward the beach, and to the darkness beyond.
When they were near enough to the water that the stench of burning was lessened by the salt in the air, the four turned at last to behold the devastation. Their home was ablaze, a final reclamation. Abenana dropped onto the sand, clutching at her still smouldering arm. Faneyo was immediately at her side, tearing off a strip of sleeping cloth from around her middle to bind the wound. Behind them, Kwakua’s breathing slowed and she thought of her Ma, whose bones now lay under a mountain of burning vegetation, and of her Mama, who now stood, or walked, or died she knew not where. And of their trees, and of their people. Burning. She shushed her baby, placing an already leaking nipple into its searching mouth. She hummed a tune older than the ruins that now stood outlined in firelight to their left, as the putrid marination of smoke and salt on the wind finally overwhelmed the smell of blood that seemed to soak those ancient foundations.
Kwakua turned and faced the ocean, her first mother, and at last she understood.
“Until we return to the beginning and the Earth can be made anew,” Kwakua murmured to no one in particular. Her beloveds, clutching one another and watching the disintegration of the only home they had ever known, barely noticed as she wandered toward the waves, which seemed to lessen in intensity the closer she came, as though in welcome. As her footpads broke the surface, to Kwakua’s surprise there was no pain at all. The expected singeing, searing fire of virulent liquids did not come. It felt, not wet but warm, like Abenana’s soft, weeping openings. It had been many harmattans since Kwakua had thrown herself into the river’s clutches, but she remembered what it felt like to drown. Would this be any different?
By the time the cries of her lovers reached her, Kwakua was already beyond their grasp. If she had turned she might have smiled, might have gestured at them to follow, but all she could do was to keep on, away from all that she had known and loved, back to the beginning. She burned then as the waves crested her hips and salt water flowed into both her geilers and her still-raw birth canal. But she submerged herself nonetheless, feeling her baby’s gums clamp down about her nipple as it, too, felt a penetrating pain. Yet she kept on, thrashing in the surf until the pain at last subsided.
Kwakua opened her eyes; saw the swirling dark that surrounded her as it separated into murky brilliance - beams of light, flashes of silver current - and breathed.
Ama Josephine Budge is a Speculative Writer, Artist, Curator and Pleasure Activist whose praxis navigates intimate explorations of race, art, ecology and feminism, working to activate movements that catalyse human rights, environmental evolutions and troublesomely queered identities. Ama is the recipient of the 2020 Local, International and Planetary Fictions Fellowship with Curatorial Frame (Helsinki) and EVA International (Limerick). Her research for this fellowship: Pleasurable Ecologies – Formations of Care: Curation as Future-building is an in-depth exploration of decolonial and intersectional curatorial care practices. Ama is also a member of Queer Ecologies 2020, initiator of the Apocalypse Reading Room project and Lead Artist on the MycoLective project with Chisenhale Studios and Feral Practice. Ama’s fiction has been published internationally including by Anathema Spec from the Margins, The Architectural Review, The Feminist Review, Consented Magazine and more. She is working on her first book: a speculative duology
*A version of this piece was originally published by Anathema Spec From the Margins, in August 2018.