“Bue pono no.” Open the door.
Sunset, and our Chief Priestess stands on a grassy mountaintop amid water yams thick with the thatch of an unharvested season and calls on Nyame. She is trying to cast out a wicked future and invoke one where invaders do not capture our Helpers.
Weeks ago, in the nebulous confines of tomorrow, she saw clearly: merciless abductions, rusting shackles, helpless Helpers, and misappropriated juju. Something was coming. She poured libation on the red earth, and the future froze. She asked the brittle bones she threw on damp soil, and the future answered: there is no other way—gye Nyame. So now she stands on the mountaintop, her dark skin red under the setting sun, and calls on our Creator.
Beside the Priestess is a girl, too young for a monthly visitor, and a beast, the girl’s Helper, whose footprint alone is as large as the girl. As if proximity will delay their parting, the girl wraps her short arms around one of the beast’s claws and the beast cushions the girl with its tail. The Priestess looks on and wills her pounding heart to slow and her tremor to cease. Before them, the reddening sky refracts and displaces around a widening aperture—rippling like the haze that pairs with heat, with harmattan, with hallucination—and a thick trunk splits the earth as it sprouts and its branches grow up and around the aperture, budding glossy leaves and blood-red flowers. At first, this quivering, orange-red sky and unfurling, incandescent tree-door are superimpositions, two realities overlapping each other, neither in front nor behind. Then, the space warps and the doorway is now in front, now open, and not a doorway at all, but a beckoning, leafy otherworld exposed by peeling away the sky like a kola nut hulled from its husk.
“Kwesa, now!” cries the Priestess, and the girl glares up at her with Dei’s deep-set eyes. The Priestess does not remember her brother well. Dei only comes to her in dreams, and in Kwesa’s eyes.
Now, Kwesa is crying, “I don’t want to let go!” and the beast, Antó, laps at Kwesa’s tears with its rough, serpentine tongue, trying to quell her distress. Antó—a long-necked, four-legged mokele-mbembe half the height of the village’s tallest baobab tree with a pelage the colour of aloe vera leaves—was the runt of her herd, and Kwesa’s best friend. “I don’t want to let go,” Kwesa repeats, hoarser, tightening her grip around Antó’s claw. How can our Priestess explain that it may be in letting go that our Helpers and our people will live? How can she tell the girl to let go when the girl has lost so much?
Time is asking for the door to be closed; already, the ground is shaking and the yams are vibrating in the brush, some rolling off the mountainside. The flowers around the door are wilting. Patiently, the Priestess crouches beside Kwesa, runs her trembling fingertips across Kwesa’s full, damp cheeks and retrieves a necklace with a wooden pendant, seemingly fashioned from the air. She presses it into Kwesa’s palm and whispers words persuasive enough to separate anyone from their love: “Odo Nnyew Fie Kwan.”
We will speak these words, and they will live forever. But first, we will speak of how Kwesa lets go. Antó looks down at her, uncertain, but plods towards the aperture, the last Helper to return to The Garden. Kwesa follows, watching as the tall of Antó’s head through to the tip of Antó’s tail passes through the branch-framed door, follows until she stands a finger’s length away from the vacillating doorway, squinting through tears into the blurry foliage beyond.
We will say that the Door to the Garden closes for the last time in a millennium faster than it unfurled, its tree frame unsprouting, like it was never opened at all—a kola nut re-husked, a moth wrapped back into its cocoon—and the red skyline crumples back into itself. All that is left behind: a cracked Earth where the tree shot up, and shrivelled, scattered flowers.
We will speak of the girl, standing before the door-now-closed and waiting. Yes, of how a part of her waits there still. And the Priestess whose shaking grows violent, her body unable to grasp with the pain of the future and the breadth of her choice. From the mountaintop, she can see what she could not see from the ground below. An entire skyline devoid of dancers, empty barns and nests adjacent round huts, fading footprints, large and small, a world built for two. The Helpers are gone, and the ground is too still. Maybe this is why she is trembling.
We will speak of the Priestess, who tells the girl to open the door in 1000 years. Who, after the girl returns to the village, sheds her robes, her bones, and her name. Our valiant Priestess who fulfills her cruel bargain with Time, who stumbles down the mountainside and wades deeper and deeper into the sacred lake as the sky swallows the sun. Who stops shaking. Who joins her brother. Who joins us.
◈ ◆ ◈
Under the waning moon, flames dance on twigs to the music in the wind, and we remember. Kidnapped and dungeon-bound, we recollect our Helpers brushing against our skin. We cared for them, and they cared for us.
On transatlantic cargo ships, we remember our nakedness, our limbs bound with tarnished bilboes, by remembering that love does not lose its way home. We are subjugated, immolated, imitated. We toil under a different sun and sing, like caged canaries, like saffron finches, we sing ballads between rows of sugarcane in the day and, in the dark of the night, lullabies to our babies. Our memories become folklore to those who survive. We remember, to remind ourselves all folktales were once real. Because if we must pass down our suffering, we must pass down our joy. We possess the lands of our captors, we transform them, and are transformed by them and eventually, with foreign tools and fiery fists, we write our stories about sunsets, water yams, and magic doors. And this brings us to you.
We do not know what world awaits when the door opens, or what you will glean from the lessons we left in proverbs, stories, and songs. We do not know if these will be enough. Loss begets loss, and shame has wrinkled our faces since the years of invasion and displacement. But while we may have lost the wars, we learned how they fight.
You are the daughter of the ones who lived. You are the seed of the Wawa tree. The memories from your many lives will be your guide. Take what you must and build the world you deserve to live in.
We do not know how the years will change our Helpers. What we do know: Help them, and they will Help you. Guide them through their pain, reconcile our worlds—a kola nut husked and re-husked—two realities made one, neither in front nor behind, and you, the door.