Who is Akeelah?
The question annoyed me, even now, days after my professor had asked it. It was homework, an introductory essay for the Literature elective I had stupidly decided to take. I had no idea where to begin. I knew I was myself, everyone has a sense of just knowing without really understanding. I knew instinctively what kind of foods I liked and that I hated the sound of Abe chewing gum like a goat, but to describe it in 500 words or more was a different case entirely.
Who could write that much about themselves anyway? Only people with big heads to carry their oversized ego around, that’s who.
I was terrible at writing of any sort, that’s why I volunteered to help grandma clean out the storage room today. To avoid the essay that mama would force me to work on if she caught me lying idle.
“Who is this?” I asked, looking at an old photograph in the storage room. It wasn’t quite black and white, more so brownish; with exposure and water damage crusting the sides.
The woman in the centre of the portrait sat up proud, her dress decorated with flowers, the lines in her face a telltale sign of stress, but also of laughter. The same key that hung around my neck hung around hers. Her eyes beckoned me to observe her, to learn about her.
“It’s your great grandmother. She grew up on this farm.” Grandma said, picking up the photo and looking at it lovingly. “Strong woman. You remind me of her. You have her eyes.”
I looked at the woman who I seemed to resemble. She looked sure of herself, like she knew who she was.
‘Strong woman’, Grandma had said. I was nothing like her.
Cleaning the storage room was more work than I had bargained for, and about halfway through I wondered if I should not have just clenched my teeth and done my work instead. Still, Grandma made it interesting, telling me stories about her days as a young, mischievous woman, finding trouble where she had no business being. After the space was swept up and spotless, I went to bed, body hitting my mattress like a rag doll. Sleep came instantly.
I knew I was dreaming. I knew because from where I was, I could see the whole of Bridgetown, from Sugar Bay to Black rock. I was floating above the city, slowly relaxing into the state I had found myself.
“It’s not real,” I told myself. “I’ll wake up soon.”
My dreams had other plans. My body seemed to move on its own, making me dive head-first into the town. Like a comet I was falling, falling, falling; I shut my eyes tight as the concrete ground rapidly approached my face. As suddenly as my descent had started, it stopped, and I found myself upright again, but I was no longer in Bridgetown.
Sand dunes were scattered everywhere, far into the distance. It was bright, and then suddenly it was not. The sky had swallowed the moon.
My hairs stood on end and I knew I needed to run. My feet obeyed my instinct. I was running now through a dark desert. I couldn’t see more than the next few steps in front or behind me. But I knew they were behind me, chasing me to devour me.
‘Akeeelah,’ They called in unison. The monsters were many, and they wanted me.
‘Leave me alone!” I screamed as I ran. Hot tears bled down my cheeks and blurred my vision.
I didn’t see the giant spider web before I ran into it. It stuck to every part of my body and the more I struggled, the more I couldn’t escape it. A hideous spider the size of a cow crawled up to me. It stared at me with its eight eyes as it spun its cocoon around me. My arms were trapped, so were my legs. I was powerless to fight as it covered my face completely with its webs.
There was blackened silence in the cocoon. My heart pounded in my chest as I panicked. I opened my mouth to scream.
“Keelah! Akeelah wake up!”
My eyes shot open and it took some moments for me to regain my senses. I was in my room, and Mama was seated on my bed, looking at me with concern.
“You were screaming, girl. What’s the matter with you?” Mama asked.
“Bad dream,” I replied, as she checked my temperature. As if a fever would make me scream in my sleep.
“Bad dream? Is that why you’re shaking?” Mama asked, and I looked at my hands, realizing that I was, indeed, shaking furiously.
I took deep breaths, grounding myself. I needed my heartbeat to slow, needed my breathing to normalize. Satisfied enough that I wasn’t going to have a heart attack, Mama got up and made for the door.
“If you’re fine get up, get ready and get to class. And for the love of God, do something about that bush on your head. I don’t know why you don’t just straighten it.” With that stab at my self-esteem, she was gone.
I got up, got ready and got to class.
This reality is haunting me.
This was a thought that plagued me a lot recently. Sometimes, in the middle of the night, when nightmares of beasts troubled my mind; when I awoke in a bed drenched with sweat, I wanted to scream. Not an unconscious scream in my sleep, but a real deliberate one.
I wanted to run into the darkness of the night, I wanted to claw my way through the brush and tangled trees on the hill near the farm. I wanted to climb to the top and scream at the top of my lungs; releasing the frustration I had welled up inside me.
I wanted to let it all out, even the little things; like Mum never failing to comment on the way my hair looks when it isn’t straightened. Or the fact that even after exerting my right to look the way I wanted, I still did not feel beautiful. Things that seemed little, but added pressure to the knot twisting in my belly.
And the knot was tight; God it was strained, compressed and unyielding. I wasn’t even 19 yet; I had regular teenage girl shit to deal with, but I had to deal with nightmares and monsters too? Monsters. Monsters were real. Or were they? The Douen was real. Or had I been seeing things? Reality seemed to be bending all around me. Was I losing my mind?
Then there was the necklace. It was supposed to mean something, it was supposed to help me in some way, but it just pounded, prodded and pinched. Sometimes I wanted to rip the cursed thing off my neck and throw it in the river.
But I couldn’t throw it away. Grandma insisted it was important, she said she’d tried when she was my age, and it just turned right back up on her neck the next day. Normal was relative at this point, and it was enough to make a person feel sick.
Akeelah is sick.
That’s what I should write in my essay. My professor asked about our essays, and how far along we’d come with them. Some of my classmates had finished. I still hadn’t started. Was I strange for not being able to write about myself? Was I just…strange?
I am Akeelah, and sometimes I see monsters. Sometimes I let them take control of my little brother. So I’m also a terrible older sister. I should write that. Definitely. That would get me an A+ for sure.
I got home and collapsed on my bed like a sack of yams. The day before had tired me out, the nightmare had exhausted me, and classes had worn me down. I would sleep this time and dream about something nice. Surely I deserved that.
I didn’t dream at all.
I woke up in the middle of the night to find someone standing in my bedroom, staring. I sat up quickly, pulling my covers up to my chin, as though that would protect me.
The figure stepped into the moonlight that streamed in from my window, and I saw that it was Mama. I relaxed for a moment. But why was she in my room, just…staring? The strangeness of the situation made me tense up again.
“I’ve had enough of your ridiculous hair Akeelah.” She said, approaching me slowly.
Something was wrong here. A buzzing sound, like the sound of a machine, reached my ears. My eyes landed on the object in her hand. She held mechanical clippers.
“Every day you disgrace this family with your hideous appearance.” She approached me menacingly. Her tone turned sorrowful as she climbed on my bed, tears in her eyes. “I can’t stand to introduce you as my daughter any longer. Not with how ugly you look.”
My brain started working at the moment the clippers had nearly touched my hair. I pushed her out of the way, jumped out of bed and sprinted out of my room. Running down the hallway, I banged on Papa’s door, to tell him my mother had gone insane. But when he opened the door, mum was in bed, and both were staring at me like I had completely lost my mind.
“Keelah, what’s wrong? Why aren’t you asleep?” Papa asked.
“I saw…I…I thought…” I backed away from the door, looking in confusion from their room to mine. My brain was foggy, I shook my head to clear it.
She had spoken in Twi. When she threatened me and said those horrible things, Mama had said them in Twi. The language had become so fluid to me I hadn’t realized I was hearing it before. But Mama couldn’t speak it. It wasn’t Mama. There was something in the house.
I opened my mouth, about to say something about the intruder, when Mum chimed in, sounding concerned and a little bit tired.
“She’s probably had another nightmare. They’ve been getting worse these days. Maybe we should take her to see someone in the morning.”
That would be the beginning of the end. I would be committed for sure.
“No!” I said quickly. “I’m fine. I just need to rest. I’ll go back to bed. Sorry for waking you.”
I took a shaky breath and made my way back to my room, turning the doorknob slowly. I let it open a crack and peered in, bracing myself for what I would find in there. To my surprise it was empty. Had I really been dreaming? No. I was sure it happened. There was definitely something in the house.
I wasn’t crazy. I wasn’t imagining things. Something was here this time. The same way something had lured Abe out into the night before.
I rushed out again, hurrying to my brother’s room. Flinging open his door, I found an empty bed. In the distance, I heard the front door slam shut.
No. Not again.
I ran out of the house barefoot, in my nightgown. I saw my mother, or the creature impersonating my mother, running with Abe slung over its shoulder.
I followed it out of the farm and up the hill, pushing through the shrubs and overgrown trees. The hairs on my neck stood upright and electricity charged through my veins. I was scared, so scared, but I pushed on, thinking I was saving my brother.
The smell of sulphur hit me as I ran. It smelled of rotten eggs and I gagged, spitting the taste out of my mouth. I followed the creature to the top of the hill and stopped when it stopped.
“Give me my brother!” I gasped, doubled over, crouched down; wheezing from the hike.
Abe, who up till this point had seemed unconscious, opened his eyes. It was a strange sight, seeing him hang upside down over the shoulder of what looked like Mama. He locked eyes with me.
“I don’t want to go back with you,” Abe said. “I don’t trust you. You’re useless. You can’t even protect me. You couldn’t protect me from the Douen then, and you can’t protect me from this either. You’re useless.”
All his words were in Twi. I knew it wasn’t him, I knew. But in my sleep-deprived, exhausted state, the words cut deep like a knife.
“You’re useless and ugly.” The copy of Mama said. “I’m ashamed to have a daughter as ugly as you.”
I’d had enough of this madness. I turned to leave and came face to face with Grandma. Had she followed me here, or was this also a trick?
“I’m sorry Akeelah.” She said. Twi.
“No,” I said, backing away. I was surrounded.
“I thought giving you the key was the right thing to do. I thought you could handle the responsibility. But you can’t. You never could, child. You’re insane.”
“The monsters are coming. The monsters will eat you Akeelah.” Abe said, I turned to see him on his own feet now, approaching me. “The monsters will swallow you whole.”
He turned around and the spider from my dream emerged from his back. It rushed towards me and I stumbled backwards, falling on all fours. It crawled on me, perched on my necklace, and vanished as quickly as it had come.
Suddenly, in front of my eyes, I saw the three of them, Mama, Abe and Grandma merge into one. It was an unholy sight; bones cracked, skin tore, and the smell of Sulphur enveloped me again.
Fur grew, claws sharpened, a tail sprung out of this beast that had been tormenting me. It was the size of three men, with brown fur and thick, black horns ripping through the sides of its head. A bright green eye sat at the centre of its forehead and, as orange smoke poured from his mouth, I suddenly understood where the sulphur had come from.
“I am Popobowa.” It said, grinning at the terror on my face. “You wanted to scream Akeelah?”
As fast as lightning, it appeared in front of me, its fangs and bad breath a mere inch away from my face.
My name is Akeelah, and I see monsters. I think I may be losing my mind.
The knot in my belly snapped. My voice poured out of my body and into a scream. I screamed from the top of the hill. I screamed into the night; into the darkness. I didn’t recognize the sound that came out of my mouth, and I didn’t care to. It was an inferno burning its way through my lungs and scorching my throat. The parts of me that were never allowed to breathe poured out of me, high pitched, shrill and unhinged. I was terrified and satisfied. Somehow this was a release. All the fear, all the frustration, all the insecurities came pouring out as I wailed. My body shook and shivered, my nerves on fire. I screamed until I was empty from the pit of my soul.
My scream a feast, for the Pobowa’s thirsty teeth.