“Force-feed the heretics! The monotheists, the abominations, all of them! Let them know the taste of freedom!”
The Archbishop’s thunderous voice shook Anointing Square, his words slightly out of sync with the movement of his lips and the rest of his face, as it glared down from the video screen that covered the entire north side of the Bishop Charles Mbamalu building, the headquarters of Pastor Olumide’s West Niger Gigachurch.
Little Chris pointed up at the screen.
“Look, mummy!” he tittered. “His mouth is confused again!”
Mama Chris’ hand struck the boy’s face so hard, that the impact sent Little Chris reeling. Lucky for him, his mother’s grip on his wrist was as tight as it always was. She pulled him through the city crowds.
“Are you daft, you dis stupid boy?” she hissed at him. “Do you want to kill your mother?”
Little Chris giggled at her despite the fresh stinging on his cheek, and Mama clamped her free hand over his mouth. Little Chris knew better than to misbehave, but the excitement of coming to West Niger on their supply runs every month was always too much for him. This was, after all, the biggest city on the Atlantic Coast. It was overwhelming: the jarring launch alarms, the columns of bright yellow and red flashing from the shuttle stations; the air crafts filling the sky, shooting into space; the glossy megastructures encrusted with video screens; the elevated hyper-rail system. And the people, oh the people! The incessant tidal waves of city dwellers and commuters rushing, pushing, bumping, shoving, yelling, grunting, sweating, laughing, scowling, and always pushing and shoving, pushing and shoving. Perpetual human migration. One hundred million bodies roaring into motion around him. It would seem like a dream if it weren’t already real.
The Purge was particularly grim, this month. There was another execution of Bultungin scheduled to take place at the Square in about an hour, which meant in 10 minutes the Council of Prophets, the Evangelical Realm’s secret police, would commence a full security lock-down of the area surrounding Anointing Square. Little Chris, a six year-old Bultungin, was not yet in full control of his body. Being half human made Chris particularly unstable as a shapeshifter. Over-excitement and high stress situations often caused unintentional shapeshifting into his hyena form. As an adult Bultungin, Mama Chris would only involuntarily shapeshift under the most extreme physical duress, for example during the agony of childbirth. Intimate inter-species relationships between humans and Bultungin shapeshifters were punishable by death under the laws of the Evangelical Realm. Church doctrine dictated it was biologically impossible for a human and Bultungin union to procreate. Little Chris’ very existence was heresy manifest, and a negation of the infallibility of the Ultra Archbishop.
Time was running out. Mama Chris needed to get them away from the Square, and then to North Badagry as soon as possible, to get more Mother’s Love from the old woman in the ocean. Without Mother’s Love, Mama Chris had no power to suppress the involuntary shifts of her child. Mama led Little Chris into the foaming rapids of passengers bursting out of the hyper-rail station. A big screen showed the arrival and departure times above them, a psychedelic symphony of time and place and colour. Mama leaned against the crowd to the Red Line platform, violently dragging her son behind her, lifting his feet from the floor. Only the dark vice grip of her hand was visible to her son through the curtaining blurs of fabric and skin towering around him. Her fingers were practically fused to his wrist-bone. Chris hummed to himself as he watched, fascinated by the never-ending flow of warm bodies, a torrent of rush hour commuters, that might, at any moment, rip him from his mother and drag him away, into the street where, surely, his little body would be crushed down into the waste grates.
“Plenty, plenty people,” he sang to himself. “Plenty, plenty people dey here o! Plenty, plenty people. Mmmm-hmmm hmmmmm mmmm.” He grinned at all the breaking waves of commuters’ faces washing over him: the grim, the indifferent, the preoccupied, the harried, the frustrated, and the tired and angry, all flashing past him like fleeting memories from a past life.
Eventually, they reached an automatic door, and the rush hour flood subsided. He stood with his mother. Little Chris was very small compared to 6-year-old human Topsiders. He would be about average height for an Underland Bultungin of his age, short enough to tuck himself beneath his mother’s skirt, in between her muscular, hairy legs as soon as they entered the train. The Red Line’s heavy doors rattled shut. The big screen display started oscillating blue and white: the security lock-down was about to go into effect. Outside, the world of the platform warped into a blur and disappeared, as the hyper-rail shot out of the station.
The compartment was packed, ankle to ankle, shoulder to shoulder, chest to chest, cheek to cheek. No seats on the Red Line. Seats were for the Green Line, for people going to Zone 49 or closer to the city centre. The Red Line served only triple digit Zones. It took Mama Chris every bit of her strength not to collapse under the crushing weight of the passengers in the carriage as the momentum of the train shook them from side to side. She always struggled to keep her mind from visualizing her body buckling under the load of the rocking passengers and collapsing on her son. They would likely get trampled, and the ensuing tumult would terrify the boy and trigger his shapeshifting. Her sweaty, scarred knees threatened to crush her son’s body. Little Chris, oblivious of the knife-edge his life balanced on, winced at the pain at his temples every time his mother’s legs banged into his skull. Still ensconced in his mother’s skirt, he dug into his shorts for the avatar he had pick-pocketed from someone during the rush to board the train. He switched it on, and immediately the avatar connected to the Live Stream. The Archbishop’s voice roared from its tiny speakers. He couldn’t turn down the volume quickly enough. Mama Chris heard the noise coming from below her and looked around, only to see all the other passengers staring at her quizzically. In one movement she flung her arm under her skirt, grabbed hold of Little Chris’ ear and twisted hard. The boy’s vision exploded in agony and he frantically tapped the avatar against her arm until she let go of his ear and took the tiny device in her hand, obliterating it in her fist and dropping the pieces to the floor.
Chris stirred the pile of broken glass and metal with his shoe. If only it weren’t for the Archbishop, he’d still have a shiny, new avatar. He’d heard his mother talking about the Archbishop, the man who had authorized the Purge. It began at the request of the Pastor of West Niger, who had now spent a year rounding up Monotheists, as well as other enemies of the West Niger Gigachurch. Like people who did not pay up on Tax Day, or people who missed church on Tax Day twice in a row, or papists who still swore allegiance to Pope Gregory XVII. Like Anglicans, or Methodists, or Baptists, or Muslims. Or Hindus, or animists, or pagans, or witches. Or, worst of all, Abominations, as the Evangelical Realm referred to the shapeshifting Bultungin. This was only the latest of a number of purges the megacity had seen since the Realm’s crusade first began against the old woman in the ocean, and her followers, many years ago.
“What are Aboninators, Uncle Gbenga?” A few days ago, Little Chris and his mother’s oldest brother were clearing away rubble and rubbish from a lot in their neighbourhood in the Underland. The city’s excavation works had caused another tremor earlier that week, which partially collapsed a small building, as well as a tunnel leading out of their Zone.
“Abominations,” Uncle Gbenga corrected Little Chris. “Where did you hear that word?” He picked up a boulder almost as big as Chris and dumped it into the cart.
“The Archbishop said all the aboni… all the amoni-”
“That all the Abominations will be caught, and anybody that hides them will be arrest, too.”
“Will be arrested, too. To protect the Realm.”
Gbenga sat down on another boulder, this one much bigger than Chris, and scratched his head.
“Did your mother not tell you to stop listening to the Live Stream?”
Little Chris dropped his chin to his chest and pouted. Uncle Gbenga put a thick, hairy finger to the boy’s chin and lifted his face back up.
“The Archbishop is a dangerous man, Chris. Do not listen to him, and do not go near him or his people. If he catches you, nobody can help you.”
“Not even you, Uncle?”
“Not even me, Chris. Not even me.”
Chris’ furry little tail brushed against his uncle’s leg. Gbenga’s gaze went cold, the hair on his hyena head bristled. The effects of the monthly dose of Mother’s Love that Mama Chris took, seemed to be wearing off again.
He snapped at the boy. “What do I always tell you, Chris?”
“No shifting, especially in Topside,” Little Chris said, eagerly. “When in Topside, always look like the people in Topside.” His reddish eyes quickly turned white again, and his tail shrunk and disappeared.
“I don’t want you to get yourself or your mother in trouble, my boy. Try to be disciplined about it, even down here.”
Chris nodded. The dim lighting from the tunnel’s ceiling cast their shadows against the wall: the massive torso and head of an adult hyena, and muscular arms and legs that looked human, standing next to a little 6-year-old “Topsider”. In order to suppress her son’s accidental and careless shapeshifting, Gbenga’s sister would need to meet with the old woman in Badagry to replenish the Mother’s Love. She refused to let her boy out of her sight. Without the potion, she could not take him out in public, to her work in Topside each day. Not without running the risk of Little Chris’ excitement getting the better of him, and finding themselves strapped to a stake awaiting execution at Anointing Square. Gbenga frowned to himself. He wished he could make these dangerous monthly trips on his sister’s behalf, but the old woman would not deal with anyone other than Mama Chris. The old woman was paranoid about being infiltrated by the Evangelical Realm.
“What is it, Chris?”
“Are we anonimations?”
The train was nearing North Badagry. There was a bit more room now in the compartment. Mama’s legs no longer threatened to cave in Little Chris’ skull. She allowed herself to breath just a bit easier. Her son peeked from under her skirt and tried to see if he could catch a glimpse of the Hall of the Council of Prophets as they approached the coastal suburb. But from down there, all he could see between the shoulders of passengers was the roof of Prophets’ Hall, topped like a wedding cake by a hundred foot high, gold-plated bust of His Holiness the Ultra Archbishop Chris Chukwu, the head of all the gigachurches in the Evangelical Realm, and his namesake. Or his pretend namesake, that is: Chris’ real name would give away his Bultungin heritage. Pastor Olumide began the Purge shortly after Chris was born, and his mother thought it wise to change his name to a regular human name, befitting of a member of a gigachurch.
Rumours had been circulating for a few months running up to the beginning of the Purge. A human and a shapeshifter had born a child somewhere in this megacity. It did not take long for the Council of Prophets to start the round-ups and interrogations. Bultungin were barely tolerated in the Realm as third-class citizens, so long as they knew their place. For the most part, the shapeshifters had been confined to the subterranean dwelling, the Underland caverns beneath the megacity’s sewage system, once they were first discovered almost a century ago. The law of the Evangelical Realm came from the Ultra Archbishop, worshipped as God in Human Form. The Realm’s doctrine stated only humans, plants and animals were creatures of God. The emergence of the Bultungin, a people who could transmogrify into hyenas, was problematic for the integrity of church doctrine. To minimize their visibility, the Realm used the shapeshifters for menial and hazardous work only, and they needed a Day Pass to enter Topside, the city of West Niger.
Little Chris was humming again, now that they were out of the carriage and back on the streets again. They walked along a swampy road near the Ocean Wall, a giant rampart behind which the Atlantic foamed. The roar of the ocean racing in and throwing itself at the Ocean Wall was much louder in this rundown part of the city. The Wall was in disrepair, somewhat. Tiny rivulets snaked from small breaches in the Wall, forming mossy ridges in the reinforced concrete. Green puddles festered at the base of the Wall. Little Chris looked up and imitated the high-pitched hiss of thin grey streams of poisonous, pollutant-heavy water arcing from the fissures in the Wall. He puffed his chest as big as he could, to imitate the sound of the raging sea.
In the distance, a group of boys was coming up the street toward them. They waved at them, and Little Chris, seeing his friends for the first time in a month, waved back, and jumped up and down with excitement. As she had expected, her son couldn’t stop himself from partially turning into a hyena. “Sorry, mummy,” Chris said, grinning sheepishly and shifting back into his fully human form.
“It’s OK, my son.”
They stopped by a row of trees lining the Wall, and Mama Chris let go of her son’s hand and reached to her afro. Or her “fake-fro”, as she liked to say. She undid the knot hidden inside it, and three fat red-brown dreadlocks uncoiled and tumbled down her back, stopping just above her ankles: the trademark of a healer. And an unsanctioned healer, at that. But here, in the slums, where mostly shapeshifters and other undesirables lived, it didn’t matter. Even though, Pastor Olumide ruled over all of West Niger, the Security Commission seldom bothered to enter the slums. That is, as long as everyone paid up on Tax Day, every week.
The boys had finally reached them, and greeted Mama Chris politely. Some of them walked with the hind legs of hyenas. This was their neighbourhood. Still, she did not want Chris getting in the habit, and preferred he stayed in his human form at all times, whenever they left Underland.
Mama patted Chris on the head. “OK, my son,” she said. “You can go and play now, but don’t go far. Stay where I can hear you o!” She smiled at him. He looked like such a lovely child, she thought, when he looked like a Topsider.
“Thank you, mummy!” Chris’ excitement made his voice a bit louder than necessary. Immediately he and his friends ran across the street to the playground.
Mama Chris sighed to herself, satisfied. It was time for her to go to the old woman inside the ocean. She turned to the trees. They were tall and dark, misshapen like giant, crooked old men, petrified for eternity. Long-dead trees defying the twin sickles of time and decay. Fireflies danced in the void between the black branches where their leaves should have been. Mama Chris moved her feet silently over the ground beneath the trees, barren and patterned by cracks and gaps in the dirt. She began to sing, and the fireflies began to stir. Hundreds of them. Thousands, now. Their yellow and white glow cast on her a soft shimmer. She closed her eyes and heard them singing back to her, as if from far away, while they floated down from the branches surrounding her. She let a small smile creep to her lips: walking through the Veil always made Mama Chris feel beautiful.
The cloud of fireflies tightened around her, and the ground started to moisten, and then turning swampy. She opened her eyes and watched the dead trees creak and groan as they soaked up the black, oily water bubbling-up from the swamp widening at her feet. Dark veins swelled just below the bark of the trees, as if they were pumping black blood from their roots, to their trunks.
Plump with the swamp water, the branches coiled around themselves, reaching slowly downward and toward Mama Chris. The ground bubbled more ravenously, and started to give way as the branches reached Mama Chris and pushed her downward, downward, into a place unseen.
Mama Chris found herself behind the Veil now, in front of an octagonal clearing, bordered by neatly arranged groups of black and green tents. These were occupied by the priestesses and followers of Yemoja, after they had been driven into the ocean by the Ultra Archbishop in their conflict against the Evangelical Realm. Yemoja, the old woman inside the ocean, also known as The Mother of gods, and arch-enemy of the Ultra Archbishop and the Realm.
Here behind the Veil, in the Unseen, the air was fresh and dense with humidity. Mama Chris moved across the clearing, her legs suddenly sluggish and her body suddenly weightless, as if she were diving in a calm lake. A school of long, brightly glowing fish, some as long as her leg, swam in the air above her, disappearing beyond the horizon of tents. Dark green shrubs and weeds swayed on the ground, as if caught by a current. She too felt the current around her legs, and whenever her feet touched the soaked earth, bubbles spluttered up, tickling her toes. The Old Woman, Yemoja, sitting by her fire, called out to Mama Chris by her son’s Bultungin name.
“Use his Christian name!” Mama Chris snarled. “Please! Is it every month I have to tell you, Yemoja?”
“Sorry o. No vex. Mama Chris.” Yemoja cackled as she always did, and waved dismissively at the bandages on her leg. Mama Chris stared at her for a while, then shook her head and sighed.
“How body?” Yemoja asked.
“I’m fine, thank you. How is your leg? Are you taking the medicine?”
“Medicine, ke?” The colossal woman’s breasts bounced and rippled with her laughter. Unperturbed, Mama Chris gingerly unwrapped the bandages on Yemoja’s leg to get a look at her wounds. The old woman threw her head back and laughed her dirty laugh. “Medicine? Who dash you medicine? Ordinary witch like you.”
Mama Chris remained stoic. Yemoja’s wound seemed to be healing gradually. She reached into her pouch for clean bandages and a jar of Borgum Spider jelly. The theocracy of the Realm only permitted church-sanctioned televangelists to conduct religious activities, and the only gods officially acknowledged by the gigachurches in the Realm were the Ultra Archbishop and his Archbishops. During the Realm’s first purge, after the Ultra had risen to power, the gigachurches had slaughtered hundreds of thousands of Yemoja’s followers. The remaining survivors fled into the ocean, here in the sanctuary of the Unseen, where she provided them with shelter behind the Veil.
Through the torture of her captured devotees, the Realm had managed to learn about some of Yemoja’s weaknesses. The Ocean Wall was soon erected, all the major industrial sewage of the megacities along the West African Atlantic Coast were rerouted and discharged into the ocean. Natural rivers and water bodies within city limits were artificially dried out, and soon, the Veil began shrinking as the ocean’s pollution increased. Yemoja fell ill. In recent months, sores had appeared on Yemoja’s legs, and they seemed to drain her of more and more of her power. Mama Chris had found a way to heal the wounds, but whenever they completed the healing process, a fresh wound would appear in another place.
“You are funny, Mummy Chris, honestly,” Yemoja wiped tears of laughter from her eyes. Silently, Mama Chris rubbed the jelly over the wound. The woman winced and glared at her, “Softly, now! Ah ah!”
Mama Chris took no notice, and wrapped the bandages slowly and firmly, whispering the formula and carefully fastening the clip.
The old woman motioned at a bowl that was floating by. Mama Chris took hold of the bowl and handed it to Yemoja, who coughed up phlegm and spat into the bowl.
“How is your son?” Yemoja asked, as she proceeded to lubricate the inside of the bowl with her spit.
“He is fine, Yemoja. Have you heard anything from the Council?” Mama Chris asked. Despite her weakened state, the old woman still had spies inside the Council of Prophets, and Mama Chris relied on her information to keep herself and her son safe from the Realm’s secret police.
“The Council? Hmm, no,” Yemoja took one of her breasts in her hand and squeezed. Inky black Mother’s Love squirted into the bowl until it was full. She then handed it back to Mama Chris.
“Mama Chris. Why you no tell me say na Pastor Olumide be Little Chris papa?” Yemoja’s voice was like ice. Mama Chris held the bowl of Mother’s Love in her hands, frightened stiff.
“Drink,” Yemoja said. “Drink.” She gestured at the bowl. “Drink first, before you answer my question,” Yemoja’s expression had turned belligerent, and Mama Chris had no choice but to acquiesce. She drank quickly, hungrily. Her eyelids fluttered involuntarily with every gulp she took. When she finished she released the bowl and a current sent it drifting away.
“You go fuck the Pastor,” Yemoja accused Mama Chris. “Come my house dey find Mother’s Love to hide your son? Who you dey hide am from?”
Mama Chris snapped at the old woman. “Watch your mouth, Yemoja! I no fuck anybody, you hear? Do you understand?” Yemoja closed her robe furiously, covering her breasts.
“Stupid woman,” Yemoja said. “If you no fuck, how you come get belle? Hmm?” Her flabby arm swung out and she slapped Mama Chris in the mouth. The irate ocean goddess jumped to her feet, growing and now a towering behemoth looming above Mama Chris.
Mama Chris’ dreadlocks floated around her lowered head. “The Pastor raped me!” she growled, her hands balled up into fists barely as big as Yemoja’s pinky toes. Little Chris’ cheerful voice echoed from outside, drifting into the Unseen. A little green octopus came cartwheeling through the palm fronds and gently played with Mama Chris’ bobbing locks. The goddess Yemoja and Mama Chris stood silently.
“Kai. Come here, my daughter.” the goddess sat back down, not much bigger now than Mama Chris. She held out her arms, and Mama Chris reluctantly approached. Hot tears streamed down Mama’s scarred face, and she rubbed her sleeve across her nose. Yemoja’s rumpled fingers tenderly wiped the tears from Mama Chris’ face and they sat. Mama Chris laying on her side in the goddess’ lap, Yemoja rocking her soothingly. She reached into her robe, pulled out one of her breasts and tucked the nipple into Mama Chris’ mouth.
“So, Mr ‘Pray and Rape’ know wetin you be?” Yemoja asked. Mama Chris, still laying on her lap, was washing her dreads with swamp mud. Mama Chris nodded, yes the Pastor knew she was Bultungin.
“And him know say Little Chris him son?”
Mama Chris shook her head.
“Hmm.” Yemoja stared into the distance, “No wonder you dey always ask of Council of Prophets.”
“The Council discovered a member of a gigachurch in one of the cities committed the sin of bestiality, and a half Bultungin and half human abomination was born,” Mama Chris explained.
“And na why Senate of Elders dey investigate gigachurches since last year?”
Mama Chris nodded.
“And na wetin cause the Purge. Olumide wan cover him tracks. How many wey him rape?”
Mama Chris shrugged. “I don’t know. Maybe just me. Maybe more. There are over a hundred of us cleaners and gardeners at Church,” she sighed, “And he’s using Monotheists to cover it up. If he only killed Bultungin, the Senate might get suspicious and order a Spiritual Audit on West Niger.”
Yemoja broke open a coconut and sprinkled the water over Mama Chris’ head. Her locks iridesced as the goddess rubbed the liquid into Mama’s scalp, and rinsed out the swamp mud.
“Mother’s Love alone no fit keep your son safe forever, my dear. You hear?”
Mama Chris nodded.
“All this while, you dey come Badagry, dey risk your life, your child life. Why you no yarn me since?” the goddess frowned at her.
Mama Chris sighed and got up from the old woman’s lap, “What good would it have done to tell you, Yemoja? You know your power ends at the Wall.”
“Na wetin you think? You think say my power no pass these people? Hmm?” Yemoja asked, scratching her own head. Tired. The old goddess’ gaze slowly moved from side to side like she was looking for something. Her big lips pouted in confusion and she mumbled something to herself. She looked at Mama Chris and seemed to stare right through her. The vacant look in Yemoja’s eyes tugged at Mama Chris’ heart: the Mother of fishes, the Mother of gods was dying, and her memories seemed to rise and fall with the tides, coming back weaker each time Mama Chris visited.
Mama spoke softly now. “There are no fish outside the Veil, Yemoja. The way the Pastor has been hunting me, is the same way the Ultra Archbishop has been hunting for you since even before I was born.” The goddess’ head snapped back to Mama Chris, her eyes wide and lively. She greeted Mama Chris jovially, as if seeing her for the first time today.
“Please, Yemoja. His name is Chris. Please try to remember.”
The old woman giggled. “Sorry o! No vex, Mama Chris! You wan treat my leg, abi? Siddon, siddon. How body?” Yemoja motioned to a moss covered rock.
Defeated, Mama Chris put a satchel of herbs on the old woman’s shelf, “Drink this in your tea every morning.”
“What is that?” Yemoja asked, shooting Mama Chris a quizzical look.
“It’s your medicine, ma.”
“Medicine, ke?” Yemoja bent over and slapped her good knee, laughing hard. “See this witch! You be doctor?” She laughed hysterically while Mama Chris embraced her warmly and kissed the Mother goddess on the forehead.
“Thank you, Yemoja. See you next month.”
The hyper-rail was virtually empty on the way back home to Underland, as it always was this time of the morning. In the distance, the strobe lights of a Prophet patrol corvette flashed, as it prowled through the empty sky. Its dark hull sliced through the tall dawn mist, while the vessel scanned the waters for smugglers. When the rail tracks bent eastward, it gave the illusion the hyper-rail was outrunning the patrol. Little Chris pressed his nose against the grimy window, humming his melodies. On the overhead screen in the compartment, Pastor Olumide came on:
“Good morning, my children. Happy Tax Day. I expect all of you in church today for service. May you continue to be blessed and may….”
Mama Chris looked at her son. Usually, Bultungin shapeshifters gained full control of their bodies around the early to mid teens. However, with Little Chris being an unprecedented hybrid human-Bultungin, there was no way for her to know when her little boy would come of age. What Mama did know, however, was that Yemoja would be long dead before then. The old goddess would probably not last another year before the Veil was breached. And when Yemoja dies, the ocean and the Mother’s Love would die along with her. Mama Chris and her boy would be at the mercy of the Council of Prophets. Maybe, by the end of the year Mama would have saved up enough of her wages to pay smugglers, and flee the Evangelical Realm. Lately, these smugglers had been selling out the undesirables to the Council of Prophets, taking money from both sides and getting rich off the spilled blood of the Bultungin.
“Look, mummy!” The tube at this section rose above the Wall. Little Chris pointed at the pale orange sliver on the horizon. She spat on her thumb and cleaned off some dried mud from his earlobe. Mama Chris nodded. She pulled her son close and together they watched the rising sunlight reflecting on the rippling ocean’s surface like a blanket of dancing fireflies. The ocean waves were breaking against the Wall, slowly, like an old collapsing elephant. White mist sparkled in the sunlight.
“Plenty plenty water. Plenty plenty water dey here o. Plenty plenty water. Mmmmhmmm hmmmmm hmmmm.” Mama Chris put on a brave face, and laughed and sang along with Little Chris. They watched and sang together until the hyper-rail descended below the Wall again, hurtling back towards the city centre.