The bones are buried deep, white against the velvet of dark water. I shudder in the cold press of the sea as I swim beneath giant rib cages. The chill has burrowed into my core, where it nestles in the pit of my stomach, settling next to the promise I made to Olokun. The promise I must keep, even though it colors my days in shades of midnight, of misery. Sometimes I let myself think of the sun, the perfect pink-and-orange rise of it, the fire of the way it sets. But then my mind always goes to Kola and the heat of his skin, the slice of his smile, and the way one touch can make my chest tight.
I blink away curls from my eyes, trying to rid myself of thoughts that only make the lightless water harder to bear. Release them, I tell myself. Release what you cannot have and accept the present.
I adjust my grip on the terra-cotta pot I found resting in the sand, an offering from above that made its way down to the deep. At least I will be able to bring evidence that someone still worships Olokun. Flicking my caudal fin, its blush-and-gold pleats barely visible, I pass slowly under the last of the skeletons, their ivory arcs protruding from the silt.
When I emerge from the bones, I pause for a moment in water that grows warmer. The heat is a balm, and I spin once in the hot silk of a current, almost smiling at the relief it brings. Almost.
Ahead, on either end of the coral reef, the earth is split, emitting searing gases that bubble into the sea. A blue glow spreads over my skin as I draw closer to a large carved opening lit up by firefly squid. Smaller seeps of gases cause the water to shimmer and glitter, feverish swirls that escape, framing the entrance in the coral. The squid illuminate an archway draped with glowing sea moss and studded with mollusks.
I swallow thickly. The soft light makes my heart ache with its gentle beauty, but it’s only a pale imitation of what I crave. Six months without the scald of a full sun and I find it hard to imagine the feel of sweat sliding down warm skin. I want air, even though I don’t need it, even when it is dense with a coming storm or cut through with the chill of night. I want to see the stars again, their scattered flares puncturing the sky. I want to feel the earth beneath my feet, the rich black soil that turns to soft mud when the rains come.
Floating closer to the entrance, I run a finger over the etchings of fish, whales, and the peaks of the seabed. The last image is one of scales, curls, and the telltale beauty of Yemoja. My maker, my second mother, the most gracious of orisas. A sadness coils within me, but I don’t let it take root. Instead, I focus on Yemoja’s safety, on Folasade and the other Mami Wata, fulfilling their task of gathering the souls of those who die in the sea. If I hadn’t asked Olokun for help, then the fracturing world would have broken entirely.
I am here so that they can be safe. And this is the price I must pay.
I touch the sapphire at my neck, its cold blue brighter than the rock around me. I think of blessing souls with Yemoja, honoring their journeys home to Olodumare. A different kind of service than the one that Olokun demands of me now.
But my choices were the right ones, and they don’t change what needs to be done. I grasp the pot tighter and glide through the gases, chin tipped up, shoulders back. More warm water flows over me as I pass under the arch, giving way to much cooler currents when I emerge into a tunnel that stretches ahead. No firefly squid here.
My heart beats quicker, and I hold a cold hand to my chest. This part used to scare me, but months of making this journey now allows me to swim through the passage with faith, though there is still a slither of dread in knowing what awaits. I slip into the gloom, skin grazing the smooth black sides as I head toward the vague light in the distance.
The rock widens into a circular space. Hundreds of larger firefly squid are draped over the coral walls, their glow reflecting on the iridescent insides of cracked-open shells studded among them. The moss grows in abundance here, its thick glistening arcs looped around the walls. I squint through the dazzle of light, eyes narrowed against the sudden brightness.
A current tugs me farther inside and I let it, clasping the offering to my chest, allowing myself a glance upward at a ceiling peppered with more moss, its trails pulsing with soft white lights.
“I see that you have decided to grace me with your presence.” The deep voice trickles out from the back of the hall, where the light stretches to reach. I feel a faint flicker of pride when I don’t flinch.
A flash of a metallic gaze, and then Olokun leans forward, his mouth curled up at the edges. I swim toward the murkiness until I can make out the coil of the orisa’s great tail curved beneath him. Olokun sits on a black coral throne, fingers curling over the armrests. He flicks his abede back and forth, the silver fan creating ripples in the water. Shadows cloak the muscled bulk of Olokun’s body, but his eyes shine in a face with sharp angles. A thick golden chain wraps around his waist, its end tailing off into the sea.
“It’s not yet time,” I answer, the words slipping out like stones settling around us. The pot is cool in my arms, and I grip its handles firmly, teeth clenched so tight that my jaw aches. I want to remind the orisa of what I gave up to be here, but I bite it down.
Setting the vessel before Olokun, I touch my fingertips and forehead to the seafloor as a sign of respect before moving backward. The orisa’s cape trails down to the sand and stones, black pearls bulbous and gleaming.
Olokun peers at the clay pot, a finger held against the cleft in his chin. “What is that?”
“An offering,” I say, hands hovering over the tribute. “Shall I open it?”
“Let me.” The water swirls, rocking me slightly as the orisa lunges forward and snatches up the pot.
Olokun wrenches the lid off and reaches inside, bringing out a bundle of waxed cloth, which he slowly unwraps. The whitish belly of the raw yam is exposed. The orisa’s smile disappears as he covers the peeled vegetable and places it back inside.
“Another reminder of those who worship you,” I say, my annoyance forming at the downward tilt of his lips. I know what he is thinking--that he will never be able to taste iyan this deep in the sea. Will never be able to dip it into egusi, dig his feet into the hot earth, take sips of palm wine between each bite. He finds something lacking in every offering I bring.
Olokun shoves the pot against the wall with the others, and the golden chain around his waist rattles, its links clinking against the throne. He turns his gaze away from the discarded tributes I spent my days searching for, a frown puckering his forehead.
“Are you not pleased?” My voice wavers, the question shooting out before I can swallow it back down.
The orisa doesn’t answer, but he kicks out at the pot this time, sending it crashing against the wall, where it smashes into pieces. I edge backward, welcoming the rise of my anger, using it to keep most of my fear at bay.
“It is not enough. You should be bringing me more. Find more!” Olokun roars, surging from his throne, tall in the glitter and gloom. When I don’t speak, he sits back down, fingers testing each sharp point of his abede. “I do not ask much of you. Searching for tributes, your company at times, and overseeing the dead. These are small things.”
My chest swells with anger. I think of the hours spent combing the bedrock until my fingers are numb, the relief when I do find something, the days when I dread returning empty-handed. The times when thoughts of Kola make me sink to the blackest part of the water, letting the arctic currents wash away my tears, when missing him hurts so much that it burns.
“You will never be sated!” The words fight their way up my throat, and I can’t hold them in. “There’s too much bitterness in your heart. It’s not the people’s fault that you are chained down here, and it certainly isn’t mine!”
Olokun freezes, his abede held high. He slashes it once, twice, through the water, and then looks directly at me, a muscle in his jaw twitching. “If I had been shown proper respect from the beginning, then I would not be trapped down here.”
“You sent wave after wave to destroy Ife!” I answer, a sneer in my voice. Obatala created land in the middle of Olokun’s waters and gave life to humankind. But he did not consult Olokun, whose outrage at his shrunken kingdom and lack of worship grew. Lurking in the depths, the orisa became twisted with spite and jealousy, until he tried to erase the earth and its people by battering them with the sea. “Obatala had to chain you to save humanity. You have no patience. No care. You are here because of what you did!” I glare at him, my frustration taking over. A part of me used to feel some sympathy for Olokun, banished so deep, but his vanity is exhausting. “Was it worth this? The weight of water above us? A life without sunlight, the gnawing cold that eats away at your bones?” This is the most I have ever said, and I brace myself for his fury, my hands in fists.
The gentle swish of water is the only sound in the chamber. I hold Olokun’s gaze in a way I never have, my heart thumping.
“You made your choice, and now you dare to complain?” Olokun’s voice is low, laced with menace. He snaps his fan shut and swims over to me, his eyes as icy as the water that presses down around us. “Tell me, did I force you to come to these depths?” I stare at the orisa, swallowing down more words, my shoulders quivering. “You offered me your service. I did not demand it from you, Mami Wata.” His words are soft, winding through the water like ribbons. “The anger and pity that you feel are for yourself. Remember this and show your respect.”
His last word catches at me. Olokun stood by his promise to help bind Esu, thereby saving those I care about. That deserves my deference, even if his past actions do not.
“Besides . . .” Olokun swims close enough for me to make out the twist of his short curls. “Do I not show compassion now?”
My shoulders slump, and my spine curves over once again. I think of what is expected of me next, and I nod. It doesn’t matter how I feel--we must do what needs to be done. I must do what needs to be done.
“We will put your outburst down to tiredness and the cold,” says Olokun, flicking the chain behind him. His eyes are shuttered now, any displeasure swallowed by the silver and black. “Come.”
The last shreds of my anger dissipate as Olokun turns to leave, his tail a sinuous slink of purple. Behind the throne is another tunnel, and with a flick of his fin, Olokun disappears within it. Quickly, I follow.
The passageway splits off into a dozen others, some to areas I have never seen. Before long, we are outside and swimming into lighter water, the frigid depths bringing a numbness that seeps inside me. Olokun soars upward out of the black blue, skimming along the reef, golden chain trailing in his wake, seemingly infinite but never long enough for him to reach the surface. I track the glints of metal, swimming faster, chest tightening with every stroke I make.
We are close.
Olokun doesn’t look back at me, so he won’t see the glaze of tears, but as I move nearer to him, I can see his lips are pulled tight, chin held up.
“There are . . . more. This much I know from what the squid have told me.” Olokun’s words are cushioned in the indigo satin of the water.
I close my eyes and nod once, and then I am propelling myself up, drawing level with the orisa as we crest the reef.
Before us stretch the burial sands. The half-moon curve of pale silt spreads out as far as I can see, its surface littered with mounds that range from whale-sized to smaller than me. I swallow, heart beating faster as I make out the new bodies.
All who die in the sea end up here in Olokun’s kingdom.
“Another oyinbo ship?” I ask quietly, squeezing my words around the lump in my throat.
Olokun keeps his eyes on the people who have come to rest in his realm. Slowly he nods his great head, caudal fin waving in the water. Together, we scoop the silt from the bottom of the sea, covering each hand, each foot, smoothing sand over open mouths and sightless eyes. Burying the people who were taken, who could not be saved. I tuck wrappers over chests, touching a hand to scarred cheeks and tangled hair. I cry as we create new graves. Every time, it tears at me, and every time the pain grows until I think I can’t take any more.
Once we are finished, we return to the reef, silent as our gazes sweep over the dead. My hands form fists, nails digging in, breaking the skin of my palms. Small crescent wounds and bursts of blood are spawned, only to dissolve instantly.
“Before, you and your sisters gathered their souls, and I prayed over the bodies I buried.” Olokun’s eyes fix on the blue of the sapphire hanging around my neck, his words quiet. “Now, we bury them and pray together.” He holds out his hand to me. “Keeping their remains safe and blessing them. I know it is a hard burden to bear, but your service and added prayers are an honor to the dead, Mami Wata. Something special. I am glad to be able to offer them that, not just the actions and words of an orisa who seeks redemption.”
I look down at his large palm, with its faded brown lines. My anger is gone, replaced with the melancholy that now accompanies me everywhere. I slide my fingers over his, intertwining bones and flesh, letting him pull me next to him. I am grateful that I can offer the last words over these stolen people, that we give them more dignity.
Copyright © 2022 by Natasha Bowen. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.