by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
Content Note: This story shows a person being killed by gun violence and a child being kidnapped.
Only a fool tests the depth of the water by stepping in with both feet. You’ve always believed this tsumo, always believed that those who don’t reason find themselves sinking into a dark cenote of the mind where nothing thrives. You are a member of parliament, a minister with a very important job without time for groundless rubbish. You pride yourself on being a practical man. So when you receive the initial reports about workers at the hydroelectric dam project refusing to go back to work due to multiple sightings of a freshwater carnivorous creature, you chalk it up to the workers being superstitious Africans. You fire all the indigenous workers and hire white Africans who, according to you, aren’t prone to the irrational melodramatics that your own people often succumb to.
A week later, when the corpses of seven white construction workers wash up near the incomplete dam, everyone else on the team quits. You are under pressure from the president to get this damn dam done so you put together a taskforce of reasonable scientists, engineers, and military men, and you drive out of the capital city to the remote town of Lupane to see for yourself what the hullabaloo is about. The white workers are too traumatized to make any sense when probed about what they think happened to their co-workers. The now out-of-work African workers refuse to talk about what they saw, they only tell you to visit a sect of shamans in the area.
“This hydroelectric power plant will benefit this region,” you say. “No more power cuts, no more fetching firewood to cook, no more nights lit by candlelight. Can you not see that building this dam is a good thing?”
You rehearsed the talking points multiple times before this meeting with the shaman. You know that these traditionalists are hardheaded, too set in their backward ways to modernize and develop, too stuck in the past to see that there is a future ahead of them if only they could leave superstition behind.
“You forget that we are not the only inhabitants of this region,” Anoona says. “When you think of progress, you think only in terms of human progress, what of everything else? The forests you will flood with this dam, the wildlife whose homes and waterways you will disturb and obstruct.”
You’re unable to hide your disdain for Anoona, the leader of the shamans, whose locs sweep all the way down to the mudcloth covered floor. You fume at the indignity of having to consult an uneducated woman dressed in red robes who lives under a thatched roof.
“So what are these creatures in the water? Some sort of wild animal?” You ask, losing your patience. “The workers think they saw something human or fish.”
“Just because both a bat and an eagle have wings,” Anoona says, “does that mean they are both birds?”
Anoona’s apprentices, young women in red robes who sit beside the shaman palm rolling her locs, giggle at her retort.
“They may have hands, eyes and hair like humans,” Anoona says. “They may have gills and tails like a fish but that does not make them neither human nor fish.”
“So who is the bat and the eagle in this instance?” you ask, sarcasm coating your tongue.
“I think you know the answer to that, honorable minister.”
“Listen, I’m on a deadline here,” you say. “How do we get rid of these things in the water?” The president wants his election promise of reduced power cuts to be delivered and your job security depends on this project.
“Where the water is, lord,” the shaman says, “there must the land obey.”
You blink stupidly at the shaman. If slapping someone was socially acceptable, you would have given her cheek a good one by now.
“You were taught in school that we live on a planet that is 71% water, no?” Anoona says. “By that logic, do you really think it is land creatures who rule this planet?”
The shaman fingers her necklace that is so intricately woven that it forms a shawl around her shoulders. The necklace is a patchwork of cowrie shells and beads. The shaman takes a patient deep breath before continuing.
“They are called the njuzu nation,” Anoona says.
“And what do these njuzu have against dams?” you say.
Anger flashes for an instant in Anoona’s eyes, but it passes as quickly as it appears. She takes her hand off the necklace.
“I can conduct an appeasement ceremony on behalf of the government,” Anoona says.
“The government has done nothing wrong,” you interject indignantly. “We are simply using the resources of our native land to improve the lives of our people.”
“There is a pact made long ago between the njuzu nation and our people, long before the whites colonized this land, long before our people forgot to respect both the spirit world and the natural world and the beings that live in between both. Long before our leaders forgot the blood pact we made with the njuzu nation. This dam of yours is a betrayal of that treaty.”
You are so astounded that all you can manage is to croak out a laugh.
“Where is this treaty? There is no written record of—”
It is the shaman who laughs this time.
“Written record! Look how they colonized knowledge and you are the perfect parrot to sing their so-called logic. The treaty is in plain sight and you can’t even read it.”
You wipe your glasses and peer at her necklace as if you are seeing it for the first time. You have always been good at math and computers, making sense of ones and zeros for you is an artform. It dawns on you that there is a pattern to how each bead and cowrie shell are positioned. There is some code to the design that you can’t quite crack.
“Is that….is that some sort of morse code around your neck?”
“You dismissed my necklace as an adornment with no math or sophistication to it,” Anoona says. “It is the treaty that the njuzu nation signed with us, minister. It is the treaty that you have broken by trying to restrict the flow of their water with your stupid dam. Then you hired those white workers that thought they knew everything and had no respect for the water. No matter how sharp your teeth are, you cannot bite water. Water bites back.”
I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am. We watch as the shaman leads a group of men to the water. Some of the men carry the fire sticks the humans use to slaughter each other, the metallic sticks glint in the moonlight. It is midnight according to time on the surface. We marvel at the certainty the humans carry themselves with, like they believe this world was molded just for them. They are but a single grain in an infinite desert of spirit, yet they believe the ground they walk on is solid, that everything they perceive is the beginning and end. They do not see the in-between, do not respect the spirit of this world. They don’t see how this entire universe is a web, how a spider dancing on one end sends ripples threading through the silk. The humans from the old world understood this, who do you think taught them that I am because we are, and since we are, therefore I am? It was a hard truth for them to absorb so they broke it down into one simpler word. They called it ubuntu, but now ubuntu is forgotten. The humans of the old world were deemed savages by the humans from the new world, they were bound and packed on boats and taken away. The ones that remained have corrupted memories and shame like a sickness that compels them to forget spirit.
But there are some among them who remember the old ways, some that have been gifted the sight to behold spirit.
The shaman carries a calabash of beer, takes a sip and offers it up to the water. She kneels in the shallow end and takes a bite of raw meat, beckoning to us. She sings a sweet song, a song that we taught her. We swim towards her. She touches her necklace and reminds of us of the treaty. She apologizes on behalf of her people. We like this woman of the surface. She has kept our waters clean from the plastics that poison us. She has the sight.
The shaman tells us that the leaders of her people have a request. They want to choke up our water. We refuse, shriek in response at the audacity.
The men with the sticks let fire rain on the waters. The shaman screams, jumps in front to shield us but is caught in the fire. She drops into the water and breathes her last.
“Kill them! Kill them all!” a man shouts.
We lose many to the fire.
For the first time in your life, you turn to impulse before reason. You test the depth of the water with both feet.
“Kill them!” you shout. “Kill them all.”
Those dreadful things in the water cannot be reasoned with. They are animals, albeit unnatural ones, but animals none the less. You tell yourself you made the right choice. You nearly vomit thinking of how the shaman had appeased the creatures by eating raw meat, bloody and red straight from the butchers. She had said that that’s how the njuzu like their meat, doing the things they do would be a sign of respect. You didn’t mean for the crazy woman to die but she’d jumped in front of the creatures to protect them from the firing squad. The way she absorbed the bullets into herself as if she were receiving a gift. She was unafraid, was that a glint of pride you saw flash in her eyes before the light blinked out like a power cut. That look will haunt your dreams for months.
The creatures will also haunt your dreams. Olive scales platted across a fish tail, hair mossy and matted, dark pupil-less eyes, triangular razor-sharp teeth like a piranha, dark skin that gleams gold in the moonlight.
The dam and the hydroelectric power station take five years to build. At the opening ceremony, you give a rousing speech and the president cuts a ribbon. There are cameras and cheers for progress. There is talk of how the country is catching up to the west.
Your doting wife and daughter are present. They are proud of you.
You look out at the water with unease. You know that the survivors of the massacre are out there.
The humans of the old world had a saying. No matter how hot your anger may be, it cannot cook. Njuzu rage is nothing like human rage; it cannot be contained by flesh and bones.
We unleash our fury in floods.
Tourist boats return to the docks empty, the crew and passengers never to be seen on the surface again.
A couple goes for a swim; only one makes it back to the surface.
Engineers go to work and never come back.
The humans love taking what does not belong to them; we do some taking of our own.
When they hold a big, noisy ceremony to celebrate the completion of their power station that looms over our waters we wait and watch at the water’s edge. We see a young girl. We smell the minister in her blood. We sing a song only for her ears. It is a song that tickles her spirit, it is rope that coils around her and pulls her to the water. The girl leaves the tent where all the speeches and ribbon cutting are going on, her mother believes she seeks to relieve herself in a porta potty. We need her to put both her feet in the water. We cannot take a human unless they cross into our world. The song is a sweet salve on her soul. She steps in and we drag her below the depths.
When your daughter goes missing you know immediately that the creatures have taken her. You and your wife rush to the shamans for help and beg for forgiveness. The new leader of the shamans is Thandi, one of the girls who’d been palm rolling Anoona’s locs the last time you came here. She has no sympathy for you.
“The njuzu nation do not harm those they have taken,” Thandi says. “They only have one rule: if your loved one is taken, do not cry for them.”
Something breaks in you, that logic you pride yourself in falls apart, the careful dam you’ve built around your mind cracking like glass. You curse at the shaman, weep until your eyes are red and swollen.
Thandi regards you coolly and says, “Your daughter will never return to you.”
When you run out of the hut, you run further from your mind. You roam the water’s edge the rest of the days searching for a little girl who was taken by freshwater mermaids.
What the shaman didn’t tell you is that the njuzu nation will teach your daughter of the spirit that connects us all. What the shaman doesn’t tell you is that your daughter will one day return to this world with the gift of healing like all humans who are taken. What the shaman doesn’t tell you is that your daughter will have no memory of her life before she lived with the njuzu. What the shaman doesn’t tell you is that your daughter will become the next shaman, that she will teach future shamans how to care for this world, how to tend to its spirit. What the shaman doesn’t tell you is that you are because we are, and since we are, therefore you are.
© Copyright Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
Yvette Lisa Ndlovu is a Zimbabwean sarungano (storyteller). She is pursuing her MFA at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst where she teaches in the Writing Program. She has taught at Clarion West Writers Workshop online and earned her BA at Cornell University. Her work has been supported by fellowships from the Tin House Workshop, Bread Loaf Writers Workshop, and the New York State Summer Writers Institute. She received the 2017 Cornell University George Harmon Coxe Award for Poetry selected by Sally Wen Mao and was the 2020 fiction winner of Columbia Journal’s Womxn History Month Special Issue. She is the co-founder of the Voodoonauts Summer Workshop for Black SFF writers. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in F&SF, Tor.com, Columbia Journal, Fiyah Literary Magazine, and Kweli Journal. She is currently at work on a novel and a short story collection.
Read the Rest of the September Issue
- wildgirls by Cislyn Smith
- Seaside Princess by Jordan E. McNeil and Kat Weaver
- The Mermaid Speaks by Jose Luis Pablo
- Send Feet Pics by Nelly Geraldine García-Rosas
- A Stone’s Throw from You by Jenn Reese
- Mermaids of Alabama: An Environmental Assessment by Ellie Campbell
- What Do Merfolk Notice on Land? by Priya Chand
- Puffin Queen by Jordan E. McNeil and Kat Weaver
- Witnessing by Tiffany Morris
- Beyond the Blue by Yuan Changming
- Selkie’s Bones by Marisca Pichette
- Mermaid Galleon by Alex Nodopaka
- A Mermaid Reports from Okeanos by Pat Tompkins
- Water Bites Back by Yvette Lisa Ndlovu
- Freshwater Life by Anne E.G. Nydam
- Mer Crowley Angel by Arrick Corble
- the hunter by Jasmine Arch
- I Swim Up From Below by Sarah Gailey
- The Siren’s Song by Angela Gabrielle Fabunan