A Love Song for Herkinal

as composed by Ashkernas amid the ruins of New Haven

I slam the car door with more force than I mean to. It’s childish, but I don’t care; I want Ashkernas to see how angry I am.

But my sister pretends not to notice.

“Don’t worry about the supplies, Herkinal!” Ash calls with the false cheer she adopts when I am upset. “I’ll get Haba to bring them in.”

I don’t bother telling her that I had no intention of helping in the first place. Instead, I storm past her and unlock the door of the front lobby. And there they are, all six of them, lounging on the leather settees across from the registration desk—as they have for the last two weeks.

They no longer bother playing the penitents with me; they know it won’t work. They only put on their act for Ash—whose indulgence they are aware is all that keeps them from the void of the lower depths where they belong. They look like typical wood sprites—except they’re not. Something has corrupted them and now they are like walking trees carved out of ice, their faces abstract sculptures. They radiate a cold that’s almost solid, and even if my sister and I didn’t have the Sight, we would still be able to feel the unpleasant clamminess that they bring to any space.

I know this because we haven’t had any guests since they arrived. I’ve lost count of the number of people who’ve walked in here looking for a room and then found some excuse to leave as quickly as possible. They’re killing our business and for some reason, my sister doesn’t seem to care.

“Aren’t you supposed to be in room 306?” I bark at them. It was Ash’s idea to have them act as ACs for the tokoloshe who’d been complaining that his room was too hot, but they’ve yet to make their way to the first floor, talk less of the third.

They begin a chorus of laments, but I tune out their tired excuses and begin prepping the front desk for the day. We both know they’re lying. Hell, I’d known they were lying when they’d first arrived telling a woeful tale about how the Accident destroyed their ancestral forests far to the north. I seethe, remembering Ash’s cheerful dismissal of my protests at the time.

“There’s a reason for everything, even if we can’t see it,” she’d said, flashing that brilliant smile of hers. “Don’t worry, it’ll work out.”

The old Ashkernas would never have let such obvious dupes pull that nonsense with her. Granted, I was the brains and she was the body, but she’d always been sharper than she let people think. I would plan the scams, and she would execute. Brick and Lace, they’d called us then. The Sisters of No Mercy.

The front door dings as she enters, loaded down with foodstuffs and cleaning supplies. I pretend to review the guest register, ignoring her as she huffs towards the kitchen in the back. The spirits erupt in a chorus of effusive greetings when they see her, and she beams in response. I notice that none of them offer to help her, though. I kiss my teeth at the farce, which the spirits pretend not to hear.

“Haba!” Ash calls from the kitchen. “Habakuk! Come help Mommy with these things!”

The little girl sidles out from wherever she’s been hiding. It’s a disconcerting habit of hers. One moment you think you’re alone, then you turn around and there she is, staring at you with those odd yellow eyes of hers.

I’ve never really taken to her. She looks nothing like either of us—small-boned and ebony where we are both full-bodied and warm earth. And where other six-year-olds chatter and laugh, she seems to hoard her words, only wheezing quietly when one of her secret schemes has come to pass. Our grandmother would have called her an ogbanje, a spirit child with one foot in our world and another the afterlife. One who torments her mother with multiple births that all end in death. Except she’s Ash’s first and only child, and it was an easy birth.

As usual, her clothes are filthy and her hair is a knotty mess because she won’t allow anyone to touch it. I eye her suspiciously; what has she been up to now? I suspect I’ll find out in due time—when the complaint reaches me.

As if reading my mind, she hunches her shoulders as she passes me, skittering to the kitchen like some sort of furtive insect.

I sigh. The Accident changed so much for us. Though, I suppose it changed things for everyone. I turn on the supernatural scroungers across from me.

“So, you people just balanced yourselves here for the whole day? You didn’t do anything again?”

“Madam, it’s not like that…” they cringe and apologize profusely, and I let loose a tirade of insults on them. It won’t dislodge them from their perch, but it’ll make me feel better.

I know he’s bad news the moment he walks through the front door. I don’t need the Sight to tell me that. From the middle-aged pot belly that speaks of more cheap beer than sense, to the expensive suit several sizes too small. Then there’s the overly shined leather shoes, the oversized gold watch, and the heavy cologne that assaults me long before he gets to the desk. I know.

He surveys our small lobby with a disapproving sniff, as if he’s used to more luxurious digs. I stiffen. The Spirit Inn isn’t much, but it’s clean and I’ve worked hard to decorate it with locally made handicrafts. Some people just have no taste. On top of that, he’s untouched. I wonder how he found the place; the untouched shouldn’t be able to even read our sign. Then, the girl slips in from behind him. As she hurries to join him at the desk, she glances at the settee and shivers, and I understand.

She’s at least half his age, if not younger. Her makeup has been carefully applied to make her seem older, but her face has yet to shed its childhood fullness. She’s dressed like a Runs Girl: her skin artificially lightened, her fall of human hair expertly styled, a bodycon dress that seems to have been sprayed on, and high heels that could double as weapons they’re so sharp.

I force my mouth into a chirpy smile. “Good evening!”

“This your AC is something else,” the man booms. I catch the wisp of grey discomfort that he squashes down with green lust and yellow arrogance. “Una fit off am small.”

“With this heat, is it not better like this?” I fake a laugh and the man joins in.

Of course he only wants one night. Of course he wants our most expensive room. As he fills out the registration form, I take a closer look at the girl. No doubt about it, she’s touched, but she doesn’t seem to share the Sight. I wonder what her gift is. Her aura is the dark blue of sadness, but that’s not unusual for girls in her profession.

I call Big Goliath to show them to their room. Just as the old man shuffles forward to lead them up the stairs, the girl’s aura turns the black of despair.

I sigh. This is going to be a long day.

The Accident shook something loose in all of us, I like to think. Some say it happened because the gods were bored, and having nothing better to do, decided to answer all our prayers. Others believe that the world was split into alternate realities and that somewhere there exists other planes where the Accident never happened, and all our lives went on. Whatever the reason, one morning we woke up to chaos.

Nearly every country beyond the African continent had vanished. Millions of people, all of them rich or powerful, or corrupt, had also disappeared. Millions of African migrants, in fact anyone with a discernable trace of African ancestry, found themselves relocated in Africa, scattered in countries across the continent. The Diaspora was now home. The “West”, as we understood the term, no longer existed. In the vast upheaval that followed, our political, financial, and social systems fell to dust, taking with them the systems of inequity that they had upheld.

In Nigeria, our government imploded, and teachers became the most powerful people in the country. They started by instituting a policy of universal income that eradicated poverty. Healthcare, education, and housing were now free. Then they created truth squads that rounded up the ignorant and forced them into critical thinking camps. The heroic rebels fought back, of course. After all, shouldn’t the ultimate freedom be to be able to be as violent, obtuse, and reactionary as you want? To be able to hold opinion over fact even if it maintained your own oppression? But as re-education took hold, those protests died too. Eventually, religious institutions fell apart and we all returned to the enlightened worship of the Old Gods. Many of us took on new names divorced from the ethnic heritages that once divided us. We renamed our land New Haven.

Amid all this, an unexpected thing happened: some of us developed what could be called…abilities. Flight, teleportation, telekinesis—if you could imagine it, then somebody somewhere had it. One policeman I knew was able to alter people so that after they met him they could only speak the whole truth. He is now our Chief Justice.

For my sister and I, it was the Sight. The ability to see and to interact with the world just beyond our plane. After the Accident, our cons no longer made sense. What good did it do to lie to someone who might be able to read your thoughts? Even if your scam was successful, how far could you run from someone who could teleport? And so, when we found ourselves living in an abandoned hotel with no more need to work or scrounge—Ash nearly bursting with child—well, we did what we always did best. We adapted.

I decide to keep the front desk open through the night, though I usually close it by 9pm and leave the late shift to Big Goliath. We rarely have more than a few guests at a time, and at night most of them are out doing their business. If there’s any trouble, he always knows where to find me. Tonight, I sense that something big is about to burst; it might be more than the old shapeshifter will be able to handle alone.

By 10pm, I am sitting in the back room with a cup of Kenyan black tea, which Big Goliath has thoughtfully provided me, and trying to decide when would be a good time to check on the girl and the man in the suit. I haven’t heard from either of them since they checked in. That’s not unusual. Some clients are eager to show off their wealth, ordering our most expensive meals and overpriced drinks. Others are more focused on getting down to business as quickly as possible, sneaking out when their deeds are done. The man in the suit had struck me as the former—an inveterate boaster desperate to seem more important than he actually was. That he hadn’t ordered so much as a bottle of water worried me more than I cared to admit.

I catch a movement in the corner of my eye and whip around.

But it’s only Habakuk crouched on her haunches in the corner and blinking up at me. I have no idea how long she’s been there.

“Amadioha fire you, you this child!” I roar at her, but there’s no real anger to it. My mind is too preoccupied. “How many times have I told you to knock before you enter here?”

The little girl is unfazed by my empty show of temper. I don’t know how she does it, but she always seems to know when I am truly angry and when I’m just being dramatic.

“Mummy is asking if anybody is still eating today, she wants to close the kitchen.”

I sigh. I suppose now is as good a time as any to head upstairs. I send Habakuk to call Big Goliath and when he arrives, we start towards the penthouse on the fourth floor.

I hear the low wailing as soon as we clear the landing. It seems to echo and thrum, settling into my bones like a bass backbeat. I know it’s not physical and I hurry to the penthouse door, knocking harder than I mean to. The man takes a little too long to answer. When he does, he’s clothed in nothing but a towel, a thick carpet of hair running to grey across his sagging chest.

“What is it?” he bellows, but I note his aura is blue with fear, though tinges of a red rage still shoot through it. Whatever happened, it’s over now. A dark feeling of dread settles in the pit of my stomach.

“Good evening, sir.” I stretch my face into as much of a smile as I can, straining to look past him into the darkened room. “We are about closing the kitchen. Is there anything I can get you?”

“I’m okay,” he snaps and turns to close the door, but Big Goliath places a hand on it, forcing it open. The man narrows his eyes at the surprising strength of the old man, but the shapeshifter keeps his expression mild and slightly vacant.

“What of your guest, sir,” I ask. “Would she like anything?”

The man’s expression goes dark and he steps toward me, pushing his bulk out in front of him. I suppose the move is meant to intimidate, but it has little effect on me. I’ve taken on worse than this little man. His stomach presses into my chest, but I don’t budge and neither do my smile or my gaze. This clearly unnerves him.

“She’s okay also,” he says, shrinking into himself and taking several steps back. He tries closing the door again, but Big Goliath still has it open. His anger is gone now. It’s all fear. No, it’s terror.

“If you change your mind, please let us know!” I say in my cheeriest voice. The man nods quickly and only then does Big Goliath take his hand from the door, allowing him to close it.

“Did you see her in there?” I ask him. The room was too dark for my human eyes, but the shapeshifter’s preferred form is a massive dire wolf, and he has always had good night vision. He shakes his shaggy head and my foreboding deepens. She could have been in the bathroom, I tell myself—though I didn’t hear any water running and the old plumbing of the toilet was suspiciously quiet. I place a hand against the wall next to the door. It feels like I’m dipping into a bucket of ice water, the cold climbs up my arm into my shoulder, and the low wailing intensifies. I drop my hand.

Crap.

“Are you sure she didn’t just leave?” Ash asks as she spoons generous helpings of okro soup into a bowl for Big Goliath. The shapeshifter joins Habakuk and I at the kitchen table and happily tucks into his massive mound of pounded yam.

The inn is officially closed, and we are gathered in our living quarters for the last meal of the day, but I have little appetite. I watch Habakuk struggle with the thick slices of yam slathered in salted palm oil on her plate until I can’t take it anymore. Irritated, I pick up my knife and cut her yam up into more manageable chunks.

“She didn’t ‘just leave’, Ashkernas,” I snap. “I’ve been at the desk all day; I would have seen her. Also, she’s been touched. I would have felt her.”

“Well, maybe she’s gone invisible, like that boy who came with his family last month,” Ash continues, taking her place at the other end of the table across from me. “Remember how we spent the whole day looking for him and in the end he was just asleep on the chair in the room?”

“This is different. Use your sense, can’t you tell something is wrong?”

She cocks her head, frowning. “I feel cold…and a wind? You’re sure it’s not those poor boys in the lobby?”

I sigh and silently repeat the Serenity Prayer. Then I shove my chair back and stand. “You know what? It’s okay. I’ll find out what’s going on by myself. You, just sit down and relax. If I need somebody to clean that girl’s blood, I will call you.”

“Herkinal, it’s not like that now!” But I ignore her and stalk out of the kitchen.

I emerge into the lobby to find that the wood spirits have finally moved. They are standing by the front doors, but they don’t seem to be leaving. Instead, they are stock still, their faces turned towards the big staircase that leads to the upstairs suites on the other side of the room. It’s almost as if they are waiting for something.

The entire room has gone deathly cold, so cold that I can see my breath in front of my face. I shiver and duck behind the registration desk to grab the sweater that I usually keep draped over the back of my chair. If I hadn’t raised my head just at that minute, I would have missed him. But I did, and I was in time to see the man in the suit sneaking across the lobby, clutching a bundle under his jacket and trying to make his way silently to the door.

“Oga!” He spins around, terrified, and almost collapses when he sees me. His aura is a chaos of several emotions all overlaid with a miasma of guilt, like an oil slick over a pool of sewage. “Are you checking out?”

“Y—Yes, of course!” He laughs nervously. “I didn’t see anybody at the desk, so I was just going to go and find you.”

I don’t bother with the niceties this time. Not when I’ve just caught him trying to chop and run. As I calculate the bill, I “remember” some line items, such as the AC surcharge, the mosquito spray payment, and an early checkout fee, that I neglected to mention when he first checked in. He has the grace not to argue them—even when I make them as outrageous as possible. He pays quickly and starts towards the door. Beyond him, I see that the wood spirits have fixed their hungry gazes on him.

“Oga, what of your guest?”

He stops, startled. “Who? Oh, yes…she—she’s still sleeping.”

“Up till now? Wasn’t she sleeping before?”

“So somebody can’t sleep inside your hotel again? See, you better not disturb her, okay? Allow her to rest and she will check out in the morning.” The man tries to draw together the tattered remains of his earlier bluster, but he does a poor job of it.

I consider calling out to him again, but I note the edge of a high-heeled shoe peeping out from under the bulge of his coat. I watch him hurry to the door, the spirits shifting in anticipation with every step he takes towards them. As he passes over the threshold and out into the night, they latch onto him one by one until they are a tangle of frost around his whole body and he is barely visible beneath them. The man pauses just outside the glass-fronted doors of the inn and draws his jacket closer around him, hunching his shoulders as if against a cold wind that only he can feel.

In the short time that they were in our hotel, those spirits sucked in every ounce of warmth and good fortune that came near us. Though they are barely out the door, I can already feel the cloud of anger and ill will that had surrounded me for the last few weeks lifting.

His will be a bad death.

“A bad death for a bad man.” I’m not surprised to see Habakuk by my side standing on the low footstool we keep behind the desk. Even on her tiptoes, with her fingers gripping the counter, her eyes just peep over the counter.

We share a look.

“Go and call me Big Goliath.”

The cold on the penthouse floor has deepened. Big Goliath and I make our way slowly down the hallway, dreading what we’ll find in the room. The wailing from before has coalesced into a mournful wordless keening—a dirge that brings tears to my eyes. We open the door to the room and switch on the light.

It’s empty.

Beyond its size, the penthouse suite is fairly standard in its décor and furniture: in the middle a king-sized mahogany bed flanked by two matching bedside tables; voluminous curtains that are always closed to hide how small the windows are, a center table and two armchairs instead of one. The contents of the minifridge in the corner are untouched—as are the cheap liquors we keep in expensive-looking carafes on top of the sideboard. The bedding is lying in a crumpled heap on the floor, as if pulled off in a hurry, but other than that the room is as clean as a surgeon’s blade, and just as cold.

The noise is louder in here, though still oddly muffled. Then I notice that the door to the bathroom is closed. That’s strange enough, stranger still is the blue light leaking from under the door, as if someone has lit a hundred fluorescent lamps inside. Except I know there’s only a single naked bulb hanging from the ceiling in there. The cold seems to seep into my bones and my skin erupts in goosebumps. Behind me Goliath growls and I turn to see he’s shifted into his dire wolf form, which he prefers for combat. His fur is standing on end. Somehow that makes it worse.

I open the bathroom door.

I’m hit with a wordless scream filled with more agony than anyone can endure. As if all the grief of every age and time were contained in it, as if every nerve was being flayed with cold. It continues without respite, without end, and I want to double over. There is so much pain in it…yet there’s no one here. In the glow of the blue light, I can see that the tub is clean, the toilet hasn’t been used, even the sink next to it is still spotless, the bathroom mirror, though…

For one thing, it’s the source of the awful blue light. Faint wisps of smoke curl languidly from its surface, like a bag of dry ice. My reflection is oddly distorted by the mirror’s warped surface and looking into it feels wrong…so wrong that it makes me nauseous. I want to turn away, but something catches my eye. I fumble for the torchlight I wear clipped to my belt in case of the frequent blackouts and shine its light directly into the mirror. Even then I can only just make out the girl trapped inside, a paper doll encased in a thick block of ice. And she is still screaming.

My hands are shaking so much I can barely get the mug of hot tea to my mouth. Ashkernas has joined me on the couch in our small living room and has wrapped her arms around me. She is rubbing my back and rocking me gently as if I’m one of her strays—for once, I don’t mind. I still feel cold, even with our heaviest wool blanket over my shoulders. We’ve shut down the whole penthouse floor, citing repairs. I can still hear the girl’s screaming, even though it’s only inside my own head.

“May all the gods punish that man,” Ash murmurs.

“I’m sure they will,” I say, recalling the wood sprites. Big Goliath lumbers into the room with the teapot and carefully refills my mug. His brown eyes are filled with understanding and I almost want to cry. Instead I burrow deeper into the blankets. Next to me, Ash suddenly stiffens.

“Where’s Habakuk?”

We find her in the bathroom of the penthouse suite standing on top of the closed toilet cover and leaning over the bathroom mirror. Her head is in her hands and she’s tranquilly staring into it. She looks up as we burst into the room.

“I was talking to the girl in the mirror,” she says.

As Ash lifts her off the toilet, I notice the room’s temperature has returned to normal. The mirror is clear and its sick blue light is gone. More importantly, the room is silent.

“What happened here?” I ask her.

“She was afraid of the bad man,” Habakuk replies. “The bad man wanted to do something to her, but she ran away and hid. I told her he was gone, so she can go home now.”

I crouch until I’m eye level with my niece. Her yellow gaze is clear, untroubled. There’s no trace of the girl’s anguish in her.

“And did she? Did she go home?”

Habakuk nods. “I showed her the way.” Then she beams, and it’s the first time I think I’ve ever seen her truly smile. “Her name was Aisha.”

The next morning, I’m sitting on the verandah in the back of our living quarters looking over the empty garden lot. I’ve been meaning to plant something out here ever since we moved in, but I’ve never gotten around to it. Maybe now’s the time. It’s a Market Day so the world is quiet. The front desk isn’t due to open for a few hours yet, the morning sun is warm on my face, and I drink it in.

I don’t have to open my eyes to know that Habakuk is next to me. I’m not sure why I’ve never been able to sense her before, but now she shines like a yellow-gold coin glinting in the light. I open my eyes and she’s freshly bathed, water droplets beading like diamonds in her dark hair. I reach out and touch the soft, springy mass of it.

“This your hair, won’t you allow anyone to make it?”

“You are the only one who can do it well. I was just waiting for you.”

We exchange a look.

“Go and bring me a comb.”

Chinelo Onwualu

Chinelo Onwualu is a Nigerian writer and editor living in Toronto. She’s the nonfiction editor of Anathema Magazine, and co-founder of Omenana, a magazine of African Speculative Fiction. Her writing has been featured in several anthologies and magazines, including Slate, Uncanny, and Strange Horizons. She’s been nominated for the British Science Fiction Awards, the Nommo Awards for African Speculative Fiction, and the Short Story Day Africa Award. Find her on her website at: www.chineloonwualu.com or follow her on Twitter @chineloonwualu.

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