The Fifth Day

I.

I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

Outside my hut and into the clearing, they carry the bodies on their backs or over their shoulders. Some of them are covered in fur. It drapes them like a carpet, even coming over the tops of their heads to hide their eyes in darkness. The ones in the front carry the without-lifes like sacks of rice and fling them down with just as much carelessness. Each lands with a thud, then the messenger turns and walks back the way they came. Another without-life dropped with a thud, raising a soft cloud of red dust, and then another and another. Some of them make a noise when they land, a trill like tiny mallets striking wood in an ascending pitch, bones singing their brokenness.

Behind the first several rounds of messengers comes another, smaller, slower group. Many of them carry the without-lifes one at a time, held out over both arms. And some of them lay the without-lifes gently on the pile like something precious. The messengers’ faces are untouched pasture, no part of them moves, but these new ones stand for a moment staring at the growing pile of nothing before turning to join the others in the shadows cast by the forest. Some of them have their tails hanging from their front. Some of them have tufts of fur sprouting from their armpits, but the flesh of their stomachs and their breasts is exposed, some of them are a combination of all these things. So there is no telling whether or not the thin ones or the large ones, the tall ones or the small ones, the ones with tails or the ones without, will do this thing where they stare at the without-life in mimicry and then depart. But it is a new thing.

I like new things.

Once the hole is dug, I climb back out on footfalls that the air carves into the ground.

I don’t remember when I began this being, but I feel as though there is learning in my bones. The sun’s arc, the moon’s path. The division of the world into four days. The fact of my work. The fact of its necessity. I grab an extended limb from deep inside the pile, test it with a few pulls, then yank and step out of the way as the without-lifes tumble into the hole I’ve dug. In the beautiful collapse, the air around them pushes and pulls, so that they fall in a spiral, legs crossed, arms flung upward, a dance, a natural beautiful way of falling, and it feels like a right thing. The last time they see the sun is right after they have patterned themselves after the sky and the jewels swimming in it. A few times, the air misbehaves and takes a without-life as its own to make walk and dance above ground or sometimes on the other bodies. The air moves its jaw to mimic speech, pushes itself into and out of the without-life’s lungs, and even though the display washes me in wrongness, what can I do? It is the air and I am me and we share blood. So I let it play but not for too long, because the day must share with the night, and though the sun does not mind looking at these things in this hole, the moon sometimes hides at the sight of them, sometimes peeks out a single crescent eye, growing larger and larger.

By the end I am covered in red dust. The sweat turns some of it into small rivers running down my cheeks. It gloves my hands, and on some days, it feels like the ground will finish swallowing me. It’s hungry, but there is always a meal. And as the sky darkens, the ground hums beneath me. Every day is too long for it to go without feeding, every night’s full stomach too brief. And in that stretching of time before day becomes night, the gloaming, the ground’s almost-agony sinks into my pores.

When I retire at day’s end, the earth will feed. She will pass bone and flesh and muscle and organ, dissolve them, turn them into more of her. Until she has consumed a specific without-life seven times, she will spit that without-life’s instinct back into the air, who will bring it to a messenger before they become a messenger and that instinct will take hold of the new life in a someone’s womb, and the earth will do this seven times, then consume the instinct wholly, and the someone will call that instinct an ancestor. Sometimes, if playfulness and hunger battle in the earth’s belly, she will split the instinct in two or four and spit those pieces of self into the bellies of many someones. And when one of those new someones becomes a without-life, they all become without-lifes, and the earth then has two or four to consume where she before might have had only one.

I walk back into my hut just as the first diamonds are strung around the moon’s neck and light the ground at the threshold to my home, and my home’s walls hug me as the sound of voices descends from the sky, and I hear people talking. The Others.

The air giggles as words writhe through it, as it causes sounds to susurrate, and I hear the word “Dig” over and over before the air, finally, nudges me into my hut where I mix my herbs and drink my tea and lay my head on my mat. It is important, what The Others are saying and how they are saying it, how much like someone familiar they sound, and I am trying to remember why and how I know these things, but the tea washes me into slumber and the day, having completed itself, tells me that not remembering is part of my duty. I agreed to this some time ago. It is my portion not to know.

It is how, the dying sun tells me, I am able to keep being this way.

It is how, it tells me, I am able to keep being.

It is not quite dreaming, never that.

But it is a moving darkness.

Patterns repeat, symbols of light surround me, bathe me in the warmth of the mother sun, who sits in the sky during the day, and then cuts herself in two to allow the moon passage.

The not-sleep feels like a kindness, a different sort of kindness than the one I am granted during the day by the earth’s humming and the sun’s buzzing and the insects’ singing. I feel I am being told things. Taught things. Whatever is speaking to me speaks things that pass like water through my fingers or refuse to be held for very long. They are important things, what I am being told.

I am being taught that the thing I am doing is called duty.

I am being taught that there is another word for the instinct that fills the belly of someones. It is called ogbanje.

The ogbanje brings misfortune, the voice tells me. The ogbanje is not new here, has been here all along. You must find its iyi-uwa and destroy it to be free.

But this work is my duty. The ogbanje brings life, does it not?

Do not trust the sun, the voice tells me. Do not trust the earth. They have trapped you.

When this voice says they have trapped me, I hear they have trapped are trapping will trap me. This has been happening for a long time.

Please remember, the voice tells me.

But remembering would betray the sun and the air and the earth who have loved me for so long.

II.

I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

Outside my hut and into the clearing, the messengers wear shawls and carry the without-lifes one at a time. There are only two messengers and a whispering at the back of my mind. A hissing strangeness. Is this new? Cloth frames their faces. Their skin, where it shows, is hairless. Not completely, but the fur is gone. It collects around the face or crowns the head or falls down to the small of the back. Again, that hissing strangeness. But they hold the without-lifes out before them, and there is a look on their faces, and I don’t remember there ever being a look on their faces.

The without-lifes they hold in their arms and then lay gingerly at my feet, are, many of them, faceless. Or rather, their noses and mouths and eyes have been distorted, blown up and misshapen like wet clay in the hands of a nightmare-hounded babe. The limbs, too, are bent oddly, the whole of these shapes disordered.

The earth growls beneath me, and it sounds like hunger but something else too. Refusal. Not this.

The bodies are bloated and unwieldy. I don’t wait until the messengers have left to begin this next portion of my being. I cannot afford to wait. The earth is too hungry. So I pull and push and try to get good angles. A without-life bursts open, releasing a cloud of gas. My lungs seize, and I fall to my knees, and over and over the messengers make their deliveries, heedless of the dying of the light. And I must push and pull the pile of without-lifes with one hand, the other arm covering my nose and mouth, shielding against the gasses the without-lifes have begun to emit. The air shrieks its protest.

Everything is wrong, everything feels wrong. This is different.

So I hurry to the far edge of the pile and push, and when I do, my heel brushes against a footprint left by a messenger, and in my head swim the gasses and the bloating of the someones and the changing faces, the misshaping but also the someones leaking rivers from their eyes and howling and wailing and this is lamentation I don’t know where the word comes from but it is there and right after it is the word plague and I am swimming in it in this sickness this effluence it seeps into that space between my skin and the dust that coats it and the sight of the dying the site of the dying nearly consumes me until suddenly I am in my hut and the moon casts its light and the air’s moaning has lessened, turned to a soft mewling, and my head is on the ground and my throat is wet with herbal tea and peace and order and peace.

It is not quite dreaming, never that.

But it is a moving darkness.

An unveiling occurs. I am witnessing change. Change. Time. I have been here a long time. I am being taught that the thing I am doing is called duty. Then that it is called work. Then that it is called punishment. I am being taught that I am hurt.

It is hurt you have welcomed, the voice like water through my fingers tells me.

Why?

More are coming, it says.

Do you hear me? I ask, because I want need to know if hurting is my portion. Can you hear me?

The voice cannot. A voice speaks and does not hear. It says, Not more earth because she is singular and not more air because its character is stabile and everlasting and not more sun because she is one except when she is two, but more governors. Who order the stars and direct the sun and fill the air with their selves. They stand or sit or hover and receive the beseeching and the prayers and all manner of utterances of the someones and sometimes they hear and sometimes they pretend to hear and all of them, I am told, feel love for those they govern, those they rule, but it is a distant love, a love that leaves room for violence.

Gods. That’s what they are. The word arrives from nowhere and everywhere.

And they are coming here.

When I am being taught this, it feels like a warning.

III.

I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

Outside my hut and into the clearing, the messengers are waiting for me and their expressions are blank, the skin of their faces, their features, held tight, and I know without knowing how I know that it is a great effort that keeps them this way. They tremble with it as they hold their without-lifes out to me, like an offering.

They lay the without-lifes onto the ground gently. This is new. I don’t know if I like new.

They wear garments to cover their bottom halves. Skirts and pantaloons. And these things are stained, dotted, with blood from the without-lifes that they carry. There is disfigurement, the bodies disordered, but not so graphically as to suggest plague and not so chaos-ridden as to suggest war. There is order to this violence, and when the messengers turn some of these without-lifes over onto their stomachs, I see a design of hurt in the raised scar tissue. The air pushes me toward the without-lifes, now arrayed in neat and ordered rows, and when I come down to one knee and touch a scarred back, images attack my mind and for the first time I see this difference and similarity. I see men with no color on their skin whipping and castrating and snatching life and women with no color on their skin, their godsbreath pulsating and wheezing with hatred and envy and darkness, and I see their victims, and for the first time I consider my own hands, turn them over for the sun to kiss and, peering beneath my coating of red clay, I see that their skin—the flesh of the messengers, the flesh of the without-lifes, smelling of oceanwater they must have crossed to come here—matches mine.

One of the messengers, this one wearing a skirt, compasses the arrangement of without-lifes and holds in her arms a small one. Tiny. Newly born. Though she looks at it with what feels to me like kindness; though, with one free hand, she touches its nose and she bounces it, the without-life does not move. The closer this messenger draws to me, the less she entertains the myth that this without-life is a someone, so that by the time we stand nearly nose to nose, she no longer smiles, no longer touches the without-life’s nose, no longer bounces it in her arms as though to draw from it loving, guileless gurgles.

She looks at the without-life’s face, then hands it to me.

With a shake of my head, I indicate the already organized sequence on the ground before me and behind her, but she refuses to move. I frown and indicate again, but this time, she holds the without-life out to me, insisting.

“P… pl… please.”

Confusion fuses my feet to the ground.

I hear this messenger speak the way I sometimes hear the air speak, but I also hear her the way I hear the sun speak, and compulsion more than thought pushes my arms outward to take the tiny without-life and to lay it down far from the larger hole and near to my hut and to dig a smaller one for it and to look back behind me to see the messenger smiling through the rivers that run down her face and all throughout the gloaming as I lay the without-lifes into the earth’s mouth and complete my duty work punishment being, I hear the roar, the rush, beneath the messenger’s simple word. I hear the “please,” but I also hear the other thing.

I hear her tell me, “We share blood.”

The messenger leaves and is a long time gone before I walk over to where she stood and, with great hesitation, I approach where she stood and turn so that I am facing the mouth I have dug for the earth. And I step backward, first one foot and then the other, fitting into the groove left by her toes and her heels and I am standing where she was standing and the fit is perfect.

Air whispers warning into my muscles, tries to pry me free of this place, but I resist. I refuse.

I need to be here.

The air recoils around me, blasts outward. I smell newness, taste it on my tongue. I do not know what is waiting for me, but I stand and the sun falls lower and lower, preparing to split itself for the moon’s passage, and stars begin to adorn the night sky and voices appear, buffeting an already unsteady air, turning him into wind, and this is new and I like new and I need new.

Then they appear.

The Others.

They emerge—one from the forest behind me, one from the ground before me, one from the air above me. And each has a shovel in their hands and they dig and they move in a circle as they dig, etching a spiral into the undisturbed earth. The Others. The also-me’s.

The also-me’s move their mouths. During the night, time is different and the same. The Now cradles the After, so I know that when I see what they’re saying, that they are saying, “Free me, free me,” I know that they have come from the future to say this thing to me. I am looking at the After. An After.

I feel the night moon first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the sky, below which the ground is hard and black and impervious to wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how I recognize its voice. I remember it has been teaching me, but I don’t remember what it has been teaching me.

The ogbanje brings misfortune. It brings death. The ogbanje is not new here, has been here all along. You must find its iyi-uwa and destroy it to be free.

How, Moon?

Dig.

And moonlight makes silver the ground outside the entrance to my hut.

The Others look up from their digging and face me. Dig, they say. Dig dig dig dig dig.

I know I need to remember, but I remember that forgetting is part of this order, and I need not to forget and how will I remember to dig dig dig dig dig

IV.

I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me.

Outside my hut and into the clearing is stillness.

I know there is forest beyond this clearing, but I know this without seeing it, because there is only fog and out of this fog steps me.

It is a me, but it is a me that wavers, whose edges cannot stay still. A half-me. And it is grinning, but fighting against its grin. And me and I have the same sun-tongued skin, but his is made of fog, of wisp, and though its color sings to me, I see through it to the mist beyond. Still, it feels like so much of the force I have felt around me (for how long?) is concentrated in this half-me. It is a darkness and a half-ness at the same time.

“Tell me what you saw, gravedigger.” Half-me’s voice. An aberration fighting against the air rather than a smoothness cutting through it. It is garbled. The air resists it. It sounds like poison. “When the traitor moon held dominion, tell me what you saw.”

And, suddenly, it comes to me: the division of night and day and I am remembering that there are four days and that I was supposed to be asleep for the night and somewhere deep and far away but I was where I am standing now outside my hut with my shovel in hand and I am looking at…

“Tell me what you saw, gravedigger.”

“I do not know,” I say in return because it is the truth.

“It is important that you tell me, because I need your help, gravedigger. You are the only one who can do what I need.”

“But I do not know your name.”

“You do not need to know my name.”

In a flash, I remember the night and I see man-shapes moving in the darkness, their mouths forming around words I can almost hear and each of them is digging and there are three of them and I am supposed to be the fourth and “supposed” covers the entire memory, coats it in duty and order. But something is speaking to me in the memory and I am hearing a word.

“I am…”

“You are ogbanje.”

And the ogbanje grows solid for just a moment before returning to half-ness.

I have spoken its name and its name carries power and this is new and I like new. “Now, ogbanje, what do you want?”

“New gods are coming. They are without color, and they mean to displace us.”

“Us?”

“You do not know, gravedigger? You are not god, but you have god in you. These new gods, they are the color of bone and they are hungry for blood and they devour and devour and devour and they set brother against brother and they tear families asunder and their entire purpose is disorder. They claim they operate out of love for those who pray to them but theirs is a jealous, cruel love. They break what they love, and they rejoice in it. Gravedigger, help me fight them. It is your duty, gravedigger.” The ogbanje looks over his shoulder, and then is gone.

The fog lifts.

A messenger appears carrying a tiny without-life. She is trying to keep the rivers from falling down her face, but she is failing.

There is a mouth in the earth behind me, but I do not remember digging it. And it is filled with without-lifes but I do not remember putting them there. But this child, I am supposed to put it there with the rest, and this messenger holding it out to me wants me to do differently, this I know. So I take the tiny without-life from her hands, gingerly, and set it on a plot near to my hut, and I dig a small hole for it, a more delicate mouth so that the earth will be gentle when consuming this one.

And I know I am doing the correct thing because there is learning in my bones and a message given to me by the moon. The ogbanje brings misfortune. Break its iyi-uwa. Be free.

V.

I feel the morning sun first in the bones of my shoulders, and then the high of my back and, when I turn to face the clearing where the clay is soft and red and ready for wounding, I feel it on my face. This is how it talks to me. It says the same thing over and over again, but it is enough: We share blood.

When the messengers appear, some of them wear olive-green military uniforms only a shade or two lighter than the leaves of the forest behind them. Some bare their arms to the sun, others cover their whole bodies. Some of the without-lifes are similarly dressed. But some are dressed otherwise, in loose t-shirts or in dresses or in pants and blouses or in agbadas or in close-fitting dashikis.

There is something I am supposed to know. Deception hangs somewhere in this clearing. There is something someone I am not to trust, whose commands I am not to obey.

I take the without-lifes one by one and deposit them in the earth’s mouth and the air carves steps for me inside the earth’s cheek and eases my walk to the earth’s lips and so I go back and forth back and forth until the earth’s mouth is nearly full and one messenger holds out a tiny without-life, and epiphany is within reach. I know there is a thing I am supposed to know and this child contains it, so I take the tiny without-life and watch the last messenger retreat into the woods and I know that these without-lifes have been touched by war and there is the musk of foreign godsbreath about them, that gods are battling somewhere far away outside the bounds of my universe and the someones who look like me are warring against the someones whose skin is the same color as bone and I know this because I have been doing this work this being for a long time, and I am not startled to realize this.

I lay the child down in a plot near to my hut and dig. And I dig a deep deep hole for the tiny without-life, and suspicion pushes me to continue digging, digging past that moment where the sun begins its splitting to provide passage for the moon, and I am still digging and suddenly air presses hard on my shoulders and kicks the back of my knees and my sweat has turned me into a glowing thing and I can barely move for the tiredness that afflicts me. And my eyelids grow heavy, but I must stay awake I must keep digging I must

Darkness falls. Not complete darkness but almost. And I look up to the sky to see a ring of light around a dark sphere and the moon is telling me you have seven times seven times seven times seven breaths to find it. And the earth roars wrongness, and the air screams, and I know the ogbanje is near because also-me’s sprout from the air and the ground, and a single beam of light swings into the forest.

I run and as I enter the forest, strength returns. The shade. I am protected from the sun, whom I remember I must not trust.

But the beam of light I followed is split into many.

Dig, I am told.

But where?

I leap to the farthest beam and paw at the ground. I am running out of time. The beams are growing thinner, weaker.

Dig, I am told. Dig dig dig dig.

I stop. That voice. That voice that touches my ear and my heart at the same time. I know that voice. It is the sun’s voice. The lying sun’s voice. I have been deceived. The iyi-uwa is elsewhere.

I walk back to the clearing and I walk over the mouth I had earlier dug for the earth and I do not worry it will open back up again and swallow me, and the air buffets me, but I know I am stronger than it because I have god in me and I approach that plot near to my hut where I last buried the tiny without-life, where I have buried many tiny without-lifes. And I take my shovel and I plunge it into the earth, but the earth does not yield and I stab again and again but still, nothing. And the air is screaming and my arms are screaming as I stab and stab, then toss my shovel away and come to my knees and dig with my hands and, to my surprise, the earth yields and still the sun and moon duel and I dig and dig and dig.

“They will win,” the ogbanje says to me.

I look up and see it crouched before me, on the other side of the hole I am digging.

“If you break this cycle, the other gods will win.”

I block my ears.

The ogbanje reaches for me, but its fingers pass through my wrist. “They will win and this world will die. Those you share blood with will be trapped and they will not be born again and they will die forever and is that what you want?”

I dig and dig because I want to be free. I want to exist outside of my duty. I want to be something someone somewhere else. I am tired of seeing those who share my blood broken and bloodied, whose only destiny is to be buried. I want it to stop.

“If you break this cycle, who will watch your people?”

And that’s when I find it. A circle. Fragments of bone strung together by a thread. And a memory strikes me, a memory so deep inside me that only I could have put it there, could have negotiated and navigated the bones and organ and muscle and pieces of self, rounded the corridors and climbed the ladders and crawled over the roofs and dug the tunnels, to put it there. And I touch it and the circle with four bone fragments in it, joined by string, is mine is me is my child. My own child. And the ogbanje howls because I have touched it. I have touched my child. My tiny without-life. And I remember that I buried it because I was promised that if I took these parts of my child and put them here I would see my child again and my child would no longer be gone forever, and it was is a bargain that I made and seemed happy in making because I loved this child I was sun-swallowed with love for this child and wanted nothing more than to see them again and I remember the love and how deep it went and how much it surrounded me how tightly it held me and it is almost enough to push my hand off the iyi-uwa and cover this hole and forget but I grab it and I squeeze and pain and blood dripping and I squeeze even more and then breaking it breaking me breaking everything everything breaking.

It is not quite dreaming, never that.

But it is a moving darkness.

Patterns repeat, symbols of light surround me, and they are explaining things to me. And they are explaining that I was once a someone who made a bargain and enlisted a malevolent spirit to get a thing I was never supposed to have. And they are explaining to me how my want killed villages and murdered cities and cast death down through generations. And they are explaining how the moon took pity on me and sought to rescue me from my punishment. And as they are telling me of my child, I am asking more and more about this child and I am being taught that my child was golden and their hair was curled and their eyes the most beautiful brown and that they giggled cumulus clouds. And I am asking and asking and asking until I realize I am trying to have as much of this child as I can and yet it is still not enough never enough and they are telling me more and more and then I am remembering that the child my child is gone forever and I am broken and I am asking how I can see my child again.

And they are telling me.

(Editors’ Note: “The Fifth Day” is read by Joy Piedmont and Tochi Onyebuchi is interviewed by Haddayr Copley-Woods on the Uncanny Magazine Podcast Episode 30B.)

Tochi Onyebuchi

Tochi Onyebuchi is the author of the young adult novel Beasts Made of Night and its sequel, Crown of Thunder, the former winning the Ilube Nommo Award for Best Speculative Fiction Novel by an African. He is a graduate of Yale University, New York University’s Tisch School of the Arts, Columbia Law School, and L’institut d’études politiques. His fiction has appeared in Asimov’s Science Fiction, Omenana, and other places. His nonfiction has appeared in Nowhere Magazine, Tor.com, and Uncanny Magazine. His latest novel, War Girls, is forthcoming from Razorbill in Fall 2019. And his adult debut, Riot Baby, is forthcoming from Tor.com in January 2020.

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