It was midnight now as they cruised through the Lagos roads that bustled with energy even when the sun had gown down and the night had come out to play.
They were on their way to get the Words of Obaledo and Coal seemed especially in a bad mood, but, when didn’t he? His grip on the steering was tight as he clutched and turned.
Star just looked at the windshield as lampposts flashed by them and she searched her heart.
She didn’t hate him.
And that hit her like a moving truck. He did horrible things to her and her mother. He hurt her for years and she had to practise putting makeup to hide the bruises, to hide the cuts. There were days, weeks, in the rainy season that her mother wore thick sunglasses.
He made her feel ugly, and fat and unloved. But after all that, after all that, there was still some part of her that remembered the times he’d come to the room and he’d read to her when her mother was asleep.
When she was young and still afraid of the dark, he had brought her in to sleep in the bed with him and her mother. He had sung her to sleep that night. His voice wasn’t the best, and there were moments when he’d forget the lyrics and mumble his way through, but he sung it beautifully, a song about Jesus on one of his travels, and she’d drifted to sleep that night, holding her father’s side as he stroked her hair…
“Are you listening?” Coal prodded and Star jolted up.
“Yeah, yeah,” she said. “I’m here, I’m listening.”
Coal glanced at her. “You were dozing off.”
“I wasn’t,” Star glared back.
“You were,” Coal said.
“I was not.”
“I saw you,” he said, “with my own eyes.”
Star folded her arms. “Well, you saw wrong.”
“But, how — ”
“You were saying something before.”
Coal sighed and shook his head, slowing down the car. “I was telling you to be cautious and not to trust whatever you saw. And, again, do not, tell her your name.”
“Tell who?” Star asked as Coal parked the car near a street corner, unclasping his seat belt.
“You’ll see,” he said, getting out of the car. Star rolled her eyes, undid her belt, and followed him. He was standing there, waiting and locked the doors with the key as he turned and started walking towards the bridge.
“You just love being dramatic, don’t you?” Star said, and Coal shrugged, but there was a small smile there as he continued walking towards the bridge.
“We’re walking to the bridge?” Star groaned. “Why didn’t we just drive. Third mainland is long.”
“Really?” He said. “I didn’t know. Wow, you don’t say.”
Star glared and Coal rolled his eyes. “She’ll sense them if we get too near, the ingredients. She’ll taste it in the air and then we’ll have a problem on our hands.” Coal looked at her, “and now, you’re about to ask who Obaledo is.”
Star’s shoulders dropped. “Yes.”
They crossed the road, narrowly avoiding cars as they got on the pavement and began walking. Star’s hands were on the railing and she was looking at the water. Coal walked straight, his hands in his pocket.
They walked in silence for a few moments before Coal finally spoke, his voice was dark. “She lived in a small village, around the east, maybe two, three hundred years ago.”
“Wow,” Star breathed, “she’s old.”
Coal nodded. “Very. And angry. And dangerous. Something happened to her…something bad, twisted. And she became what she is now.”
Star looked at Coal, “What is she now?”
Coal looked at Star for a moment and then he broke it off, walking a bit faster. “Nobody knows.” And then, something clicked with Star. Coal’s demeanour, the tightening of the steering, his mood.
He wasn’t angry, Coal was scared.
And that terrified her.
Anyone that could worry the walking block of ice was not someone she wanted to meet.
Coal’s walking slowed and he said, quietly, “Remember what I told you,” he said. And Star nodded.
She didn’t see her at first but as they walked closer, it was like she blurred into focus from thin air. She was a slender woman swathed in shadows with a veil covering her head so only her dark red eyes were visible. She was standing near the railing with both of her hands closed tight around it as she watched the sea. Her fingernails were long and black like the material that covered her skin.
Coal and Star approached slowly until they were a few feet away and decided that, really, that was as close as they should get.
“I come here to rest,” she said, her voice like a razor. “I like watching the water lap against the shores. I like seeing it rage and pour, I like the sound it makes as it churns. It was here before the people and it will be here after. I come here to watch it because I can feel it in my bones. But, most of all,” she looked at them now, “I come here to be alone. What do you children want?”
Coal looked at Star and then Obaledo again and he laughed a little. “There’s only one child here,” he said, “and it’s not me.”
Obaledo left the railing and in one step impossibly covered the distance between them. She was a good two heads taller than Coal and she loomed over him. “I was born before your family line even began. So, when I see you, I see nothing but a child.”
“Hi, Miss…Obaledo,” Star waved and Obaledo looked at her. “My name is Star and that’s Coal,” she pointed. “We came here for… your help.”
The woman glanced at Coal once more and approached Star, kneeling to be at her eye level. “What do you want, child?”
“We’re looking for your…words.”
Star couldn’t see her mouth but she could tell that woman was smiling, or at least the closest thing to that. “Are you sure you can handle that?” She asked. “My words are heavy, and can only be carried with a pure heart. Is your heart pure?”
Obaledo looked at Star now and their eyes locked. Star felt her breath slow and her heart threaten to burst through her ribcage. Beads of sweat rolled down her head and Star knew it then, that every moment in her life before now, when she had felt scared, she had been fooling herself. This was real fear, it trapped you in its tracks and froze you in place.
Instinctively, her hand went to her neck.
Obaledo observed that movement. “Hmm,” she said.
Coal stepped between them. “Enough,” he said. “Please, ancient one,” he said with great effort, “we need your words.”
“Will you carry them?” Obaledo said as she rose to her full height.
Coal paused for a while, then, “I will.”
“Your heart must be pure,” Obaledo said. “You know that, do you not?”
Coal nodded. “I do.”
Obaledo cocked her head. “Cup your hands,” she said.
Coal did what she said and Obaledo brought her hands to her lips and whispered. She brought her hands down and in them was a ball of pure light that bubbled and blurred. She passed it on to Coal who groaned and screamed under its weight, but hold it he did.
“Interesting,” was all Obaledo said.
Coal winced as he held the light in his hand. And Star stared at him, her mouth open.
Obaledo went back to looking at the water, her hands again at the railing. “Leave me. Now.”
And they did.
As they walked down the bridge, cars were moving to and fro on the bridge but all of that was a blur to Star as she watched Coal grind his teeth, sweating as they walked, as he struggled to carry, a tiny ball of light.
“It’s hurting you,” Star said.
“It’s…. fine,” he managed to say. “Just…a little…more.”
Star looked at how much they had had to go and doubted Coal could keep it up.
They continued walking.
A few steps after, Coal stopped in his tracks and fell to one knee. “Oh gods,” he breathed and Star could see that his eyes had gone red with exhaustion, veins showing on his head. His whole body was smoking as he held on, there was blood dripping from his nose.
Star stopped and started panicking. Coal seemed frozen, his head up at the sky as he started to shake. What would she do? What would she…?
A pure heart.
She took in a deep breath. Coal groaned.
A pure heart.
She let the breath out. She swallowed. Coal screamed.
A pure heart.
“Help…me,” Coal begged. And Star did. She took the ball of light from Coal as he let out a deep sigh and his body stopped shaking. She looked at the ball of light in her hands and found that it weighed nothing, and everything.
She understood, then.
It fit in her head like the pieces of a puzzle she didn’t know she’d lost. She could see it, hear it now, the secrets that were whispered through the universe. The words weren’t special on their own, they were special because Obaledo said them. Because she chose to hold on to a story that the universe itself tried to hide. It was her story, of a small girl, in a small village, who had her beauty stolen from her, by a demon who came from the water. A demon she would never see again, no matter how long she waited.
Star gasped. The light became hot, and then it started to burn. It racked through her memories, her spirit. And she screamed through the pain, as it coursed through her self. She wanted to touch her neck, she realised. She was scared and lost and tired and all she wanted to do was touch her neck but she didn’t know why.
Why was she doing this? Why was she going through all of this?
That was it. That was why she endured.
Because her mother had endured for her.
And so, she would endure too.
You didn’t leave when things got hard. She taught her that.
She was crying now, she knew. But she kept on walking, kept on moving. It was what her mother did, what she was doing.
“Star,” Coal whispered softly, holding the black satchel in front of her. “You can let go now. It’s okay.”
And Star let go, slowly, as the ball of light dropped into the satchel. She let out a breath she didn’t know she’d been holding and got into the car as she broke down, and cried.
At some point, Coal entered the car but Star didn’t care. She just allowed herself cry it out.
Her mother was really gone. She was really dead.
She sat up and let out a breath, and wiped her eyes with her sleeve.
Not for long, she would get her back. All she needed were the ingredients. And she would fix this.
She had to.
“That was brave,” Coal said quietly as he stared at his hands. “It could have killed you.”
“All her pain and anguish leak into her words,” he continued. “You need a pure heart to withstand it or…or else, they leak into you.”
Star forced a smile. “At least we got it,” she said, giving Coal a thumbs up. “And neither of us died.”
Coal nodded and gave a small smile. “True,” he said and as he looked at the rear-view mirror about to reverse, the smile dropped like dead weight and he tore off the seatbelt, jumping out of the car.
Star groggily got up to see what was happening and pushed the door out of the way, putting one foot in front of the other. She got out and froze when she saw what she saw.
It was Coal, being pressed against the boot of the car by a hand.
She looked at Star now and though she could only see her eyes. She knew she was smiling.
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