I fall asleep on the 4375th day after the comet, the 4287th day of the Drought.
I fall asleep watched by the international millions that remain alive, parched and online.
I fall asleep with the apparatus arranged around me. The itchiness in my scalp is numbed by medication; I barely notice it any more.
I fall asleep to dream of Oshun.
The dream begins by a stream. The shock of this almost wakes me up. The air has a wetness to it that savages my wrinkled skin; almost a third of my life has been arid. This is a good omen, I think. This thought becomes a lily in the eddying water. The water is like crystal. I have seen cut glass that will reflect prisms of light across walls. This water is a constant traffic of rainbows, cutting each other off, mingling, sparkling. I am dazzled. Is that movement in the water? Something flickers – a scaly tail? Have I just seen a fish? I remember the stench of dying fish, drying and asphyxiating in the empty riverbeds at the beginning of the Drought. I haven’t dreamt of fish since then.
I look around. What form will the dream take? I have decided to use the concept of Oshun, a goddess of renewal, as a cipher for the dream. Despite the river, despite the fish, I am still anxious. I have never attempted dream healing on this scale. The science is still so highly theoretical that it is almost magic. ‘But what do we have to lose?’ said Oyelade as he prepared my medication. ‘The world is already dying.’
I kneel in the thick mud beside the water. The mud compresses under my weight and water fills in the depressions I make. I am almost too awed to touch the water. My bare skin shrinks away from the water’s touch at first, and then, shivering, I cannot stop myself from flinging myself face down into the mud.
I look up: a woman, skin the colour of redwood trees in a forest at midnight, sits next to me on a seat of juicy grasses with her legs crossed in front of her. She is looking directly at me. Her eyes are clear, moist white and rich brown. Her hair is wrapped in folds of a green and yellow cloth. The cloth is printed with a fish motif: the little blue fishes swim in and out of the folds. Her hair is twisted into long shining tendrils that float and bob to the flow of an invisible tide. She is wearing no clothes apart from a gold coloured rope knotted around her hips. It has things attached to it but I am dazzled for the second time in this dream and cannot make out what they are. Her skin is dazzling me. Her body is covered in a golden sheen that shimmers as she breathes. This, combined with her nakedness, has a powerful effect on me. I lower my vision to the ground.
I become aware of the absolute silence in this dream. The stream makes no noise. I cannot hear my own breathing. There is nothing else in my ears to hear, so the words that the woman spoke hit me like a drum beat. I hunger to hear sound again.
‘I have fallen asleep to dream of Oshun,’ I say. The words come out in a language that I do not know. It’s familiar to me, it’s my grandfather’s language, but I have never learnt it.
‘That’s new,’ the woman says. ‘I am Oshun. I don’t think I have been invoked like this before.’ She laughs, but not out loud. She keeps the sound in her throat. It’s like hearing an animal move about unseen in a bush. ‘You seem,’ she pauses, ‘thirsty.’ She laughs again. ‘Have you come to ask me for water?’
I tremble. Is my own imagination mocking me? I remember my training and succumb to the dream reality.
‘I – have,’ I say, struggling to think of a way to address this apparition. ‘There is a drought. It’s been going on for many years. We have succeeded in manufacturing water chemically but only enough for our basic survival. The world is dying. I have come here to try to find a solution.’ I don’t know what else to tell her. I look up. Her face is darker, as though a cloud has passed over casting just her head in its shadow. Her poetic mouth has a suggestion of sadness in the curve of her lips.
‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ says the goddess. ‘This has happened before,’ she says and she selects an item from her belt. I can see now that it is a magnificent peacock tail feather. She pulls the feather down between two fingers in a fluid movement that emphasises its startling colours.
‘Shall I tell you about it, little one?’ she asks me. Suddenly she stands up and walks over to me. Her hips bounce and sway. I cower, unable to imagine her intentions, but all she does is stoke my scabby head gently. I daren’t look up.
Her body is close to me and smells of cocoa butter. She begins to tell me her story.
‘We created a world. It was beautiful. We put all of our efforts into creating a world with beauty and love. People were happy, there was plenty to eat and drink. There was plenty of room for everyone, humans and animals and Orishas to live side by side. That was our intention, but things change. We can’t control it all.
‘My brother and sister Orishas thought that we could. Oludumare, the spirit of the universe, had the final say in any changes to be made, but we ignored it. We knew what was best didn’t we? We were there, living among the world’s creatures. And so we made whatever changes we wanted to. For me, I only wanted the world to be as beautiful as I know it can be. This world has so much potential.
‘What was Oludumare to do faced with our indifference? It had no intention of relinquishing its power over us. It took the rain away. Now you shake. This is something you are familiar with child?
‘What did we care? We didn’t take this seriously; after all didn’t we help to create this world? Surely we could manage without the rain. And then the plants began to die. Soon the animals were dying. The ground itself was unrecognisable to us. Everything around us seemed drained of its essence. It was terrifying. And then the people began to die. No one sang songs for us or danced for us anymore. There were no gifts or tributes. I believe that the people wanted to worship us, but they just had no energy and nothing to give.
‘We finally decided to ask Oludumare for forgiveness. We didn’t know how we could get a message to him ourselves: my brothers and sisters had spent so long in this world that we had forgotten how to fly. And so we gathered up all the remaining birds in the world. One by one we sent the birds off with messages begging Oludumare for the rain. One by one the birds fell back to the Earth, dead and burnt. The last bird was my peacock. I had raised this bird from its egg; he was very dear to me. The other Orishas had not pressed for my little bird to be sent on this mission. He was so fragile and pretty that none of them could imagine that he would even be able to fly as high as a tree. I trusted the little thing when it came to me and insisted it could succeed, but it broke my heart to send it on a suicide mission.
‘“We are all dying anyway,” I said to my pet, “I am going to come with you.” And so I made a golden harness, I made myself small and set myself on the back of the bird. We set off to find Oludumare. The first part of our journey was tiring but we made it with few problems. And then we hit a searing wall of fire near to the sun. My poor bird’s feathers were scorched. The smell of the poor thing’s body burning has stayed with me even now. I made myself big again and surrounded the bird with my body. In my panic to protect my little bird I remembered how to fly myself. Eventually we managed to find Oludumare’s palace and we crashed in a heap of bones and cooking flesh onto the floor.
‘It was shocked when it saw us, and even more when it heard what had happened to our world. It did not know that we’d forgotten how to fly. I realised that what we had taken as a punishment was perhaps worse: Oludumare had long ago forgotten about our conceited enclave in our little world.
‘It gave me ointment for my wounds, but it was too late to save my peacock. The bird died from its injuries. Oludumare was sorry for the death of the brave bird. It gave me this feather and showed me a safe path back to the world. I attached a drop of water from the fountain in its courtyard to my belt. Using the rhythm that flows through rivers I danced back to the world along that safe path. The drop of water jiggled and splashed around my hips, leaving a trail from that world to my world. The trail became the rivers, lakes and oceans. The splashing of that droplet became rain showers and storms. By the time that I returned to the world the forests and fields were green. The animals and birds were alive again, and running and flying around with helpless joy. The people were inventing new dances to express their happiness and gratitude.
‘I see that your people have found a new path from one world to another. That’s wonderful. I’m sorry that you have been forced to look for it.’
Oshun’s story is ended. She is still standing with her hand on my head, and I am looking deferentially down, at the mud squeezing up between my toes. When the silence extends I realise that she is not going to say any more. I look up and fall backwards in shock. Oshun’s skin is sagging off her body. The golden shimmer has been replaced by a greasy yellow pallor. Her flowing tendrils of hair and beautiful head wrap are gone, replaced by a flaking, burnt, hairless scalp. Her eyes are dark holes sunk back into her skull, and her full lips are now cracked and bleeding.
‘Little thing,’ Oshun says. Her voice is a beat that my heart marks time to. ‘Little thing, you should wake up now.’
I wake up with sound in my ears. People are screaming? People are yelling.
I wake up to the sensation of the apparatus crackling around my head, it’s like cellophane crunching.
I wake up in the middle of the sound of a metal tray sliding from a surface beside me.
Then I hear it. Rushing, whooshing, running water. My eyes are open and the surface of the panoramic window opposite my gurney is sliding downwards. It’s water. It’s rain. The weather has broken. People are hugging and crying. I can’t get up as the apparatus is part of me and weighs me down. So I lie there on the gurney, facing the window, and stare at the world outside made fluid.
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