'Let us go into the water.'
The coolness beckoned her and so she went, following Keise’s naked form. He was quickly becoming a blur and she had to squint to keep the lines on him, keep his edges in so he wouldn't seep into everything else. She focused on what was coming through her left eye, the vision of the right being the worst of the two. Maikulu said that eyes like hers usually got worse and would get marginally better with age. Cisengu was mostly glad she could still see her body.
She stopped briefly at the edge; the gentle warmth of kalunga washing her feet. She could see him better now, brown darkness against blue, blue, white. She let Keise draw her towards him; the feel of the sea thrumming up through her, guiding her to him. She thought of how she must look now, mouth wide in a smile, waist deep in the shallows, the circles of white and brown shells around her neck glittering in the wet, her deep red-brown darkness against the blue and the sand, arms reaching out to him, brass rings at her wrists glinting in the sun.
She really tried not to think about her chest.
Keise became hazy again.
Whenever Nzinga a Nkuwu, the Bakongo king, had called Enyama, the chief of Lembe to Mbanza Kongo, sometimes Maikulu would have to follow. No chief would attempt to travel such a distance to the Bakongo capital without a ocimbanda and it was known by all that Maikulu - like all like her and Cisengu - was highly talented in matters of spirits. And so when last Maikulu had returned from Mbanza Kongo, she had come back with a tincture and some brewing leaves for Cisengu.
Maikulu knew that sometimes Cisengu watched the other women and felt like she was being worn away inside, like uncountable spirits gnawing inside her. Knew that sometimes she felt her shape was all wrong. Knew also that sometimes she delighted in her shape. So in the city she had spoken with ocimbanda like herself - the best of the healers and the mind-workers - and had been taught how to make this medicine. Drinking the medicine weekly, and the leaves daily might, and Maikulu had stressed this word, reduce hair growth. Cisengu’s chin had only just begun to sprout hair, while the ones on her arms and legs had just started to become thicker, but already she’d noticed the gnawing growing more and more intense. Maikulu had given it to soothe, yet Cisengu had found it too bitter, and the constant peripheral nausea the medicine caused was too much. Maikulu did not know when, or if this nausea would abate. As she reached for Keise, Cisengu wondered which was better: the sensation of her stomach rolling, or tiny jaws eating her stomach away.
Then Keise was there, underneath her hands, and she was feeling his hot-cool skin, the tautness of it over his arms, the not-flatness of his chest, the expanse of his back, the warmth of him in the blue; looking at the smooth flat curve of his wide nose, his lips dark and full, cheekbones wide and high, golden brown and bright with the sun. His eyes! She drank him in.
Her hand lifted to the back of his neck to pull him tight into a kiss.
Her mai’s voice came to her: ‘Cisengu, Cisengu, Cisengu. I want to say this name as many times as possible now. Soon I will never be able to call you Cisengu again.’
It was true, Cisengu would shed her name soon and become Maikulu to her people - mother to everyone’s mother. Maikulu had taught her all she could learn and so, come the new moon, Cisengu would be initiated as a full ocimbanda; a moon later, she would be leaving Lembe for Sonyo to train with a ocimbanda ongomba there, a future seer like her.
Maikulu had told her, ‘you are just not suited to healing work, omola ukai. And your body hears far better than mine ever did, your spirit can go places most of us ocimbanda cannot. Divination is your path.’
Maikulu had her own name but Cisengu did not know it; it was a name shared with and spoken only by one’s most intimate family, her wife and children. When Keise and her were partnered, they were meant to lose their present names - she would give him a new name and he would continue calling her Mityima, his heart. He had stopped calling her Cisengu so long ago, back when they were children, and now she couldn’t even remember what it sounded like from his mouth. The day after the binding ceremony her name, Cisengu, would be spoken by none.
She had felt the strange, barely-there pang of loss before when she had changed her name four or five years gone. She had been laid low by something for two moons, alternating between fevers, debilitating sadness, and a sensation like she was being eaten up from the inside - the gnawing she called it. She had been unable to move and unable to desire to move. When it did not seem she would get any better, her mai and Maikulu had both agreed that she should change her name.
‘It is your father, your isia, his spirit was taken by an esuvi,’ Maikulu had said. ‘Do away with the name your father gave you, the esuvi will not be able to affect you. Sacrifice it.’
Her isia had given her her birth name, and maybe that was also why her mai did not struggle to let it go like Cisengu had - her mai had never cared much for her partner. In the end, and near Cisengu’s end, she and her mai changed it, changed her just slightly. But since her name change ceremony she had never been that unwell, and while sometimes she still felt those small teeth, especially when she thought about her body and the other women’s body, it was never as intense. Cisengu had learnt how to avoid the gnawing, how to turn her mind away from her body and from others bodies.
Ever since becoming a woman, she had begun to feel a ringing that pushed away the gnawing. A ringing like she was vibrating in her bones, like she was multiple in one, like she had been in this place many times before and would be again, like kalunga was pressing all its vast endless weight on her, filling her entirely. She felt this ringing sometimes, in flashes, when she saw her shadow, its chest wider than hers, its hips rounder and fuller; staying with her for length of times as she and her mai unwrapped the loops of her hair and redid the thin, tight braids at the top of her head.
Maikulu called it the sounding and had said that in those moments Cisengu was feeling those that came before. That she could learn to hear voices in the ringing.
‘It was them that revealed you to me.’
Like almost all women Cisengu knew her mai had requested a cambula when she'd learned she was pregnant. The chief had sent her the most powerful ocimbanda in protection and healing, Maikulu. Though Nkinga had been pregnant twice before, she had never been able to bring either child into the world, so this time Enyama had decided he would take no chances with his future niece. Maikulu had been there with the other women when Cisengu was born, while the chief was away once more at Mbanza Kongo making war.
‘I felt them speaking to me when your cries met my ears. “She is us, she is like us, she is like you,” they told me.’ Cisengu had asked why Maikulu had chosen her to be an apprentice, how she had known Cisengu was not a male. ‘I don’t hear them often, not like you do, but I have learnt to pay attention and notice when they are trying to speak.
‘When I was younger they guided me to the ocimbanda who taught me, and they’ve saved my life twice since. They are not like the ondele or the osande, they reside within us. They hold knowledge older than our people and so they let us feel what is right for us. Listen to them with your body and your spirit, Cisengu, not your ears.’
And then she had flicked Cisengu’s ear.
Cisengu had come down to the ocean to prepare for Sonyo, to gather elements to finish her ongombo. She had managed, thankfully, to collect some medicine-fruits and bark for Maikulu and her mai, but she had gathered nothing for herself but pleasure and release. She had to find a fruiting ukua tree or milk-blue comba shells to consider this journey a success. Right now though, a doze in the sand shaded from the worst of the sun’s heat, the cool salty breeze blowing in from kalunga, Keise’s hand skimming her belly were what her body needed. Her ongombo could wait just a little longer. In fact she would be grateful if she could just stay here forever, in the only place she knew as home, with Keise, as one of the ocimbanda of Lembe.
Keise’s fingers left her skin.
The tone of his voice lifted her eyelids - only a little. She turned to him. He was looking down at her with one leg crossed under him, his hands on his other knee.
‘What would you like me to bring when I come to ask your mai and tata for you?’
Her eyes were fully open now.
‘Well you know your mai doesn’t want for much, and your tata only cares about the dowry. So it might as well be something you like.’
‘That you would say such things of your nawa,’ she feigned insult, a smile forming on her lips. They had spoken about partnering many times before; since childhood it had felt somewhat inevitable that she and Keise would partner. Even before Cisengu’s initiation into womanhood the women and girls would tease her, asking what day the partnering ceremony was taking place, or when Keise would start building a house for her. She’d swat the buzzing away with kicks and sharp words.
‘He is not yet my ndatembo.’
‘Have you even started collecting raffia? Or salt? What point is asking for me if you have nothing to give for me?’
‘Mityima, we both know you are worth more than anything anyone could ever give.’ His hand returned to her body, this time caressing the inside of her thigh.
He was being sentimental and truthful: the dowry of a ocimbanda was quite large, and she was worth more than even the chief’s daughter.
‘I have started already weaving for your fathers. And my elder siblings are helping as well. Bote and Lukinda will accompany me to Mbanza Kongo for the market. Maybe I can trade with the mundele there. Their cloth is very different from ours. Or spices? Bote says they are trading for less than the Bakongo and even less than the people from the other side of the forest.’
Her smile faded and the heat that Keise’s hand had been stoking in her groin died.
She pushed herself up, fingers sinking into cool and cooler sand. ‘I don’t think trading with the - ’ her mouth fumbled with the strange taste of the word. ‘ - Pordugesi will bring us any good fortune. Maikulu said they bring the smell of nothing with them.’
‘What does she mean?’ he asked after a pause.
‘I don't quite know.’ She chewed her lips and turned her eyes to the knife at Keise’s side.
Monkeys began screaming far off in the forest.
‘Maikulu said they are trying to poison the manikongo against us.’
‘What have we Balembe done to them?’
‘No, us. Ocimbanda like us. People like us. They say we are…’ She tried to remember the strange word Maikulu had said and failed, ‘they think of us like ekandu.’ She couldn’t understand Maikulu then and couldn’t understand now why any person would think she deserved death, or that she was like someone who would purposefully sow strife in a family.
Keise was quiet for a time and when she turned to him he had confusion and disbelief all over his face.
‘Don’t look at me like that. That’s what Maikulu told me. And that’s what the ocimbanda of Mbanza Kongo told her. They don't know either what we have done to anger them.’
‘But who will Nzinga consult for when to trade, when to go to war? Who conducts the ordeals in the capital? What do they - what do they do with their dead?’
She looked out at kalunga, vast blue endlessness. ‘They say Nzinga is not seeking counsel anymore. He turns to the mundele ever since his sons came back from across the ocean.
Another pause. Long.
‘They have only just come... It has not even been three years since they arrived on our coast.’
She began to feel that uneasiness that came whenever she spoke about the skinless people, not the biting inside she felt sometimes when she thought of her body, but a similar sort of stirring. It was closer though to the ringing. And so she knew it was those that came before warning her of a wrongness, of something out of place or something about to become out of place - the familiar becoming utter strangeness. She felt it. It was in her belly and in her bones.