“Shh. They will hear you.”
“They won’t. Nne says they never hear us.”
Oma and I are perched on the tail of a leaf on the outskirts of the tree’s walls. The leaf gives a slight sway beneath our weight. Our eyes sweep in the sea of bodies splashing against one another as Eke market fills up. The vault of heaven brims with colours, white and azure.
Beneath us, our kind – the older ones – are preparing to join the market. They beat their insect bodies, flapping until a glow sprouts from the tawny wings and feathers. They touch the dust and smear it on their faces. This makes a shining effect on the nose and jaw. They file towards the Ray, a bright red spot that has marked our species’ passage into the human realm for many centuries, long before Eke – our great mother and the goddess of all life was nurtured. They heave their bodies upwards and drop into the Ray.
We see them almost instantly walking into the market. No longer as minute flies with paper wings, wiry legs and leafy brows, but as humans – adults, grown people, each wearing a body and gender of their choosing, hair neatly tucked underneath a scarf or cropped close to the skull. The transformation always dimples our skin with tremors of shock and wonder, and of impatience.
“You can’t go down to Eke market until you are five hundred years old,’ Nne always says.
“And now?” Oma, my younger sibling asks to reaffirm how long.
“A little over two hundred.”
“And Ugo?” my sibling asks for me.
“Three hundred,” Nne mutters, busying their hands with scraping the yams.
Now in their human form, we watch as the older insects start to trickle into the market. The crowds triple, and the space grows quite cramped to bear such throng. Some stand at the four cardinal points of Eke, pulling fortune strings towards the market. They obtrude their bodies forward, arms outstretched, then drag an invisible charge crammed with luck towards themselves, and Eke. They pull people also, the reason for such a crowd. They buy off wares from humans visiting the market, and many bare their teeth after them in gratifying smiles. We scurry back into the tree at the sound of a bong. Food hour.
“Why do they have to go all the time?” Oma asks, hurrying to catch up with me, their breath catching in between their words.
“It is what we are. Eke’s children, the market guards. We make sure that everyone who visits the market leaves satisfied.”
“What if we leave the tree, like Neke and Ora?”
“Shh. People will hear you.” A door crackles open in reluctance but falls back without a body materialising. Perhaps, whoever was behind the door changed their mind.
“No, they won’t,” Oma persists, their labrum narrow and hard with stubbornness. Their wings puff, glossy in the poor light of the winding path leading to our hut.
“When you leave the tree, what will you become?” Oma’s voice pokes at me.
We walk by the Ray. I avert my eyes, afraid that one more glance at it will melt me therein, as I am flung to where it pleases.
I think of Neke and Ora always – two young ones from our generation. Sometimes of the ancestors in Nne’s tales who have dared to leave the tree permanently, but mostly of Neke and Ora. Our tree must have felt inadequate for them. They must have wanted a life beyond playing guards and fuelling the commercial blessings of humans.
It is banned to discuss or admire them. Yet, Oma and I constantly find a private moment to include them in our conversations.
Where do you think they went? Do you think they will be as real as the humans we see in Eke market? What would they look like?
Oma and I also think about what we might be.
Nne often says that Oma is bold and outspoken. The Ray may turn them into a human girl. I may become a boy. I remember Nne’s tales of the market people, their honest work and honest swindles.
“Human beings are complex.”
“How?” Oma and I chorus.
“They do not always mean their words. When they say they are dead while in a conversation with you, it is not death they mean in the true sense. It is something lesser but significant still. It could mean trouble or a joke.”
Oma and I find this human character quite unappealing. We make fun of it sometimes when we are alone. It is tasking especially because we always mean the things we say. We give it up after a while.
“Did you go to the gate?” Nne asks when we walk in, our crime penned across their face. Their voice booms from the roof. I look up at them on a wood board across the ceiling. “Have I not warned you not to go there?”
Nne hasn’t. Still, we know the fate awaiting anyone caught at the gate. They struggle to swallow their agitation. They talk about shame and how it hovers around our heads like a halo – Oma’s halo the thicker. We bow our heads and touch their knees. Their mood lightens and a glimmer of forgiveness fills their eyes.
We drink latex juice after a meal of roasted cocoyam. We join the rest of the younger insects and make our way to the square for the lessons. Our families are mostly single-unit: one parent takes charge of grooming their children. Those who have been kissed and transformed by the heat of the Ray often choose to be identified by the gender they take on while in the market. Nne had been a woman in the market, but they choose to remain without a gender, to be neutral.
At sundown, as the moon throws a dispassionate light on the world, our market people tumble in through the Ray. Their scent of fatigue and hard work pervade our tree. They must return by sundown, as stated by the unwritten law of the Ray, or they will never make it through. Their wings will either amass weight and not be able to spiral upwards the Ray’s passage, or they will remain in human form and never return to us.
I no longer desire Oma’s company. I slip away while the returnees spill stories of their experiences at the market. I waddle on the hay in the central farm. Twice I cast brief glances behind me to ensure I am not leaving tracks for anyone who might follow. The ridges for the yams are drawn tight against one another like corn rows. It is not yet the season, but it promises a large harvest. I walk beyond the farm and plop down on a rock. The sharpness its edges once wore tamed by the weather and use.
I think I’m waiting for something, for a time perhaps, I’m not sure. The clouds presage night, the orange corners darken to ginger shades and backdrop the grey sky. In the fading light, I whip up Neke and Ora in my imagination. Two half-human adults walk the coastline of my thoughts. Neke has taken a masculine form. Ora has not taken any gender. They – Neke of tortilla brown shade and Ora, the caramel coloured one with hair stretched and sprawled on their neck, appear happy as they trot along, their heads close and buried in their conversation.
“Everyone will leave,” Nne says sometimes. “But not now. Not in our age.”
There are prophecies carried to us from the sunken lips of old seers, about how something called a church would erupt and demand that our tree be cut down, all our homes and histories crushed with the blade of an axe. It is not this revelation that irks me. It is having to be trapped here forever, hovering until the five hundredth year. A shudder runs through me and I heave myself up from the rock. The darkness tightens its fists around the huts. I walk past two elders who are too engrossed with their discussion to see me. The gates to the Ray are shut, but the great red glows through the thicket, the large mouth beckoning on me. I slip through an opening in the thicket. There are no guards in sight. I spare a thought for Nne, and Oma – my talkative sibling. I love the tree, but the path that courses its track through the Ray, though dreary and unpredictable, appears to hold a more interesting version to my essence.
I float in oblivion along a time, rocking back and forth on twigs and feathers, crashing into objects I do not recognise. It may have been long before I open my eyes to a group of humans whose blurred faces stick together above me in awe and shock.
“Someone abandoned a baby here,” a woman says.
“I am not a baby,” I try to retort, but what pours from my throat is a sea of gurgles.
I am not under our tree. Instead, I am lying at a roadside where four-wheeled engines roar past. As time goes by, the human sounds pour into my ears. Nne’s words ring clearly: You cannot go down to Eke market until you are five hundred years old.
A woman peers at me and runs a hand over my thighs. A black veil pushes down, swiping at my memories. Nne, Oma, Eke and others grow into faint thoughts I struggle to hold on to.
“It’s a boy,” the woman says. “The baby is a boy.”