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How Fast Can Earth Run? || Enit'ayanfe Ayosojumi Akinsanya

by Enit'ayanfe A. Akinsanya

The children of Ugbayi, when they left their homeland, left with strings trailing from their backs, like marionettes, tied to the brownish roofs and mud-caked poles and rafters sheltering their people. It was their promise, their filial ritual: to always come back home. No matter how far the waves of life and success carried them. In turn, the land, their mother wrapped in wind and earth and blots of cement, blessed them. Blessed them like a womb blesses an infant. The youngest of them that died slept at the stroke of ninety years. And every child that came back from the whorl glowed like a sun among peers from other lands. They mounted Ugbayi upon the hill of the world. Ugbayi’s daughters had wide hips that produced healthy children. Ugbayi itself stretched and flowered and thrived in money, health and a well-sunk peace. They had no king, and the seasons were beautiful.

    Until the season they decided to crown one. The season their pot snapped from where it hung, and unraveled into shards, scratching the flat cocoon on which the gods thought they would rest their heads and sleep undisturbed, scratching them until they bled in fury. Their king, their first in history, knocked skulls with the mothers of the land, the ones whose two hundred wrappers never touched the floor, who cried at night—their king knocked skulls with them and a new law was born. The law was ilediyi: to create a soul from a source. Every child of the land came from breakable things, different things, but one thing held them together: the earth they came from, the earth that would claim them into forever. It was also the law of love. Every child was a half until it met another, who was a half, too. If they did not meet, each would die as a half, and be judged as a half.

Love was the earth, the earth was love. That was where the children of Ugbayi came from. If they broke it, the strings at their backs would snap and they would careen into chasms, bottomless pits, where the earth would run its punishment. They knew this, and thus avoided all the things that could shred love into spread-out fingers of doom. They kept away from greed, jealousy and laziness of spirit. And so, in Ugbayi, things bloomed, dreamlike realities were shaped under the molding hands of the only law, and their king patted his crown in satisfaction.

Then, the arrival of a wealthy religious man. He was Ugbayi’s son, had made it big in the city, shaped a fortune and a family for himself. When the king, diametered by his chiefs, asked him why, he said the string that pulled everybody home had pulled him home. He came back to develop his mother’s breasts. He called on strange men from a land where their skin was the color of congealed palm oil. They brought their strange-looking machines and waited for his lead. He fell through the hills and, like a god playing with clay, propped up big buildings plated with glass. The people of Ugbayi murmured, for their mother now had glass in her breasts. Royal approval quieted the whispers, and the chiefs’ cheeks fattened. Their king gleamed with care, his ileke chimed with grace. Ugbayi’s son was strange but he was doing well.

Soon, the children of Ugbayi who had not strayed from home accepted their sibling. They grew used to his white dashiki, white tunic, white agbada, white skull cap, white shoes. They forgave his white car sleeking its nose across the hide of the earth that held them all, a hide used to the drumming of bare feet. He may have done unexpected things, but he was at least also doing the appropriate things. He did not miss his five prayers a day. He had gone to the land of the Prophet six times and returned. A modest worshipper. So modest he did not come back with any gold tooth in his mouth. He taught this to his children, how Allah wanted the heart more and the body less, because the body broke easily. He had three. And the gods proved their appetite through them all.

One was the first of two sons. He spoke in soft breaths and would only raise his voice when the other children in the house misbehaved. He oversaw his father’s companies in the big city. He and his wife had no child, but they had all the money in the world. That was the gods’ first premonition. The other son was their first meat. He had everything in the world, except the things he didn’t want to possess just yet. He was the child everybody in the house shouted on to take things easy. He rolled a clay pot around like it was a mortar, not aware that if some things didn’t break, it didn’t stop other things from breaking. He forgot the day a child loses its home. Today, if you ask the elders of Ugbayi how it happened, they would tell you he watched his neighbor burn their yams while cooking, then invited them over to help him tend his own cooking, too. He joined an armed robbery gang. They were his friends from school days. Their heists listed politicians, public officials and civil servants. They funded polytechnic and university cults. Then squandered some of the money on things they did not need. When they heard that the police now had a concrete lead on them, they spoke with their legs. The forest became their home. They were tares in the harvest of the land, everybody knew. And everybody knew how the gods of the land behaved: they closed their eyes before they judged.

They chose the day he would fulfill the law birthed on the land to strike, the day half would meet half and become one. People came from the big city, plastic white chairs filled the wealthy alhaji’s compound, and drummers started tattooing the air. The bride dripped dainty, demure smiles. She knew she must listen to the waasi before the yigi would be tied, how to be a good wife and mother, but her husband-to-be was distracting her with gentle bites of his lips on her earlobe. By the time the emissaries of the gods burst through the ornate metal gates, plain-clothes, passive aggressive, the alfas had barely recited the Hadith for union. The intruders snubbed the intervention of the high clerics decked in babariga. They brought a man in with them who pointed out the groom. They grabbed the groom and took him away. The families on both sides, smarting from the blow to their esteem, turned to the alhaji for guidance. But he mutely rose from his seat, in a plumage of white, and pointed toward the sky.

“Do you hear the muezzin calling?” he asked.

They were confused but they said, “Yes.” 

“It is time for Asr. I must go and attend to God.”

They raged at his madness. But he did what he said he had to do. Thereafter, they piled themselves into their cars, even the chiefs of the land, and vroomed to the district police station, scattering dust. The day had not only fallen on their heads, it had smeared their whites, too. Alhaji’s son in the police dragnet. For a useless crime as robbing. On his wedding day, too. Disgrace! They yelled, cajoled, entreated. But the police were adamant. The command had come from the headquarters and the officers that came to take alhaji’s son had come all the way from the city. The son must go with them. 

The bigwigs of Ugbayi fell into frenzy. The best lawyers were hired. The son of the land that had been good to his mother and to his siblings must not carry this stain on his name for too long. They allayed his fears: the sky does not refuse words; his son would not go to jail. 

    But he did.  For when the gods needed to drink, they always got blood. They knew the hunted before the hunted was born, and so it was easy for them to remain the hunters. The first son visited and gripped the metal bars and spat on his brother for mixing with the wrong broth and letting indulgence kill him and dip the family name in filth. The bride-to-be sank into a hospital bed and rewashed the sheets with her tears. How did you love a man for so long and yet you did not know him?

    On a hot day, across the winds between territories, the gods moved in for the kill. They became motes in the air, pulling along their skein, their witnesses, their brother-sisters, and eddied their way through the prison bars. They found the prone frame of the one they came for. Alhaji’s son heeded the bath of dust, a reminder of home, and sneaked into his shorts the razor the president of his cell, the Father of Prisons, used to scratch off his toenails. That night, alhaji’s second child rose, noted that the jailer’s eyes were shut in sleep. Then he teased the razor from his shorts, tore a stroke in the groove of his wrist and sighed along with his skin sighing away from his tendon. The blood sang into his prison clothes and that was when he started shrieking, gazing death in its marble face. The inmates awoke and carried him. But they were too late. Earth ran ahead, always ran ahead, when it wanted to eat. By the time the officials gathered their presence of mind, the warm color of life had filled the floor and alhaji’s son’s ankles were cold. 

    The head was irate. All the subordinate officers were rebuked for being incompetent, for making the land of Ugbayi think the government had killed one of its children. But nobody was really punished. The alhaji drowned in his pieties and said he accepted his fate. Nobody confesses to dining with a lost knife, so the matter died when he waved his hands.

    The gods patted their round bellies, sated and sedate. But the shadow of a sin never leaves the conscience of a holy land. Earth asked for more. Earth was furious. Beings that were molded from it would not be allowed to shit on it and continue to walk around in white. In the alhaji’s home, the sun had sunk to the middle of the sky. His own soul was slack, stretched thin by a grief he was terrified to name. He instructed that the gates be barred against more sympathizers trooping in for idaro. He would mourn on his prayer mat. He turned to God and prayed for forgiveness for whatever sin hung over his head, and loved his God more deeply.

The king, worried about his friend the faithful, summoned his chiefs, and they tried to crack the matter between their teeth. They couldn’t. Such a thing had never clouded the air of Ugbayi. They had to call in Adifala, the ifa diviner who had seen the coming and going of many decades of harvest in Ugbayi before the king was even pushed out of his mother’s body. Adifala slammed the opele across the fold of white cloth, ala, and looked up to say that the alhaji had a closet crammed with corpses. Until the truth shone, darkness would continue to strike in the land of Ugbayi. 

But the king shook his head and ruled, “No, it can’t be.” He joined his friend in prayer and wished death blow away from the land.

But when the gods slide humans’ days into position on the gameboard of life, they do so giggling. Earth struck again. The only girl in the family, the lastborn, a medical student in her final year in university, wandered out of her father’s house, found the forbidden river on the outskirts of the land, and jumped into it. By the time they pulled her out, she was a sodden log.

The chiefs slapped the walls of the palace and said this was monstrous. 

Kabiesi!” they said. “This has never happened before. Two strikes in one house in one fell swoop! Dajudaju, that man has a skeleton in his cupboard. He must confess before the idol of Ugbayi before death spreads from his home into the rest of our land! The youngest that had died in our land was a ninety-year-old. We can’t have this!”

The king finally listened to them. He summoned his friend and told him they would bury his daughter by the river. The alhaji chuckled and said it was impossible because of his faith. The chiefs asked to speak, then faced him and asked him to divulge his secrets. He said he had none. 

“You are using your children to advance your wealth,” they said.

He recoiled.

“Come and swear in front of the idol.”

He waved his tasbir and said “Aozobillahi”. He told them he knew nothing of what they were saying; they could go ahead and do whatever, but they must release his daughter’s body to him. They said it was also impossible because of their custom. He left the palace in an unusual rage. They buried his daughter by the river; she may have been Ugbayi’s daughter but she had strayed and died elsewhere.

That was when things picked up speed. 

The son living in the city, the first from his father’s loins, flew back to Ugbayi and stormed the palace.

“My father grew this community! Established factories, poultries, built roads, employed youths, built a clinic—”

“We know!”

“I know the law! You will not bury my sister by the river.”

“Your father has a dangerous secret. He has brought mud into our land.”

“Nonsense! You will release my sister’s body to me!”

“Why does your father wear white? Behave yourself before the king gets here!”

But he did not. 

He never had the chance to. Weeks later, on his way to the city to pack and come back to move in with his father, his car hit a bump too fast and bounced high, surprising him. “Subhanallah!” It crashed down a thickly wooded valley, where it burst into flames and reduced the wholeness of life to black dust. The gods grinned. Humans were easy. All they had had to do was raise a shoulder in the hide of the earth. And the car flew.

News floated like char motes homeward. The alhaji sank to the floor. His soul dangled in the core, delicate with a grief he could now name. His past had called. It was clear now, as clear as the waters of Ugbayi where the secrets of life flowed from God’s cupped hand, that everything humans gathered around themselves—all the shortcuts in the race they took—were all behind the distance the earth and its true owners had covered. And the earth would always claim its prize.



ENIT'AYANFE AYOSOJUMI AKINSANYA is a twenty-eight-year-old Nigerian writer. His CNF won the joint First-place position for the 2022 intercontinental French-embassy Climate Change Project Prize. His novel manuscript 'In the Half-Dark' (tentative title) was shortlisted for the GTB National Dusty Manuscript Award 2018. His short fictions have appeared in Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, African Writer, The Shallow Tales Review, OBBLT, Livina Press, Fiery Scribe Review, Afrocritik, and elsewhere. He has published an ebook of short queer-life stories, titled HOW TO CATCH A STORY THAT DOESN'T EXIST. When he's not studying people and nature, he is reading poetry or watching drama and mystery movies/series or arguing for feminism and queer humans' rights. You can find him on Twitter @Osumare_Ayomi.


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