Underwater by Ubong Johnson, short story
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Read Time:19 Minute, 11 Second


Here in Ngugu, every crime a man does against a woman attracts the death penalty: from the weighty ones like physical abuse to the lighter ones like slander or petty name-calling. It is so because it’s believed that Nguguiie women carry Nwedilim–the God of Life–in them; it’s believed that Nwedilim courses in every Nguguiie woman’s veins, sees and blesses the world through her, giving life to everything in Ngungu.

A man harms an Nguguiie woman, and Nwedilim turns its back on the entire town; no region of Ngungu would be left out of the plaque that follows Nwedilim’s wrath. Crops in massive fields within the plains of Central Ngugu would begin to wilt, and livestock would begin to die in their thousands. Fishes in River Nwokoja, far east of the central region of the town, would be spat to the shore, dead, the smell of death hanging like mist in the air. Nwedilim’s wrath does not calm until the customary death penalty is met on the one who has harmed a woman; until his blood is spilled on the streets, and his body is tossed into the waters of River Nwokoja.

Such a man is taken a hold of and beaten in the streets until he becomes swathed in his blood, glistening in his sweat. His beaters would care nothing about his echoing screams and wails. They just want him punished. After the beatings, they would throw him into a dark room, where he would spend the last night of his life. And when the day breaks, he would be pulled out, stripped of his clothes, and walked miles upon miles ( depending on how far away from Eastern Ngungu he was taken a hold of ), to the bank of River Nwokoja. A big stone tied to his ankles, he would be pushed into the water after a ceremonial cleansing has been done. He would drown in there, and his body would not be pulled out. It’d be left in there, to be eaten by fishes or sharks. A shameful death.

This is how the man who should be Bholra’s father is killed, the day after Bholra is born. He is one of the only men in Central Ngugu to own a stone house with aluminum roofing sheets. This house stands between several smaller mud houses along a trail that winds and winds for miles and miles before finally opening in Eastern Ngungu. At sunset, a mob comes to his house, takes a hold of and drags Mandoma into the streets whilst Gembe’s screams in the place of birth continue to ride the warming air around the house.

Amidst the screams and chants amongst the onlookers that follow Mandoma and his beaters are scoffs and silent whispers. No one believes it: that a man like Mandoma could’ve raised his hands on any woman at all, let alone his pregnant wife.

‘They say he hit his Gembe, that his fine wife.’ One onlooker, a stout, robust woman tells another.

‘Yes o.’ This one shrugs. ‘And I heard it’s because she called him a name he didn’t like.’

Ahn ahn? Just that? You mean just a name made him do that? I used to think he was a good man. I really used to think so.’

‘I was surprised, myself. These men, no matter how seemingly calm and understanding, never really understand women o. They think it’s about having muscles and providing for one’s family. They never know what carrying a baby does to a woman.’

‘True. It’s a pity though. Just like that, Mandoma wouldn’t be seeing his daughter ever. It’s a pity!’

Rewind to a few months ago, when everything began to change. When Mandoma became a shadow of himself and began to accuse Gembe of cheating on him. He would say that she carries a baby who isn’t his, and threaten to throw her out of his house. Gembe kept the hurtful words to herself, knowing that Mandoma could be killed if someone heard about the verbal abuses. She didn’t want that. She hoped he would find himself again, and change. But weeks would pass, and, days before the pregnancy was due–the night she walked in on him having sex with another woman–, he would hit her. He hit her because she called him Zanulele ( which means a disgusting man in the Nguguiie dialect ), and for this crime of hitting her, she could not cover him any longer. By hitting her, Mandoma sealed his fate.

Gembe lies sprawled across the ground in this room, thinking about all this, her eyes tingly from too much crying, warm blood between her legs. She is mourning both Mandoma and the child she has just birthed, who hasn’t pulled a breath since it was pushed out about five minutes ago. She, like everyone else present in this room, believes the child has been born dead, claimed by an ancestral spirit.

But the child isn’t born dead, she sees. It soon leases a squeal so loud everyone in the room covers their ears, staring down in shock at the corner of the room; where the writhing child lies. Strangely, Mandoma also hears this squeal. But unlike the women back at his house, he does not hear it with his ears. He rather hears it deep in his soul–in his mind–just before the cleansing ritual is completed and he is pushed into the water. It sounds as if the voice of a spirit crying for help.

Gembe calls the child Bholra— which means one who defeats death—days after the child is born.

Gembe has the same nightmare tonight as the countless others she’s had since Mandoma’s death: the one in which she sees herself by the bank of River Nwokoja at sunset, naked from head to feet, the glare of an orange sun in her eyes. She watches him surface from the water and walk towards her, his face pale and white. As herself, she is naked. Gembe tries to turn around and run away like she always does, but something keeps her from moving. For the first time in her nightmares, tonight, he catches up with her and soon starts to hit her. Blood pulses from her mouth and nostrils as she falls to the ground. He would begin to pull her back into the water.

Back in the real world, Gembe dies in her sleep, screaming, ‘Please, Mandoma!’ She sounds like one who is drowning as she jerks atop the bed, grabbing her neck, blood pulsing from her mouth and nostrils.

The next morning, her body is cleaned up and buried behind Mandoma’s stone house. In a couple of days, Gembe’s mother comes to Central Ngungu from many miles away to take Bholra away. It’s a tradition here in Ngungu that an orphaned child belongs to either one of the child’s two grandmothers, if still alive, and so Gembe’s mother is here to claim the now nine-month-old Bholra. A disagreement bursts out when Gembe’s mother makes her intentions clear to Gambala, late Mandoma’s mother. An argument that ends in a vicious exchange of words between the two women. For the next couple of days, Ngugu’s ruling council sits to settle this dispute.

‘She would not take the child!’ Gambala screams, her voice trailing into tears. ‘The child is the last memory of what is left of…’ She wants to say Mandoma, but the name has now become an abomination that shouldn’t escape anyone’s lips here. It has become profanity in the ears of Nwedilim. So, Gambala pauses, and after a while says, ’My son. The child is the last memory of what is left of my son.’

When it’s Gembe’s mother’s turn to talk, the round woman stands up from her stool and moves forward, to stand before the elders. Six pair of eyes fix gazes on her. Mandoma’s mother recoils to her seat and folds her arms as she sits there. The shame returns, gliding across the surface of her mind, and she spends the following minutes trying to hold back tears.

Gembe’s mother barks a brittle cough and then begins. ‘We all know how it’s done. We all do.’ She pauses. ‘I mean, I am not wicked. I do feel for her. It must be hard being her, I know.’ She turns to look at Gambala. ‘But we all know we can’t let the child grow with the mother of the man who almost brought a plague to this land. It was different when Gembe still lived. Bess her soul. As the biological mother, she covered the child from a lot because the almighty Nwedilim had purified her. It’s why I had no problems with allowing Gembe stay back here in Central Ngugu. She wanted to stay here, in her husband’s house, with his family, to raise the child here. And I couldn’t change that. But what happens now that she’s dead?’ She pauses. ‘It’s something else now. Something different. The child can’t stay with Mandoma’s mother. She just can’t. Mandoma’s blood flows in his mother alongside hate and shame, so she can’t cover the child. I, on the other hand, can. I can raise this child. For my daughter, bless her soul, who died without saying goodbyes, I would do so to the best of my abilities. I would show the girl the love and support I never hesitated to show my only daughter. The child is all I’ve got now. No husband, no child. Just Bhorla.’

After a moment of whispering, one elder into the other’s ears, the council rules in favour of Lanaluku. They tell Gambala to stay away from the child and never again try to make contact. All ties between Gambala and Bhorla are seared by the sprinkling of a white powder in the air and over the child, who is brought into the room straddled in some lady’s arms. Gambala holds Bhorla in her arms for the last time, and is racked by crying and sobbing as she kisses the baby’s forehead and hands the baby over to Lanaluku with the words, ‘Bye, I wish life could treat us better.’

Gambala knows she’d never see the child again and soon learns to live with that, strengthened by the hope that Nwedilim knows best why things happen the way they do.

‘Please, Mandoma!’ Gembe, now a ghost, screams as she is being dragged by her right ankle across the bed of River Nwokoja. She is too scared to be surprised by the fact that she is underwater yet still breathing fine. She is naked, and blood continues to leak from her nostrils. Her eyes burn and tingle, and so does her back—which rubs the seabed.

Mandoma lets go of her when he arrives at the entrance to a small tent made of blackwood. This tent has been his home since he died about two years ago. He made it from fragments of the small boats that had sunk in Nwokoja’s waves when he first got down here. For some reason, the spirits of Ngungu rejected Mandoma, refusing to grant him passage into the vacuum where the dead rest. A place he learned of as a child. Balamek, the spirit who stands guard over Death’s Gate, cursed Mandoma when the ghost attempted to cross over, pronouncing that Mandoma would live his death underwater, like a mortal, feeling pain and pleasure and apathy. Balamek pronounced that Mandoma would live, also, in whichever deserted parts of the spirit world he can reach, and that he would never stop seeking answers to his unanswered questions forever. So, Mandoma has been here and there and everywhere in the spirit world except the Place of Rest.

The spirit world is vast, including even the Place of Dreams; a bare space that connects the world of human imagination to the spiritual world. Every night, the spirits of living people–unknown to them–come here, whilst their bodies still lie asleep in the real world. In time, Mandoma, like many other rejected spirits like himself, soon learned to walk this place, searching for his answers. To summon the spirit of a living person down here, a dead spirit just needs to call the living person’s name, and then wait until the person is pulled down here. The summoned person arrives faster if the summoner was once family or a loved one. This is how Mandoma got into Gembe’s dreams all those nights. Tonight, he managed to do the impossible: he seized and dragged her with him outside the Place of Dreams, so in the real world, she died screaming.

Mandoma knows that now that he has Gembe, Balamek’s curse is about to become a blessing in some way. Mandoma would ask Gembe, and she would provide an answer to the one question which has pressed him all these months.

After Mandoma ties Gembe to his tent, he walks up to and crouches beside her, and then begins to talk; calmly, like the broken ghost he has become, memories and regrets hitting his insides.

‘Hello, Gembe, nice to meet you again.’ He grins, wiping Gembe’s hair away from the woman’s plump face.

Gembe backs away from his touch, shivering.

‘Oh. Don’t be afraid. Clean your eyes. I’m not going to harm you any further, I promise. It’s now needless, I realize. Had to hit you only so I could drag you here. Needless to harm you now.’

‘Where…where am I, Mandoma?’ Gembe asks, glancing about in wonder.

‘In this place I call home. Dead, I am afraid.’

‘I am dead?’

‘Yes. I was surprised too when I found out that, outside the land of rest, spirits feel pain. When I found out that they, too, bleed, and yearn to feel things considered pleasurable.’

‘You live here?’ Gembe mutters, still glancing about, her heart thumping. Is it one of those dreams? Doesn’t seem so. ‘Underwater?’

‘Yes. A curse, of course. Yes, Gembe, I live here.’

He pauses, following her eyes. He knows she is peering at the large scars scattered across his body. Machete cuts.

‘Gembe. I should say that I am sorry. It didn’t have to go that way. I was wrong. I thought wrong.’

‘I don’t understand?’ Gembe is still glancing about.

‘I realize you weren’t what I constantly called you. On the day I was killed, I realized you had been carrying my child all along. I was stupid to think you had had sex with a neighbor of ours. I heard the baby’s scream in my soul before I died, as if it sought to know me, confirming it to be my child. We both know the legend. “And as a child pulls its first breath, its soul searches for its parents”. It’s my deepest desire to know my child. It’s an unquenchable hunger eating me up, a father’s desire.’

When Gembe doesn’t speak, Mandoma coughs and says, ‘You can leave when you tell me these: is it a boy or a girl, and what’s its name? I’ve been yearning to meet my child, Gembe. And to do so, I need to know its name. Tell me these, and I’d let you go rest with our fathers.’

Gembe soon begins to sob. ‘It is a girl, Mandoma. And her name is Bhorla. She has your eyes and I know you’d…’

She doesn’t complete her last sentence before Mandoma, squeezing his eyes shut as if trying to quieten his emotions, waves his hand in the air, releasing Gembe’s spirit. The ghost disappears, water bubbles dancing before Mandoma’s eyes. She’s gone. To eternal peace.

Mandoma climbs to his feet, a smirk on his face. He walks into his house and lies in there, waiting for the night to come.

When the child’s screams at night grow worse and worse, and she barely sleeps, Lanaluku agrees to take Bhorla to the only mage in Eastern Ngungu. The mage’s shrine is a long walk from her home and is too close to the central part of town, which was home to the child’s father, who became an abomination. Even though Lanaluku has always said that she would never allow Bhorla go to or be carried anywhere near Central Ngugu, she now has no choice but to take the child down to the mage there. The girl could die if she does not do this.

At sunset, Lanaluku straps Bhorla to her back and begins the walk down a trail flanked by tall trees whose branches keep the sunlight out. Miles and miles on and she is before the mage’s shrine. She parts the red linen that serves as an entrance to the small tent that is the shrine and walks in. She would sit on the floor, just opposite the mage, who is clothed in red and is seated with crossed legs. The old man smiles, welcoming her, and asks her to speak. Looking around, almost cringing in fear of the scary figures hanging across the walls, she begins to tell the mage everything that has been happening with Bholra.

When she is done talking, the mage stretches his hand and takes the child. A moment after examining Bholra, he barks a laugh and looks up at Lanaluku.

‘A ghost haunts her.’

The mage would make two incisions on both sides of the girl’s cheeks as a marking to keep the ghost that haunts her away. He places a finger on the blood that sips from the wounds and then rubs this finger on his forehead before handing the girl back to Lanaluku.

Tonight, and for the next couple of years, Bhorla does not scream in her sleep.

When Bhorla is four years old, a brown-eyed, brown-skinned child with wooly black hair, Lanaluku tries for the first time to teach her about Nwedilim. In Ngungu, you see, every woman must teach her young girl child about the God who gives Ngungu life.

‘Say Nwedilim.’ Lanaluku says, holding Bhorla’s hands.


‘Beautiful!’ A clap. ‘Say it again!?’

It takes a bit too long before Bhorla starts to understand what Lanaluku constantly tries to teach her: Nwedilim’s role, the customs of Ngungu. Lanaluku feels frustrated by this but does not show it. She chooses to go easy on the child, as a tribute to Gembe. As she promised to do, she shows this child the kind of love that mends wounds and erases scars, so the child grows into a strong girl.

When Bhorla is ten years old, Lanaluku hands her a necklace made of cowries as a reward for answering a question about her ancestry correctly.

‘Who are you in this world? Who have I told you that you are?’ Was the question asked.

And the answer given was, ‘I am Bhorla. I am not like other kids. That’s why they hate me and my scar because it frightens them. My father is not human. He is Nwedilim. The life of Ngungu. He is my mother, too. I came from him. He lives inside me.’

At sunset today, Lanaluku walks the child to the bank of River Nwokoja for the first time.

‘This is River Nwokoja.’ Lanaluku says. ‘When you’re old enough, we’d come here and fish.’

‘What about Central Ngugu? Can we go there?’

‘No. You’re not allowed to go there. Nwedilim does not allow that. Go on now, go play.’

She lets go of the child and watches with teary eyes as Bhorla scampers and scampers around, singing a song Lanaluku used to sing as a child. Once. Long ago.

Mandoma is sitting in front of his tent, atop the riverbed, when he feels something pulling his attention to the surface of the water, like a thread pulling a hooked fish. This thing, it’s a silent whisper, the voice of a child searching for a lost father. Mandoma floats to the water surface and looks around him, at the span of land bordering the river. Land he can’t reach, ever again. There’s no one here. Just darkness. So, disappointed, Mandoma returns to the river bed. It’s his emotions playing with him again, he believes; his hopes of seeing her again. His daughter. It has been so long since he last saw her about six years ago. So long since he called her into the place of dreams, and carried her in his arms, looking into her brown eyes, tears filling his.

Whenever he held her then, he could hear her mind. He could feel his yearnings die, his questions finding answers.

These past years, Mandoma’s questions and yearnings have been pounding his mind harder than ever: he goes to the Place of Dreams to seek answers, to find relief. But none comes.

‘Bhorla! Come to your father!’ He would yell when there, then sit and wait for her. She would not come. Mandoma thinks something has blocked her passage into the Place of Dreams.

Tonight, as usual, Mandoma goes to the Place of Dreams and calls Bhorla’s name. He sits on the floor and sobs as he waits. He expects the usual. But something unusual soon happens: a voice in the distance sounds as a figure approaches. Mandoma raises his head.

‘Nwedilim.’ The figure says.

Tonight, Bhorla screams awake. It is another nightmare, after all these years. Lanaluku is scared pale when at dawn the girl tells her that she’s met Nwedilim.

‘I have seen Nwedilim,’ the girl says, cheerfully, ‘I have seen my father.’

‘No one sees Nwedilim, Bhorla, dear.’ Lanaluku replies drily, taming Bhorla’s mood. ‘It was just a nightmare. Nwedilim is in our blood. Not our dreams.’

Bhorla says the same thing about seeing Nwedilim some other time, in a couple of days, and Lanaluku is forced to yell at her.

‘I swear. I’ve seen him, Mama.’ The girl cries, ‘He is under the big water. I see him there whenever I sleep.’

‘The water!?’ Lanaluku barks, almost terrified, yet defiant to the feeling of fear. ‘I knew I shouldn’t have let you go near that water! You’ve been going there with your friends, I know. I have known for a while now. From now henceforth, Bhorla, don’t ever go close to that water again. Have you heard me!?’

Out of fear for her grandma, the girl nods. But she knows Nwedilim wants her there at River Nwokoja. Last night, he told her to come meet him at the shore at sunset. Bhorla knows she’s supposed to obey Nwedilim over everyone else. Grandma said so. So, soon, she’d run off to River Nwokoja, to go meet her father.

She’d be meeting Nwedilim

About the author

Ubong Johnson is a medical student who lives in Uyo, Nigeria. He is an emerging short-story writer and plays the piano when he isn’t reading or writing or sleeping.

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Writer, editor and reader. A student of mathematics and physics, Twitter troll, Facebook comedian and human.

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2 thoughts on “Underwater by Ubong Johnson

  1. Ubee writes beautifully. His mind is like this labyrinth, always twisting and turning. I love this story with every fibre in me. Beautiful, beautiful work of speculative fiction.

  2. Great masterpiece from ubong johnson, i’m actually not suprised because i’ve read some of his stories before and he’s been a great writer.

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