(For Arao Ameny, whose letter opener inspired this story)
Darkness crept across the lush landscape, quieting tittering birds and screaming cicadas. The lull of dusk always transformed the beautiful landscape, creating leaping shadows, releasing sinister hunters from their lairs. The night was coming.
Arao sat quietly beside her grandmother, watching the light from the fire. Her grandmother hummed something, an old song that retold the brave wanderings of her ancestors as they made their way to this haven. She had heard it before and was barely listening to the story. Instead, she let the vibrations run through from her grandmother into her own body, and watched the flames, a warm cup of half drunk milk teetering in her relaxing hand.
She sat upright so suddenly that she knocked over her cup, the contents splashing on her dress and legs. Grandmother had left, and probably a while ago. The fire had died down and the glowing embers barely let out enough light for her to see across the room.
“Yes?” she said rather uncertainly. That was not her grandmother’s voice, maybe one of Odongo’s sons. They liked teasing her. Grandmother said it was because they did not have any sisters.
“Arao, over here,” the voice was urgent.
“Pshhhh,” she dismissed, convinced a naughty boy wanted to tease. “I’m not coming over to you in this darkness. Bye!”
She turned to leave and kicked her cup aside. She’d just have to wake up before grandmother found it so carelessly discarded. She reached out to push the door, but her hands instead found smooth walls.
“It is the sleep,” she told herself, shutting out the insisting voice that kept beckoning to her.
She walked along the wall, hand feeling the smooth surface for the door. Her foot hit the wall. She had reached the corner of the room.
“Arao, come here!”
Grimacing, she turned and walked in the opposite direction, walking a little faster. The voice, the person, whoever they were, suddenly seemed more sinister now that she could not find the door. Her foot hit the other wall. Still no door.
“What?” she shot into the darkness where she thought the voice was coming from. “What do you want from me?” Then feeling a rush of boldness, “I’m going to tell my grandmother that you are here and then we shall see!” This was her home after all. She planted her feet firmly, feigning a boldness she did not feel.
“You think that your brothers have not played this kind of trick on me before?”
“I don’t have brothers.”
“Ha!” Her scoff bounced around the walls of the small room. “And you think I’m stupid.”
A shadow stepped out of the darkness. Arao gasped and fell back against the wall. The looming figure cast a deep shadow that gaped with nothingness. Its darkness was complete. Part of it fell over the ground near her feet and an intense cold began to creep slowly over her toes.
“I must stay on the other side of the embers so I do not harm you.”
Arao nodded, her throat too dry to give a sensible answer.
The shadow stepped back over the embers, taking the emptiness and coldness with it.
“Who are you?” Arao’s voice shook with fear.
“I have no name.”
“What should I call you?”
“Never call me, Arao. Never.”
Arao nodded her head.
“Arao, I need to know that you understand. You cannot ever call me.”
The voice began a tale whose roots dug deep into the foundations of the Earth. The sonorous tones gripped Arao’s soul dragging her into a storm of emotions, and faces, and stories. They bounced before her eyes, living lives of adventure, dying deaths of honor, and crashing against the jagged edges of time that shattered them into a million shards, only to be washed away by the ebbing tide.
“Remember,” the voice said, fading away quickly.
The dying embers leapt into flames like someone had doused them with kerosene, and the room filled with warmth and light. Arao gazed past the fire to the other side. The emptiness gazed back at her.
“Are you okay?” Grandmother was back. They were sitting on the floor and the cup was in her hands.
“What?” Arao asked, surprised by her grandmother’s sudden appearance. “Where did you come from?”
Grandmother chuckled, “Let’s go to bed, tired one. My blanket is calling me fiercely.”
— — — — — -
Arao smiled gratefully. Henry’s smile had been wide with pride when he handed her a carefully gift wrapped long box. He looked a little nervous.
“Thanks, Henry,” she tried to make her voice sound kind. His nervousness was palpable.
“Carefully wrapped gifts deserve care,” her grandmother’s voice spoke out of history. “Haste is not a sign of eagerness, but carelessness.”
No matter where she went, the sayings and teachings of grandmother followed, seeped through, and affected her. Even now with this long package and nervous man. The wrapping peeled off easily and inside it she could see what he had brought.
It was a letter opener, the handle carved into the side profile of an African face, full lips, proud forehead, elegant cheekbones, wide eyes. The smooth dark wood had been handled by many people, the stain slowly fading away on the edges.
She pulled out the metal opener from its wooden sheath and the room went silent. She looked up. Henry stood in front of her, an eager look on his face. A frozen eager look on his face. The entire room had gone completely still except for a form that quivered like the watery Jello tower that jiggled happily on the buffet table.
Arao screamed and dropped the letter opener. At once everything changed. Henry was looking at her, pain seeping into them.
“You don’t like it?” he asked, picking it up from the floor.
Arao looked around the room, searching for the Jello creature.
“No,” she closed her eyes with relief, “I’m sorry Henry. I just suddenly had this…” She stopped suddenly, realizing what she had just been about to say. “It must have been the wine. I love it.” She reassured him, watching his smile return and relief spread across his taut frame. “Thank you! Where did you get it?”
“Oh,” he said blushing, “I just bought it off the street. The vendor seemed pretty sure it came from Africa, but could not say where.”
“No worries man,” she touched his arm reassuring him again, “I love it.”
The cab smelt of long smoked cigarettes. She shifted uneasily to relieve the pressure of one of the seat springs on her posterior.
“Yes, brother,” she responded automatically to the driver, who was happy to have an audience to talk to. It was always easier if she called the African cab drivers ‘brother’ or ‘uncle’. She wished she could concentrate, but the Jello creature was on her mind. Memory was prickling and something was growing. A story.
She could never remember if she paid the driver, how she had climbed the stairs to her apartment, and sat on her fifty-year-old, upholstered loveseat. She put the package on her lap, opened it and lifted the letter opener out of it. She gingerly unsheathed it and everything was silent once again.
“Face it,” grandmother spoke clearly, “face your fear and conquer it.”
Arao looked around her tiny apartment. Nothing jiggled. She stood up with the opener in her hand and slowly walked to the kitchen, mimicking the heroines of her favorite spy movies. She crouched with a posture unfamiliar to her. Her muscles felt the memory. Maybe she had done this before. Krav maga. Something.
Something made a hissing sound in her kitchen. She peered around the entrance. A broom.
“Brooms don’t hiss,” her mind chastised her. But her eyes saw a broom handle with sticks and twigs twirling around it like they had been whipped up by some internal tornado.
It turned and faced her.
“That,” a raspy voice issued out of the whizzing twigs, “does not belong to you, girl.”
Suddenly, Arao was standing boldly before it, right hand holding the letter opener, left hand flat, beneath it. The letter opener shone with an unearthly light.
The broom reached out with its tornado of limbs that turned into sinister arms, reaching and grabbing at her.
The letter opener moved, a mind of its own thrashing at the twigs, splitting them from the whole, and smashing them onto the floor.
Her left arm zipped out from under the opener, grabbing so her right arm could cut. The ghastly whispering rasp of the broom creature filled her ears. Her kitchen filled with the smell of rotting wood.
As soon as it had started, it stopped. The broom lay motionless on the floor, surrounded by a halo of broken branches, twitching as if to bring it back to life.
She knew that voice and despaired. Every doctor had looked at her, every medication poured down her throat, every counselor she had spoken to. She had come to terms with it. A bad childhood dream.
The thing with the empty shadow was back.
“Well done, child of Otim.”
“You are not real.”
There was no answer from it. A large form appeared in front of her just like it had at her grandmother’s hearth. A shadow from its form was cast by the street lamp outside her apartment. Nothingness. Emptiness. Eternal.
“I told you,” it began, “ that you would need to remember for the sake of all who surround you. Tell me you remember.”
“I remember,” her voice was small. A child again. A scared child who wanted to dissolve away.
“Child of Otim, tell me the story. Tell me you remember.”
“Emperor Otim’s kingdom was plagued by monsters that crept out of the deep to torture his people. He reached into the deep of eternity and pulled out a rock of metal that he fashioned into a knife. With this knife he fought the monsters and sent them back through the door to the place they had come from.”
“You have that knife now, Arao.”
“How did Henry know?” Her mind swarmed with thousands of questions.
“You are Otim’s child.”
“All that is, knows who you are. Even when they do not know it.”
“You have that knife now, Arao,” it interrupted. “You have to send the Jungol back.”
“Remember.” Its voice was fading.
“Come back! How?”
But the form was gone.
— — — — -
Arao. Protector. Savior. Unknown.
She roams, protecting us with the sword of Otim so that our safety is sure. Wherever she goes, the monsters that creep from Ilitriy tremble. They understand that they must go back.