The Witching Hour
By Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki
I stood balanced at the top of the oldest palm tree, the one that grew at the south end of the village. I was in my element — pitch-black night. This was my dawn. The murmurs of glowing spirits mixed with the chitter of living insects.
The hoot of an owl reminded me there was work to be done, battles to be fought — silent, undeclared, but raging all the same. And old Mama Ishaka was on the other side of them. With a sigh, I leapt from the tree, fell free, and caught one of the power lines that led to a human spirit. The link was strong. The call of this spirit sang the music of its soul to me. It called me back home.
We sat in my hut, bare as it was, Ejiro and I, on the even barer floor. The kerosene lamp hung from a nail on the wall, its flickering yellow light the only illumination. I didn’t need much, being a creature of the night.
I had chosen my apprentice for her goodness. Shy and quiet, she was my sister’s child. Like other old-world witches I was glad to recruit from family, where they were cut closest to us. Blood was more than just a symbol.
She was still learning to manoeuvre the delicate currents of the other side.
I rubbed the ori ointment on her eyes to ease the transition and make visible the other realm — the beauty of it along with the denizens that drive normals mad with fright. We moved freely among it all — the souls of sleeping humans, shining shapeshifters, headless spirits drifting along upside down.
I took hold of her hands and invoked the deep black sleep that let us travel to the other side. Our bodies slumped, and we passed over. We floated, translucent and unbound by gravity. We had power in this state. A power that was intoxicating.
Ejiro moved towards the door. I smiled and pulled her toward the wall. I flowed through it and she followed. Outside the protection of my hut we felt the pull, the dreams, the thoughts of sleeping normals. Those souls connected to us pulled the most, sending out strong lines of power.
There was one we set out to find. I had established a connection with her in the physical world and could see her soul cord faintly shimmering. We flowed along it, shifting shapes — I an old brown owl, Ejiro a nightjar. We sailed swift and sure, alighting on a palm tree beside a darkened house.
I shifted back and floated to the roof. My fledgling followed. We sifted down through the thatch. I looked at Ejiro. She nodded and threw a shroud over the home’s sleeping occupants, to keep them still until our work was done. She fastened on their sleeping forms and they choked, gulping for air, struggling vainly to wake. In the morning they would say they had been pressed and they would shiver.
I drew close to the one we were here to help, a girl of eleven. She tossed and turned, feeling the energy of the other side but unable to wake to it. I slipped my hand into her chest and cradled the pulsing spirit heart of her being. She gasped. I gathered my energy and pulled. Her body convulsed and she held back, frightened at the pull to cross over, though this crossing was only a hair’s breadth width, not the faraway world of the ancestors.
I pulled again. Her body heaved, its hold on her loosening. Again I pulled, and the body’s grasp slipped away. Her translucent spirit form came away. Initiation. The newly freed form floated gently, looking at us curiously.
My spirit energy was depleted, a danger especially as I rarely fed on others. I glanced at Ejiro. She was flush and glowing faintly, without intention having drained energy from those she subdued. She had not yet mastered the art of fastening and holding without feeding. She started guiltily.
We sifted up through the thatch, leaving the newly awakened one floating quietly about the house. She would explore the new realm we had opened her to. Before a coven found her we would be back to teach her and bring her into the fold.
We flew on. Owl and nightjar. We awakened other young ones. Each time I was left weaker. Ejiro unintentionally drank in life energy and spirit consciousness. If she drained too much their spirit flame would be extinguished, and they would die. But as her teacher the guilt would be mine.
Dawn was near. And we were far from our bodies. We could not survive long here without the clear spiritual focus the night imbued us with. Weak and tired, I set a course for home.
We glided along the spirit currents. I didn’t notice I was falling until I hit the ground and rolled roughly. The nightjar alighted beside me, shifting into the shape of a wild cat and picking me up in her jaws. She could so easily have crushed me, leaving my contorted body bereft of spirit. But she bore me safely home.
I slept for two days, waking only to gulp down water and a morsel of food.
I awoke in my hut. A blanket covered me. Beside my mat was a cup of water and food covered in a clay bowl. The hut was swept and arranged. I smiled. Ejiro took great care of me. I took a long pull of water. Though I wondered sometimes at the rightness of what I did, if I was any better than those we battled, Ejiro did not doubt. Perhaps I could trust the innocence and goodness of her heart if I couldn’t trust my own.
I stretched and got up. I had business to be about. My small farm did not tend itself. We all had day work. Like everyone else we needed to survive in the physical world. This was why Ejiro was with me, although my sister thought her daughter helped me tend my farm. Well, she did. She just also helped me cultivate souls.
Ejiro had gone to our food stall in the marketplace. The market was a good place for recruiting, and mothers often warned their young ones not to touch or take anything from strangers. But recruiting mostly came through relatives.
Every young child had a tendency toward the spirit realm that waned as they grew and got more settled in the physical world. But giving them food saturated with the substance of the other side strengthened the connection and in sleep the spirit strove to break free from its body and rejoin its natural home. Often, the help of an initiating witch, such as myself, was needed.
I wondered sometimes if it was right, taking them this young, without their consent, as I had been taken by Mama Ishaka. She had been a family friend. She liked her recruits sweet and kind and young. So did I. But our motives were as different as palm oil from groundnut oil. You could fry with both but only one was good for yams. The old one exulted in corrupting innocent apprentices, warping them into bloodthirsty hags who fed for the pure joy of the misery they inflicted.
Witches like Mama Ishaka had a craving for evil, came to it of their own strong, iron will. Such ones allied themselves with like-minded dibias and medicine men, prophets and healers, the strongest of the othersiders. They lived on both sides and with keen balance accessed either at times and ways that made us feel like normals. The dark dibias sometimes sent their witch allies to carry out assassinations and other such work. My time with Mama Ishaka left me prey to the pull of their ways.
Another haunt. A night for Ejiro to train in practices of power, skills to help turn the tide in our silent battle. I let out a hoot to signal the haunt’s start, sending shivers through the spines of any beings still awake, setting them praying.
We sailed through the night in our favourite forms, owl and nightjar. We could take any shape we conjured, but the more time in one form, the more powerful we grew within it. I led the way, swerving to avoid a copse of trees — a coven’s meeting place, surrounded by a haze cloaking the coven’s activities from other creatures and night users — prophets, healers, even worshippers of the white Christ. They each followed their gods or god, and drew power from the other side. Just power. Like a knife, it was what you did with it that mattered. But I knew what many did with their power.
The nightjar’s call drew me out of my thoughts. We had arrived at our first stop. We perched atop a mango tree beside the house. Normals knew a tree beside one’s house might bring hauntings from creatures of the night.
I led Ejiro through the art called sendings. She fed to the point where the soul’s hold was tenuous, at the cusp between life and death; then I helped her establish a spiritual connection, to see this person’s life threads and move them gently, guiding their fate and fortune to their benefit in the waking world.
The one who turned me, Mama Ishaka, she taught me this, but she gave those she haunted terrible sendings, tortured them with nightmares and visions. Sometimes she toyed with them, gave helpful sendings they came to trust, imagining them from ancestors or kind spirits. Then she sent visions pulling her victims down to ruin and death. And so witches and dreams were feared.
She did not always take the time to be this creative. She might simply feed until their heart gave out or their organs failed. The more one fed, the more powerful one became. Seeing further into the future, taking the shape of more powerful beasts, influencing people and events more. Living longer. So some of our oldest witches radiated a powerful malevolence.
Mama Ishaka took immense pleasure in corrupting her apprentices, whom she chose from amongst the goodliest and kindest hearted. These were the ones she enjoyed breaking, pulling the good from their souls. On our haunts she pushed me to feed until our quarry’s life force gave out. But I would not. I was a most difficult one to corrupt, she would say, then cackle and fly off in search of our next victim. But feeding is addictive and my craving grew. She was a patient one. She knew it was a matter of time.
Earning my freedom would require giving in to that which I hated and feeding until the victim died. But this owl outplayed her twice over. When I saw souls in difficulty, as I had their life threads stretched before me, glowing white lines leading towards good, darkened lines pulling them toward misery and ignominious decease, I went down their white threads, through a cascade of images, and gave them positive sendings, visions, and warnings for the future. I set many on a safe path out of the claws of Mama Ishaka.
And from another witch I learned a second way to earn my freedom — wake a new witch, create my own apprentice. Mama Ishaka had been enraged and tormented the one who taught me this.
So Ejiro and I followed power lines, sailing swift and sure, agents of the night, searching out the wretched of the earth, the ones that most needed good in their lives. And provided them this while feeding, an unholy exchange, rendering help to these ailing ones through a power feared and known only for misery and death.
Eventually dawn neared, and we needed to return to our bodies to cross the veil back to the world of normals. We flew for home. And into an ambush. The nightjar was pounced upon and sent careening off to slam against a tree. I was held fast in the strands of an otherside web. A spider’s web. Large and thick and strong enough to hold a goat. Only an old witch with much power could do this. And there was something familiar about that aura . . .
The spider dropped down before me, its huge head twisting and writhing into the shape of a human face. It was she, the one who had initiated me, opened me to the other side. Mama Ishaka.
She swung around me, cackling, hanging upside down with her full glare on me. Even with a human face, her maw was rich with venom that flew out, scathing and burning me. I would wake sick and wounded, if I woke at all.
She lunged for my throat and pulled back, toying with me. Then she held her pincers to my head, and in that sharp vice a tunnel of dark visions and memories swallowed me. Her memories. Of people. They looked familiar. I stared. They were the people I had helped while her apprentice. But she had found me out and carried out her revenge, tormenting and killing them.
She laughed, shrill and mocking. She had undone all I had devoted myself to, all that allowed me to live with the evil I felt inside me. My anger was a fire. I tore free of the vision.
She slid a claw down my cheek, telling me that now she was content to finally let me go. “Or,” she said, “maybe I’ll stay close, watch you save spirits, watch them flourish, then pull them apart, rip them to pieces.” A crooked smile laced her face and she turned to sidle up her web.
But the old one made a huge mistake that night. Perhaps, to her, goodliness only meant weakness. Perhaps she underestimated the value of those souls to me, underestimated the power of my rage, failed to see I might freely do what all her power had never forced me to. I struggled in her web of body and heart and mind and broke free. As a lion. Fangs, claws, wings, power. I shredded her strands like gossamer. She turned to face me and I leapt upon her. My claws tore into her as she tried to transform, tried to cast me off. But I held fast. Held tight with the power of my hate, my grief, my love for what she had destroyed.
Eventually she fell still. I felt the tremors from her body dying in the physical world. Her spirit form floated away and came apart, dark dust in the wind of the nether realm.
I shrank down into an old, sad owl and flew to my wounded apprentice. I transformed and cradled the small body. I wept. I had lost myself and everything I had tried to build. The old one had triumphed. She had made me what she wanted in the end. I had run away from death-dealing all my life, never knowing I was running straight to it. I wept, Ejiro’s broken body in my hands, my hated enemy regrettably dead, and the dawn closing in on me.
One could be a certain thing, but not be bound by it so long as one never gave up fighting it. I would keep fighting this thing I was, this evil Mama Ishaka saw in me, that she tried so hard to make me live out. Evil never wins until you stop fighting it.
Ejiro survived that night. I recovered my heart and resolve.
We stood at the top of the oldest palm tree in the village. The night was alive around us. Two realms open to us. I meant for us to change things. Two women, one almost too old, the other maybe too young and inexperienced, two witches against a world, the set way of things. But we were all there was and if we failed it wouldn’t be for lack of trying.
My apprentice looked to me.
“Perhaps good can never win,” I said. “But maybe evil not winning is enough. Enough to keep us going each day. I will train a cadre of good witches. You are the first.”
Ejiro nodded, and without prompting we leapt off, following the call of souls, connecting to the lines of power, soaring into the living blackness to carry out a dark goodness.
That was THE WITCHING HOUR by OGHENECHOVWE DONALD EKPEKI, and that was his first time on an EA podcast as an author–having pulled a shift or two in our own slush dungeons not so long ago–so if you enjoyed that and want more, you can find his website at odekpeki.com which has links to his other published fiction–in particular, O2 Arena, which won the 2022 Nebula Award for Best Novelette and was a Hugo finalist in the same category.
There’s a well-known saying about all it taking for evil to triumph is for good people to do nothing, which is all too relevant in recent days and years. I rather like the formality of the full John Stuart Mill quote: “Let not any one pacify his conscience by the delusion that he can do no harm if he takes no part, and forms no opinion. Bad men need nothing more to compass their ends, than that good men should look on and do nothing. He is not a good man who, without a protest, allows wrong to be committed in his name, and with the means which he helps to supply, because he will not trouble himself to use his mind on the subject.” In these days of rampant transphobia here on Normal Island, and the undeniable and seemingly-constant racist police brutality in the US, and nationalistic authoritarianism in India, and so much else in so many places, it’s a concept that feels as important as it ever has. We’ve all had the lessons on 1930s Germany and how the fascist power base was far less secure than they portrayed initially, but were emboldened by the passive acceptance of the majority. These are important points, and something the story works towards, and something we must all bear in mind every day of our lives.
But the thread of the story I really felt was in the generational damage, and the commitment to do better by the next. We are all products of our upbringing, and I–a child of 1980s Britain–have my fair share of ingrained prejudices that I’m constantly working to identify and unpick. That’s work I can never ease up on, and will never truly be finished with, because some of it was tattooed deep at the society level; and it’s all too obvious that there are plenty of people out there who not only aren’t committed to that work but are actively resistant to it, who complain at the very concept of unconscious bias or systemic prejudice. We cannot change all the hearts and minds of the here and now securely enough to make a lasting change. But what we can do is create a better environment for the next generation, for them to grow up with love and empathy soaked into their bones, not hate and suspicion. Even if we, the adults, are not perfect and flawless inside our heads–and it is not only okay to acknowledge that, I think, but important to acknowledge that, or how else can you work on it–even if our first thoughts are still grounded in those regressive early years, we can create an accepting environment for our children to absorb love and justice into their hearts, and build a better world on stronger foundations. That, I think, is the path to truly securing progress: breaking the generational cycles of pain and prejudice, making ourselves a buffer, a seawall between the past and the future, stealing the energy away from old hatreds that crash against us. That’s what our protagonist did here, making themselves a barrier between Mama Ishaka’s evil and Ejiro’s goodness, and it’s what we need to do if we’re to truly fix this society for all.
About the Author
Oghenechovwe Donald Ekpeki is an African speculative fiction writer and editor in Nigeria. He won the Nebula award and is a multi-Hugo finalist. He also won the Otherwise, Nommo, BFA, and is a finalist in the WFA, Locus, BSFA, and Sturgeon awards. His fiction and nonfiction have appeared in Strange Horizons, Galaxy’s Edge, Apex, Asimov’s, Tor.com, and more. He edited and published the Bridging Worlds anthology, the first-ever Year’s Best African Speculative Fiction anthology, and co-edited the Dominion and Africa Risen anthologies. He founded Jembefola Press and the Emeka Walter Dinjos Memorial Award For Disability in Speculative Fiction. He’s a 2022 Can*Con guest of honour and 2023 ICFA guest of honour.
About the Narrator
Shingai Njeri Kagunda is an Afrofuturist freedom dreamer, Swahili sea lover, and Femme Storyteller among other things, hailing from Nairobi, Kenya. She is currently pursuing a Literary Arts MFA at Brown University. Shingai’s short story “Holding Onto Water” was longlisted for the Nommo Awards 2020 & her flash fiction “Remember Tomorrow in Seasons” was shortlisted for the Fractured Lit Prize 2020. She has been selected as a candidate for the Clarion UCSD Class of 2020/2021. #clarionghostclass. She is also the co-founder of Voodoonauts: an afrofuturist workshop for black writers.
Her novella & This is How to Stay Alive is part of Neon Hemlock’s 2021 Novella Series.
About the Artist
Cindy Fan (she/her) is an illustrator and night owl who specializes in bringing stories to life in a dreamy and thoughtful manner for print and digital media. When she’s not drawing she loves walking slowly and aimlessly admiring the textures around her. Her work can be found at www.cind.ca