In The Woods Somewhere (or Stories Never Leave)
by Victor Forna
Gods Slap Those Who Summon Them.
We shouldn’t have been there — but we were, hiding behind the kola-nut tree, peering into the silver night, parents worried over our empty beds back home, and that’s why we can tell you today, beside this fire, how the old god was summoned from underneath the earth. Pa Yamba, who had changed his name to Peter —
Don’t interrupt me.
But we’re both telling the story.
Whatever. Pa Yamba, who had changed his name to Ruben, was the only one who opposed the invocation. “These things always go bad,” he said. Bai Masim, chief of traditions, gave Pa Yamba a reply: “We prayed to the god that those priests brought from their lands, we prayed to his son, we even used their shotguns. Has any of that helped us against these – these – what’s the word?” The catholic stayed quiet, blinking too many times. During his silence, we sighted Thara coming out of a nearby hut. Thara wasn’t even a —
You don’t know that. What does it even matter to the story? And, if she wasn’t a virgin, tell me, would her blood have accomplished the summoning? Tell what needs to be told, or I will take it from here.
You could never tell this story better than me. I only mentioned that so they’d understand why the god slapped Thara when he arose. Anyway, before all that, Thara walked naked, hugging herself to cover her breasts from the cold and the lustful eyes of the elders —
They didn’t look at her that way. Come on.
Whatever. The elders led Thara to a small, rectangular pit. Bai Masim showed her how she must stand over it: feet apart, and resting on the longer sides of the opening. Thara stood so for a while, then her blood, streaking down her legs, began dripping into the pit. One. Two. At the third drop, Bai Masim started chanting an uncanny tune, flinging his feet before him like a rabbit in want of freedom from a snare —
Could just say he danced . . . Bai Masim danced, and chanted strange words to please the god and lure him out.
Keep quiet. That wasn’t dancing. After minutes of his jerky movements, Bai Masim set dried kola-nuts on fire, and dropped them into the cavity over which Thara still bled. Pale-red smoke flooded the pit in seconds. The breeze grew colder, and a fetid smell loomed in it. Thara fell on her back, away from the hole, and was screaming, as smoke writhed around her and the elders. “This is pure evil,” Pa Yamba might’ve said. But we couldn’t hear him. “If you don’t close your mouth! Better this than them,” Bai Masim might’ve replied, pointing skyward. We couldn’t hear him either; screams and thunder —
Snarls from the underworld, or wherever gods hail from —
Filled the midnight air. Allow me to tell this story. A twitching hand, long and bony, poked out of the pit. Thara and the elders launched at it, pulling the entity from the hole. At the end of their struggle, an old god towered before them. They gaped at him in awe. Before anyone could say a word, the god gave Thara a slap which echoed in the distant —
We don’t know why he slapped —
But we do. It was because she wasn’t a —
The god faced the elders. His voice thundered, shaking the gut. “How dare you summon me? Without a — you want to see my face? Well, look at it.” He careened in the elders’ direction, inching his face downward to them. “Look!”
That was when we saw his face. His face was — no — there was no face where his face should have been. Words came from a slit in the base of his neck.
Someone Give This God A Mask.
When one invokes gods, he must keep them a face, a mask —
The mask tradition originated here. Before people started wearing them for ceremonies and entertainment.
Who asked you? But yes, most gods have no face. It’s either a pit of swirling darkness, or — as was with Okolŋ, the summoned god — protruding flesh, like a breast without a nipple. A beard-like mass of flies buzzed where his chin should have been. Bai Masim dashed homeward in the night for a mask. It had skipped his mind to have one with him, and the scene — pot-bellied, out of shape man racing to save our village, was quite tragic —
Now you call it tragic. Didn’t you laugh?
Sad things are usually very funny. And if you interrupt me one more time, we’ll fight here! Bai Masim returned, breathless, sweating. The mask he brought was a carved wooden helmet, with eyes, nose, lips squashed close together at the center. He handed it to Okolŋ. Though without eyes, the god vetted the mask — rubbing it with his fingers, holding it close to his not-face. A hiss rose from his throat, followed by obscenities against Bai Masim’s mother. “How dare you disrespect me with such a pretty face?” Okolŋ began to leave, heading for the pit in the ground. “If he returns,” Bai Masim said, “he’ll tell all the gods of our disrespect. None of them will come to our summoning again till after seven years. Dance, all of you. I’ll go get an uglier mask. Dance.” So all the elders, old men, became rabbits caught in traps, dancing to save our village, dancing so Okolŋ wouldn’t go away.
And it worked. Okolŋ tarried, enjoying the dance and the rising dust, till Bai Masim came back with another mask.
Shush. It was a Kɔŋɔli Mask this time, grotesque. Okolŋ took it. The mask depicted the face of something human-like. Protruding forehead; bugged-out eyes; oversized nose and ears; red, bloated lips. He wore it over his head, raffia quivering in the night wind. “It has been ages since I came up,” he said. “Tell me why you have called on me.” Pa Yamba answered in haste —
“Aliens. Our village is under attack from aliens.” Sorry, but I wanted to be the one who revealed that to them.
You’re ruining the story. I don’t like you.
You love me, sweet brother! And I think we’re telling the story pretty well . . .
Wanna-be Ronsho In Granat-kanda Spaceships.
“These aliens have plagued our village for almost two months. At first, we listened to the priests who said the aliens were children of a certain Lucifer, and that we should pray to their god for salvation. We prayed. We fasted. But the aliens still came down as they pleased, leaping out of the sky. Then the priests, who seemed to know much, and nothing at all about these creatures, armed us with guns to protect ourselves. The guns, indeed, hinder the aliens, but they still terrorize us as they like. They abduct our small children, take our livestock, and burn our farms. Anyone who dares stand against them is slaughtered before the next morning. Okolŋ. Old god. This is why we have summoned you, that you may fight for us, where all else has failed, and send away these wanna-be ronsho in their granat-kanda spaceships.”
God’s Gun, Devil’s Bullets.
Okolŋ agreed to fight the aliens. “I, Okolŋ, shall rid you of this infestation from the stars!” All he asked the villagers for were two shotguns. The bullets he’d use in them wouldn’t be ordinary, but white cowries from the riverside —
We eavesdropped from behind swaying shrubberies as the elders gave the god ronko to wear, to cover his private parts.
I’ll punch your mouth.
But that’s a good detail, no?
Anyway, the elders handed Okolŋ the guns and the bullets he requested. Then gestured him with raised lanterns to the woods, wherein a charred clearing lay.
We stalked the god, in the shadows. His steps echoed through the silence of the night, haunting our ears.
What happened when Okolŋ entered the forest, my sister and I cannot agree on. I saw the old god walk into an ambush. The sky-people knew he was coming. Before he could draw out his shotguns, they rained giant chains on him, which snaked around his limbs, yanking him into the air. Okolŋ was helpless, struggling, shrieking, as the aliens flew off with him, never to return.
But I saw a great battle. Okolŋ entered the clearing. The aliens were there in their spaceships. The Kɔŋɔli-masked god cocked his guns, aimed skyward, and growled, “Leave my people.” Cowry bullets took wind. Spaceships exploded into fires of different colors. “I am Okolŋ,” he asserted. “These are my people.” He fought the attacking aliens off, knocked some out with the back of his guns, shot at others, destroyed spaceships. The clearing was loaded with the odor of death. Okolŋ stood triumphant in the end. Guns resting on his shoulder, the old god marched across the dark, to the underworld, or wherever old gods hail from.
Doesn’t even matter what happened there in the woods. Aliens will never attack us again. Okolŋ fought on our behalf, as old gods often do, and saved us all. It was after this action — be it selfish betrayal by men, or epic battle between god and aliens — that we hurried home, back to our worried parents. This is the end of the story —
But we’ll tell it again, won’t we?
Mhm. Of course. Stori go, stori kam.
Plot Twists And Euphemisms.
We shouldn’t have been there — but we were [ . . . ] and that’s why we can tell you how the old god was summoned from underneath —
What was the name of your mother, your father?
We don’t know. Don’t interrupt —
Why were they worried over your beds?
Stop talking. Listen.
Una stori nɔ gɛt ed, i nɔ gɛt tel! You tell it as though you were there, but you lie. You’re only retelling things your mother told you — and you muddy the waters when you mention her, to confuse us. You lace your story with half-truths and silly jokes. We know the names of your parents. We know who you are.
Stop talking —
Your mother’s name was Thara. Your father’s name was Okolŋ. We know the true story!
We are the ones who tell stories. You are our captives —
The story began one twilight. The sky over a certain village yawned, and from its mouth came strange creatures: stunted and green-grey, large-eyed. These sky-creatures killed and took from the village, till the village trembled when giving. The locals did all they could against them, to no avail. Exhausted, they looked at each other one night and said, “Let’s call Okolŋ. He protected our ancestors. He’ll save us.” Now in the same village, there lived an orphan named Thara. When no one was brave enough, Thara told the elders she’d give herself to the god — for old gods, when summoned, demanded a girl to impregnate, or a boy to be impregnated by.
And so it was; Okolŋ planted in Thara his seed, then went on to rid the village of the sky-creatures. Months later, Thara gave birth to twins, twins who shared one body. But Thara only held them for two years — the ungrateful elders called them abominations, snatched them from her, and flung them into the woods to die.
But the children of old gods are resilient; the twins survived the bush, kept themselves warm by a fire, and comforted each other with stories their mother used to tell them. And whosoever wandered their part of the forest, they disoriented, tied next to their lonesome flames, and told them stories, over and over, till their ears could no longer listen and they turned to bones. The twins only let go a captive if they could tell the story of their birth and call them by their true names: Wath-Ka-Kəru Pin, and Wath-Ka-Kəru Pərəŋ.
I wish we didn’t have to let them go. Now we’re alone again.
Don’t cry, brother. Others will come. And till then, we’ll have mama’s stories to keep us company — stories never leave.
About the Author
Victor Forna is a Sierra Leonean writer based in his country’s capital Freetown. He currently works as an environmentalist. His short fiction and poetry have been published or are forthcoming in homes such as Fantasy Magazine, Tales to Terrify, Lolwe, Short Story Day Africa Anthology: Disruption, and elsewhere. He is an alumnus of the 2022 AKO Caine Prize Writing Workshop. You can find him on twitter @vforna12.
About the Narrators
Ada Nnadi is a tired psychology student praying the Nigerian government lets them get their degree so they’re one step closer to gaining the ability to read minds. Their work has appeared in Omenana, Anathema, Giganotosaurus and TOR (Africa Risen, 2022). They will one day be the mother of many cats, two birds (because that’s the closest they’ll ever have to getting a pet dinosaur), one snake—and maybe a small dog.
Moustapha Mbacké Diop is a speculative fiction writer from Dakar, Senegal. He studies medicine and is obsessed with African mythology, animation and horror films. His work has appeared in Omenana, If There’s Anyone Left: Volume 2, and is forthcoming in the Africa Risen anthology.
Somto lives in Lagos with his sister, their dog; River, and their cats; Ify and Salem. He is a big movie geek, a runner, and a wildlife enthusiast. A fan of white-soled shoes and heavy rainfall, he also fantasizes about becoming a high supreme witch. His works have appeared or are forthcoming in Tordotcom, Omenana Magazine, and others. Follow him on Twitter @somto_ihezue where he tweets about his bi-monthly quarter-life crisis, among things.