PodCastle 776: A Girl is Blood, Spirit, and Fire

Show Notes

Rated R

A Girl Is Blood, Spirit, and Fire

by Somto Ihezue


Scattering through the bushes, blades of elephant grass swaying high above her, Njika could see the Sanctuary etched into the mountainside — she only had to reach it. Across the shifting streams and the trees once men, she made it to the mountain’s foot, sweat glistening down her neck. Njika had ascended Nyirigango’s jagged terrain a dozen times, but nothing ever prepared her for the cold. It seeped into her bones, and the bison skin draped over her body could sparsely keep it out. Her breath forming plumes of white steam, up and up she went towards the Sanctuary walls as hornets of crystal ice stung her face. Stealing in through a window, she latched it shut else the cold whirled in behind her and put out the torches lining the aisles. The sensation in her toes returned, and Njika ran. Past the great pillars ensnarled by blooming vines that crept to the ceiling, down a flight of stairs, and into the archway of songs, its balconies overrun by hibiscus tendrils. Despite the cold outside, the Sanctuary of Nné Riliùgwū, They Who Drowned Seas, was as something alive, like September’s rains had poured right in.

Getting to the Hall of Faith, Njika skidded to a stop. She stifled a sneeze. The daisies sprouting on the marble sculptures always did that to her. At the hall’s centre, her spirit-sisters skirted a fire. She was late, again. An elder priestess waded around the girls — her hair locs of smoke reaching for the stone floor.

“To receive is to — ” Né Olude, the priestess, paused, as Njika inched towards the other girls. “Where have you been?” she asked, her tone suggesting irritation but not surprise.

“Milking the goats, Né.” Squeezing between Dubem and Amina, Njika sat and crossed her legs in meditation. “The stores ran dry this morning.”

Né Olude’s gaze stayed on her, and Njika shifted where she sat. She straightened her hair, composed herself, tiny white flakes showering down her face. Mountain frost. To all the spirits, Njika prayed the elder woman’s eyesight was as bad as they said. Initiates were forbidden from leaving the Sanctuary without a priestess. Orphaned like the other girls, if she got expelled, she’d have nowhere to go. She probably should have thought of that before traipsing down the mountain to go splash in the warm springs with the village children.

“ … to receive is to give.” Né Olude peeled her eyes off Njika, resuming her lecture.

“Né, what must we give?” Dubem asked, keen as ever.

“Everything, sweet child.”

The lessons ended, and the girls giggled off. When they crossed paths with an elder, they feigned piety, continuing their chatter with the priestess out of sight. All of fledging age, the age the spirits blessed the devoted, their excitement brimmed. Dubem had been chosen to lead the ritual. Of course she had. Dubem, who the priestesses called Nwa Amamihe, her brilliance unmatched. Dubem, who could sing all three-hundred-and-sixty-eight palm hymns. Dubem, whose robes were ever immaculate. Six years back, Njika had stuffed her pillow with cow dung, tricking the poor girl into believing the stench of death hovered around her. When the priestesses punished Njika, taking away her supper, Dubem had snuck her little slices of roasted yam. Nights later, in their sleep, Njika shaved off the eyebrows of all the girls who wouldn’t stop taunting Dubem, calling her the priestesses’ pet rat. Bonding over yam slices and shaved brows, the two girls became inseparable.

“What do you think the spirits would gift me?” Dubem asked as Njika and Amina plaited her hair in preparation for the ritual.

“The Sight!” Amina gasped. Only a few had the sight.

“What if we are gifted already?” Knotting the end of a braid, Njika started another. “Remember how I lit that hearth without any stones.”

“Shh!” Amina chided, peering around. “That trick was possible because you read the forbidden pages of Ibídó Òkû.” Her voice ebbed to a whisper. “You are begging to be expelled.”

“But — “

“We fledge when the spirits will it.” There was a finality in Amina’s words.

“I want the sight.” Dubem smiled, and Njika twisted a braid tight enough for the smile to wither off her face.

The night of Dubem’s fledging came, and while the Sanctuary slept, Njika yanked Amina out of bed.

“We could get in trouble,” Amina protested as they made for the Hall of Faith.

“I want to see it.”

“You will when your time comes.”

Njika ignored her.

They got to the hall. Its doors towering from ceiling to ground were bolted shut. Njika had no intention of using them. Adjacent stood the library door. Taking a pin from her hair, she poked at its keyhole, and when it did not budge, she muttered a spell, and the door creaked open. She threw a grin at an unimpressed Amina, and they went in, crouching from shelf to shelf till they reached the wall separating the library from the hall. From a shelf marked “Restricted Reading”, Njika reached for a book, the words “Ibídó Òkû: The Curses of the Burned Ones” italicised on its spine. Its covers were hot to the touch, so she wrapped it in her headscarf.

“What are you doing?” Amina couldn’t comprehend how she was eagerly adding theft to the list of rules they’d already broken.

“I’ll return it later.”

Njika moved another book to uncover a hole in the wall. Peeping through, they found Dubem on a raffia mat, a red cloth thrown across her heaving chest. Né Olude, Né Achacham, Né Ekhosiyator, Né Binta, and some other strangely hooded priestess encircled the girl, covering the night of her skin in powder. With tánjélè dye, they lined her eyelids. “See child, see the spirits, see the waters that tether you.”

“It’s starting,” Amina whispered.

The hooded priestess unveiled. Fifteen years Njika had lived in the Sanctuary, and she could count on one hand the times she’d seen the high priestess. Clad in black raiment, a contrast to the grey worn by the other priestesses, her bald head shone in the light; the texts of the old religion spilled across her skin, her face lettered in a language unspoken. Nné Muruoha was a rare fey sight. “Are you ready, child?” she asked.

Dubem nodded.

One at a limb, the priestesses held her. In their grip, Dubem was a hare caught in a snare. The high priestess drew a knife, and Amina clutched Njika’s arm. Over a fire, she heated the blade.

“There will be pain.” Spreading Dubem’s legs, her hand smoothed its way down her thighs.

“Let the spirits guide you,” Né Binta said.

“Let Nné Riliùgwū hear your call,” Né Achacham said.

It happened in a heartbeat. A cut. A splutter of blood. Amina lurched, looking away. Njika did not. The cry that left Dubem, she had never heard a thing like it. It pierced the walls, arrows through clouds.

Staunching the wound with wrapped ice, the chief priestess threw the thin piece of bloody flesh into the fireplace. When it met the flames, something, someone, spoke from the embers, and the priestesses spoke back.

“A gift for the spirits,” they echoed.

Two moons passed, and Njika’s eyes willed themselves open each night. The knife, Dubem, the blood, Nné Muruoha, the voice in the flames, they kept crashing into her mind like ocean tides. The circles beneath her eyes darkened with each nightmare. Njika wanted to feel something that wasn’t fear. Amina had not spoken a word to her, and no one had seen Dubem, not since the ritual. Hidden away in the Sanctuary tower, Né Olude said she was coming into her abilities, and once she acclimated, a fledged priestess, she’d be sent out into the world to spread the teachings of Nné Riliùgwū.

Njika saw only one way ahead. As dusk fell, the sun straining to shine a little longer, she snuck out of the Sanctuary. Outside, she gazed up at its walls, at the spires of symmetrical towers gleaming in the sunset, at the empty windows like eyes watching over the valley. Nestled in the peaks, the Sanctuary, worn with age and snow, refused to hide. Step by step, grab by grab, Njika scaled up the walls, the biting wind fluttering her braids to the side. Blast marks and ash from old wars riddled the pillars, and the rough stones repeatedly grazed her knees. Still, she climbed. Mounting her body onto the ledge of a window, Njika stopped, breathless in the thin air. This wasn’t her first time up the walls, but it was her first time this high. On the horizon, the setting sun poured out a sea of red, dousing the landscape in coloured fire. The clouds drifted right before her; maybe, just maybe, if she reached for them, they’d carry her into tomorrow.

Steadying herself on the ledge, “Mepere’m!” she incanted, and the window flung ajar. Inside was a room, the bricks of its walls a waning colour. And Dubem.

“Njika!” The startled girl rose from the edge of a small bed. Stray tufts of hair peeked from her braids, and the thin dress clinging to her body was many things but immaculate. “How —” She limped up to the window, helping her in.

“Wait till you hear of the time I jumped off the Mosai falls.” Njika smiled.

Dubem smiled back, a faint thing disappearing before it could fully form. “Né Olude spelled that window shut.”

“I’ve been doing some light forbidden reading.” Njika stood, hands akimbo, pride setting in her voice.

“Hm.” Failing at hiding a towel squeezed in her hand, Dubem sank back into the bed, and a hush fell in the room.

“The spirits.” Njika broke the quiet. “What gifts did they bring?”

With her toenails, Dubem began scratching lines into the floor. “Né Olude said I need more time.”

“Oh, I thought — “

“I knew you’d come that night.”


“You’re the only one who leaves tiny holes in walls.”

“I didn’t know —”

“There was so much — so much blood. I should have prepared better.”

“How do you prepare for something like that?” Njika sat on the bed, her eyes going to the towel. The softness of its wool was dented with red spots. “Does it still hurt?”

“Né Olude said I’d feel better in time.”

“How do you feel now?”

Dubem got lost in the room’s colour, or perhaps it was the wall carvings that held her stare; Njika could not tell. In place of eyes, Dubem had hollows. Like she was reaching into herself, in search of something, she shut her eyes. “Njika, please hold me.”

“Oh, Nwanne’m.” Njika took Dubem’s trembling body in hers, both their tears falling freely. And they stayed, in each other, in the fragments of their aching souls, and for a time, they were less afraid.

Night called, and the girls, still holding onto each other, said their goodbyes.

“I’ll be back tomorrow.”

“I know.”

“And I’m sorry for the time I stuffed your pillow with shit.”

“I know.”

They laughed, letting go, and Dubem watched Njika climb out the window, down the Sanctuary walls, into the dark.

What woke Njika wasn’t a nightmare. It was scuttling feet.

“What’s happening?”

“They found a body,” Munachi, her bunkmate, said, leaping off her bed and joining the slew of barefooted girls flitting out of the room. Njika went after her.

The last time an initiate died, she’d been attacked by a creature on her way down the mountain. A thumb was the only thing recovered of her. And though dreadfully unfortunate, the incident did nothing to deter Njika from her own little escapades.

Clustered on the stairs, the girls shoved each other as they stole glimpses of the priestesses conversing in hurried tones up and down the corridor below. The corridor soon went quiet, and one by one, the girls sauntered back to bed.

“Someone’s coming,” Munachi announced, and they all came scurrying back. Four men came into view, a wooden carrier balanced on their shoulders. Men were barred from the Sanctuary and from their lives. It was a sacred rule.

“You must unburden yourself of mortal longings,” Né Ekhosiyator never failed to remind them. “To fledge is to be above it all.”

But these circumstances were different. Njika recognised one of the men — the village blacksmith. On the carrier, the outline of a body could be seen beneath a white cloth. A hand slipped from under the fabric, and the girls gasped.

“They found her at the foot of the mountain.”

“I heard she was pushed.”

“No, she jumped,” Sade, the youngest of the girls, affirmed.

“But the tower windows are spelled shut.”

“The tower?” Njika rubbed the sleep lingering in her eyes.

“Yes, Dubem must have unsealed a window.”

The name surged from the tip of Njika’s toes to the ends of her hair, and everything fell away. All the sound, all the colour, fading into nothing. Her lungs forbade air, her throat ran dry, and her heart clawed at her chest, over and over again. Run. She had to run. And she ran, and she fell, and tender arms caught her.

“Are you all right?” Amina’s voice was an open present.

It flooded back in, the pale hand, the dim torches, the window, the one she unsealed.

“It — it was me.” A wracking sob overtook Njika as she covered her face with shaking hands. “It was me.”

“What are you doing out of bed!” The words came first, and at the end of it, Né Olude.

Mice spotting a feral cat, the girls all scampered off.

“Not you,” the priestess said as Amina pulled Njika up. “Come with me.”

The girls remained where they stood, and Né Olude, impatient and visibly agitated, strode towards them. Tearing Njika away, she dragged her down the stairs, the shaken girl struggling to find her balance. Njika had scoured every breadth of the Sanctuary, but at that moment, she couldn’t tell where she was, or where they were headed. Through what felt like seas of aisles, she found herself in The Hall of Faith. The other priestesses, Né Achacham, Né Binta, and Né Ekhosiyator, gave way as she was led in, their glares eating at her. At the end of the hall, Nné Muruoha rested her hands on a raised slab. On the slab, Dubem.

“No, please.” Njika fled back.

“Quiet,” the chief priestess hushed her. “The dead bare no teeth.”

Dubem was as a child asleep. She had been cleaned and pieced together, by Né Achacham no doubt. Once, Njika had watched the priestess stitch back a chopped-up rabbit, the threads she wove veiled to mortal eyes.

Dubem’s skin still held the night sky, her face, a full almond. Unbraided, her hair was a crown of brown fleece.

“We know you spoke to her.”

Njika kept silent as stone.

“Gaze upon me, child.” The high priestess lifted her chin with a finger. An eerie intimate sensation, Njika could feel her flipping through her mind. The Sight. All her thoughts, memories, and dreams laid bare. Nné Muruoha let go of her. From a nearby pillar, she plucked a jasmine. “You know why the sanctuary blooms.” She tucked the flower in Njika’s hair. “Our great mother, Nné Riliùgwū, clawed through this mountain, into the world. Where her hands broke the rocks sprouted a garden, a sanctuary. The spirits of our sisters past live in these stones,” she said, her fingers tracing the murals on the wall. “In every leaf and petal, in us. By their might, we are fueled.”

“And in exchange?” A pebble into a lake, Njika’s voice rippled across the hall.

“You speak when spoken to!” Né Olude spun her around, her palm hard against the girl’s cheek.

Nné Muruoha raised a hand, and the priestess withdrew. “Power devours.” She took the jasmine from Njika’s hair. “Your little hexes and tricks may seem harmless, but without the spirits to guide you, they’ll consume you, until all that’s left is blinding darkness.” In her hand, the flower wilted away. “This is why we fledge. In return for their providence, we offer the spirits fragments of ourselves steering us towards temptation, astray from the light. Do you understand?”

“A blinding darkness?” Njika’s face could not decide between confusion and dread. “What could be darker than this?”

Murmurings erupted from the priestesses.

“Once, we were many.” Nné Muruoha looked over to the four of them huddled in the corner, worry written on their faces. They too knew this story. “Then one of us thought as you do now and sought power outside the spirits. It cost them their soul. Claimed by unspeakable forces, they wreaked havoc across the realms. Blamed for the actions of our sister, the priestesses of Nné Riliùgwū were hunted, murdered, and marked as demons.” The chief priestess tugged the neck of her robe. Carved into her chest, Ékwénsū. “Those of us who survived now spread the teachings of Nné Riliùgwū, doing whatever it takes to redeem ourselves, to redeem the spirits.” Taking Njika by the shoulders, she brought her forehead to hers. “There is strength in you. I see it. Help us guide your sisters, else they crumble and fall.”

Nné Muruoha returned to the slab, pulling the cloth back over Dubem’s face. “Now tell me, Njika, are you willing to do whatever it takes?”

“. . . yes.”

Days bled by, and as Nné Muruoha bade, Njika readied herself. She spent her nights studying the scripts of Nné Riliùgwū, the utterances of the spirits, and to her sisters, she whispered words of assurance, among other things. Gone was the laughter, the chatter, and the sneaking down the mountain. And when Dubem’s mourning rites were over, Njika’s time came.

Hair rolled into bulbs, into The Hall of Faith she went. The priestesses received her, laying her on a mat. Njika gazed at the ceiling, at the creeping branches and carvings, and she wondered if Dubem had seen the same things.

“Are you ready to give?” Nné Muruoha started.


Like they did Dubem, the priestesses took her, one at a limb, and when their hands met her skin, they pulled away, screaming, their hands charred, the smell of roasted flesh taking to the air. Njika was as burning coal, like the sun lived in the lining of her body.

“What is this!” Né Olude shuddered.

“What I have, I give,” Njika said, and like a landmine, she detonated.

Thrown across the hall, the dazed priestesses watched as she soared through the debris and dust, the black of her eyes, the starting of fire. She stretched open her mouth, and giant serpents born of flames came slithering out. Né Achacham and Né Ekhosiyator were the first to perish. No bones were left, only ash and the echo of what was once their screams. Witnessing the slaughter of their sisters, Né Binta and Né Olude frantically conjured a shield of pure energy between themselves and the blazing snakes. But with every passing minute, the shield weakened, the heat slowly cooking them alive.

Blood streaming down her face, Nné Muruoha stood in the chaos. And the serpents came for her. Bracing herself, she spread her arms wide, and before the creatures could consume her, she clapped. Like candles in a breeze, the serpents burned out.

“Insolent child!” The high priestess strained her hand towards Njika, and when she slammed her fist to the ground, Njika went with it, crashing to the floor. “Do you think you stand a chance against us?” Behind her, Né Olude and Né Binta emerged, angry and scalded all over.

“No, not me.” Njika looked up at them. “Us.”

Chanting into the hall, Sade, Munachi, Letisiju, Adaobi, Ugochinyere, Dumebi, Funmilayo, Daberechi, Nkiru, Amina. All her spirit-sisters. “Anyi di Ofu, di puku iri — We are one, we are ten thousand.”

Thorned roots sprang from the earth, writhing around the priestesses as the girls chanted louder. And the more they struggled, the tighter the roots, the thorns digging into their skin.

“Né Ekhosiyator and Né Achacham?” Amina asked, looking around. Her eyes followed Njika’s to the pile of ash heaped in the corner. “You weren’t supposed to —”

“It is already done.”

Still battling the roots, Nné Muruoha shrieked a shrill, piercing thing. “You bind my hands, but my voice runs free. Across the realms, my sisters heed my call. They come.”

“We have to go.” Amina gathered the other girls. “Now.”

“I can’t,” Njika said, staring down at her arms. Branching across them, thick black veins throbbed like little heartbeats. “They’d just find another set of orphans to mutilate.”

“No, we need to stick together. If the other priestesses find you . . . the things they’ll do.”

“They can try.”

“I’ve lost one sister.” Amina wiped the tears fogging her eyes. “I will not do it again.”

“You won’t.” Njika’s hand went to Amina’s chest. “I’ll be here, next to Dubem.”

They squeezed into each other, and one by one, their sisters joined in till they were one big cocoon of little women.

“Go.” Njika heaved away from them.

And so the girls ran, out the hall, past the Sanctuary gates, into the mountain. Left behind, Njika crafted a ritual of her own.

“What abomination do you breed!” Nné Muruoha was not yet spent.

“Come and see.” Njika opened her mind, letting the priestess in.

“No, no — that is not possible. You do not possess such power!”

“We are the damned, the unbowed, the vengeful.” Njika laughed in a hundred soulless voices. “We birth power.” Exhaling, a fire rekindled within her and engulfed the space she stood in. Her fingers morphed to talons, and with them, she slit her wrists, her blood hissing into the flames.

Bia, ndi choro obara umuazi, ebe a ka unu ga anwu ozo  —  Come, you craving the blood of little girls, here, you die again.”

And they came, the voices, the ones that spoke when Dubem was cut. Like distant drumming on a hill, they whispered to her, promises.

“No.” Njika drowned them out. “It is your screams I want.”

With that, the fires roared, infernal, everything in their path coming undone.

Outside, nestled together, Amina and the other girls watched as yellow–blue flames swept across the roof, licking the walls and reducing the Sanctuary to rubble and singed wood.

“We should go,” Sade said, as waves of heat forced them back, harsh black smoke billowing up the mountain. “No one could have survived that.”

“Just a little longer,” Amina pleaded.

“We need to cover more ground before the other priestesses come looking for —”

The Sanctuary gates blasted off their hinges, and the girls scrambled back. From the crackling carnage, a girl, hair rolled into bulbs, came forth. In her eyes, a thing, nameless, power uncharted, built.



Host Commentary

…aaaaand welcome back. That was A GIRL IS BLOOD, SPIRIT, AND FIRE by SOMTO IHEZUE, and while he’s narrated for us before, and works behind the scenes as EA’s Original Fiction Manager, it’s actually his first story on one of our casts. However! He has had stories out at Cossmass Infinities, Fireside and more, all conveniently linked from his website at somtoihezue.wordpress.com

Somto told us this about A GIRL IS BLOOD, SPIRIT, AND FIRE: This story was difficult to write due to the weight and sensitive nature of certain elements in it. The barbaric ritual performed at some point in this story is based off deeply rooted cultural beliefs associated with specific African societies. Though extremely harmful, traumatic, and a violation of human rights, the act is unfortunately still performed to date. Writing this story, I strived, above all else, to tell it with empathy, with respect, and in solidarity with persons who are victims and survivors of the practice.

Thank you, Somto, for the thoughts and the story. We are a fantasy podcast, and as such we mostly deal with the invented and the imagined. Female genital mutilation, however, is all too real. The World Health Organization estimate that more than 200 million girls and women alive today have undergone FGM, mostly on young girls under 15, with 3 million a year at risk of it annually. In some countries, according to data from UNICEF, as much as 73% of girls aged up to 14 have undergone FGM, as reported by their mothers.

These figures are horrifying, and they are unnecessary. There are no medical benefits to female genital mutilation, and no purported spiritual or cultural benefits are worth the price in death, pain, humiliation, trauma, and medical complications in later life. 1 in 3 girls who have FGM forced upon them will die as a result. It is a brutal practice that has no place in any society.

There are charities and foundations out there trying to eradicate FGM, working directly in communities and putting pressure on international governments. In particular, Desert Flowers was founded by Waris Dirie, a Somali-born supermodel who was subjected to FGM at the age of 5. You can find out more about their mission, and details on how to support them, at desertflowerfoundation.org

About the Author

Somto Ihezue

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.

Find more by Somto Ihezue


About the Narrator

Pemi Aguda

’Pemi Aguda is from Lagos, Nigeria. W.W. Norton will publish her debut short story collection, Ghostroots, in early 2024 and her debut novel, The Suicide Mothers, in 2025. Her work has appeared in Zoetrope, Granta, ZYZZYVA, Tor.com, and One Story.

Find more by Pemi Aguda