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The Air Beneath Her Feet

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Nsibidi remembered exactly the moment she had realized that she wasn't an idiok. For most of her early childhood, it had never occurred to her that she wouldn't be. The idioks were her closest friends, her family, and while she knew that her parents did not look like other kids' parents (and vaguely, because she had no mirror, that she didn't look like the other kids), that seemed like a minor detail of no consequence. Everyone in their troop was different: her best friend Oji had a darker pelt than any of the others, and Amadi was really thin and scared of everything. They all had hands and feet, eyes pointing front and no tail, which made them a lot more like each other than like lizards or mice.

As she grew older, though, she was expected to learn the difference, not just between lizard, mouse and idiok, but between gecko and agama, dormouse and climbing mouse, and as a result of this, her eye for detail became keener. She had never wondered before why her parents flew and nobody else did, any more than she wondered why Oji's father Ikenna was the leader of the troop or why Oluchi was the best cook. But one morning she was watching her parents practice their skills in the air. One of the older idioks walked by, throwing a reluctantly impressed glance at the spectacle above, and she saw. Once seeing, she didn't know how she could ever not have seen.

They were the only ones to fly. Their skin – her skin too – was smooth and brown, not furry and greyish. They were much taller. Their eyes were bigger, their faces flatter, with rounder lips and noses, and their hair grew long on their heads, curling around green vines. They were much more different from the idioks than the gecko was from the agama.

“What are we?” she asked her parents that night. “Are there more people like us?”

Mother's arm went up to rest around Father's back, and his hand to her shoulder.

“We're humans,” Father said, just as Mother said, “We're Windseekers.” Father amended: “We're both of those things. And yes, there are more of us, just not here.”

“Where, then?” Nsibidi asked.

“In the Ooni Kingdom, far beyond the jungle. And on Earth...” Father threw a glance at Mother. “Which is an entirely different world.”

Outside of the jungle was, in itself, a different world to Nsibidi, who couldn't imagine what else might possibly exist. She pestered her parents with questions: What were those places like? How many people like them were there? Why didn't they live there anymore? They answered with numbers and details that made her head spin – hundreds of hundreds of hundreds of people, they told her, more people in the world than mosquitos in the air on a hot day. They lived in trees that grew up to the skies, and cultivated plants that could speak to each other, remembering stories and charts from the beginning of time. When they needed to move quickly, they used machines that could carry them faster than the cheetah runs. They wore their body jewelry longer and more flowing than even Mother, and sometimes there were little flat circles sewn into the hem that could show your face more clearly than any river. And on Earth, instead of using plants they made the earth itself do their will, forming metal and hardened oil into tools.

The humans clearly had very powerful juju, and Nsibidi's head was swimming with the stories. Every night after that, she dreamed of living in a plant that grew up to the sky, and as it opened its petals it spoke to her, urging her on as she shook her hair out and flew, lighter and faster than her parents could ever manage.

On one morning after such a dream, she woke up with a stomach pain and a strange feeling of detachment from her surroundings. It took her a moment to realize that she was drifting inches above the ground, and another to see the bloodstain on the leaves of her bed.

This new development distracted her, and the struggles to control her flight meant that it took even longer for her to return to one of those early questions about humans:

Why aren't we living with them?


 

Nsibidi still cared for her idiok friends, especially Oji, but she could not forget the human world. Periodically she pestered her parents about moving to the Ooni kingdom and seeing other humans, but it was a full two years before they agreed, and only then with the interference of Obax, the highly thought-of chief of the gorilla flock known as the Modern People. The flock themselves never interacted with humans, though, and Nsibidi recognized the triumphant look shared between her parents when Obax, in a disdaining tone, mentioned technology.

“As long as I remain leader, such a thing will never take root in our homes,” he said, and Nsibidi saw that look and frowned, digging her toes into the earth like she could command it to take her straight to the kingdom.

“Perhaps you would tell our daughter,” Father said, in one of those jokes that weren't a joke at all.

Obax' dark, kind eyes met Nsibidi's, and he made a gruff sound in his throat, but didn't reply.

Later that night, Nsibidi hovered above the encampment, hearing them speak in low, concerned voices.

“She is human,” Obax said. “She has the right to find out what that entails.”

“You know what they're like,” Mother said, her hands protectively stroking the round shape of her belly where the new baby was growing. “On both my world and this one. They would never accept her, any more than they could accept us. She is better off here.”

“I agree,” Obax said.

“But then...”

“But her heart longs for her people. If you keep her away from them, that longing will only fester. Let her see for herself and make her own choice.”

Hearing this, Nsibidi made a small, crowing sound, which she hurried to quench. She listened eagerly as her parents argued, and at last, agreed. Careful not to be discovered, she waited until they both left, and was about to fly away when Obax raised his head and called to her:

“It is no great favour I have granted you, little Windseeker. You may find humans and their civilized ways less than you hoped for. Best of luck anyway!”

“Thank you, Ichie Obax,” she said, grinning wider than a frog. “Thank you so much!”


 

The first view of skyscraper plants, even from a distance, was beyond anything she could have dreamed of – flowers blooming at the end of the long stalks, glow coming from the windows, and down below, something that looked like bugs, zooming by.

As she went closer, she saw that the “bugs” were about the size of a lion, made of vines and metal, and with great big wheels instead of legs. People were sitting on top of them, going this way and that through roads flattened with constant use.

“What are those things?” she asked, eyes widened so she wouldn't miss a single second of their presence.

“Okadas,” Father said, prodding her along. “Come on. We need to find some place to stay.”

She followed, head still turned back, and some humans moved into her line of sight. They were so much like her and her parents that they made her laugh in delight. It took her a moment to realize that their expressions were strangely dismissive; one of them, a boy younger than her, was downright hostile. The vicious glare made her stumble over her feet, and as the boy brushed by her, he hissed, “Dada.”

“What's... what does that mean?” she asked, staring after him. “What did I ever do to him? What's dada?”

Mother put an arm around Nsibidi and pulled her so close that she could feel the faint kicks of the baby through the loose dress.

“What's dada?” Nsibidi repeated, having to take double-steps to keep up with Mother's strides.

“It's us. It's what they call us, because of our hair.”

Nsibidi pulled loose one of her long locks and tried to see what could have made the boy so angry. Was it the vines? But they were perfectly harmless vines, not poisonous or thorny in any way.

“Is that bad?” she asked.

“No, of course not,” Mother said with a wide smile and a voice that only shook a little.

Nsibidi knew she was lying, but she couldn't figure out why. Why would their hair matter?

As the days, weeks, months went by, she still couldn't figure it out. Her parents got jobs with the weavers and put her in school. She learned how to operate a CPU and a flash disk player, and she was determined to learn how to drive an okada as soon as she was old enough. Despite the things Opax had said, technology had its uses. And people... people were definitely interesting, to watch and to interact with, so different from both the idioks and the gorillas. Unfortunately, they were also quite often afraid of her. That was what it came down to: fear. While her parents tried to explain human reactions to that which was different, she couldn't help feeling that only a silly, cowardly creature would be afraid of hair.

More puzzling still, her parents – brave, sturdy parents who could face down the predators of the Greeny Jungle – were afraid of them, and that just made no sense whatsoever. They wouldn't even let her fly outside anymore, and made her pull down the curtains every time she practiced indoors. That was extremely annoying. You couldn't really get any kind of height indoors, not even going between the floors. And on cleaning days, while Nsibidi could fly up to the ceiling to remove dead leaves from the pattern, she wasn't allowed to do the same to the roof. She had to climb to get on there, and pretend to hold onto something as she gathered the garbage in a bag. It was time-consuming and unnecessary, and she only complied because she could tell how jittery her parents were about the whole thing.

They were just waiting for a reason to pack up and go back to the jungle, and so she made sure to voice, as often as possible, her desire to stay. Yes, life in the city had its definite downsides, but she wasn't anywhere near finished exploring its possibilities yet.

After her little brother Ebele was born, they were far too busy taking care of him to think about moving, and Nsibidi could relax a little, take her time learning about new things, read up about the other parts of the Ooni Kingdom she hadn't seen yet. She noted down everything that seemed interesting: the metalworks of the southeast, the elaborate cooking of the northwest – her stomach rumbled just reading about it – the fishing towns by the ocean, the nomads of the savannah.

She kept a separate note file for everything to do with Earth, but had very little noted down into it. Most authors didn't even mention Earth, and those who did seemed to consider it a fairy tale, the only details scraped up from half-remembered legends. Above all, there seemed to be no way of getting there.

She asked Mother, who sighed and said, “Oh, darling, why bother about all that? Isn't this enough?”

It wasn't. Nsibidi was starting to get the feeling that it never would be.


 

When Ebele was old enough to walk and talk and eat on his own, they all moved back to the Greeny Jungle. Nsibidi didn't mind so much. She felt done with that particular corner of the Ooni Kingdom, and if they were going to be staying in the same place, the jungle had more to offer.

The idioks welcomed them back with a warmth that surprised her, after she had been away from it for so long. Her old playmate Oji was now fully grown, with a regal tilt of her head well suited to the chief's daughter.

“What was the human city like?” she asked Nsibidi when the two got a chance to chat together the morning after the family's arrival.

“Different,” she said, struggling to put all the differences into words as she explained the technology and people to Oji, who listened intently.

“It sounds like a place I would like to see,” she said when Nsibidi had finished.

“It's... I don't think they'd be nice to you,” Nsibidi said, thinking of that strange divide humans put up between themselves and any other living thing. She hurried to add, “But I would protect you.”

“I know you would.” Oji drew elaborate symbols in the sand with a long finger. “Do you want to go back?”

“Maybe, some day,” Nsibidi said slowly, thinking of what that would entail. “I think first, though, I would like to see more of the Ooni Kingdom... and of Earth. I think of Earth most of all.” She shook her head. “What am I saying? I'll never go there. I don't even know how.”

Oji stood up, wiping the symbols away with her toes, looking down at them so she wouldn't have to meet Nsibidi's eyes. “You will. Some day, you will.”

Nsibidi didn't ask how she knew. Some of the idioks had a skill for prophecy. It was strong in Ikenna, and stronger still in his daughter. She knew her friend was telling the truth, and her heart soared.


 

The future as seen by the idioks was never straightforward. Still, Nsibidi was confused when Oji, several months later, took her to a prophecy drawn on the ground, with sticks forming a circle around it to prevent it from being wiped out.

“This is for you,” Oji said, as if the whole thing were obvious.

Nsibidi knew the idiok script as well as any human kind, but this was as if Oji had given her a dead antpecker and told her to wear it. Words like “how” and “what?” turned up in her head.

The symbols read: The first full moon in the wet season, the first flood of your cleansing, the first steps out of the jungle.

“What does that mean?” she asked.

“It's the road to Earth,” Oji said.

Filled with anticipation, Nsibidi started doing calculations in her head. The wet season was coming up soon enough, and all she needed for the full moon to coincide with her cleansing was luck – luck she was certain of, why else would the prophecy make itself known now? But the first steps out of the jungle could be any direction at all, and as instructions went, they were definitely on the vague side.

“How does it work?”

Oji made a sympathetic grimace. “This is all I know.”

Faced with that, Nsibidi figured that the logical next step was to confront Mother. Since time was an issue, she did it right away.

Mother was making Jollof rice over the open fire, and smiled when she saw her daughter appear, though the smile quickly disappeared at the sight of Nsibidi's expression.

“What's wrong?”

“How does my cleansing and the full moon serve to take me to Earth?”

There hadn't really been any doubt as to the accuracy of Oji's prophecy, but the way Mother's hands started shaking confirmed it entirely.

“Where did you hear of that?”

“Oji foresaw it. How does it work?”

Mother sighed and looked away. “It might not. The circumstances must be right...”

“If the circumstances weren't about to be right, that prophecy wouldn't have come now,” Nsibidi stubbornly insisted. “How do I do it?”

“Child, this is not a good idea. Earth is unlike anything you've ever seen. It is so much worse.” One of Mother's dada locks was falling down, and she pushed it away with a slight frown. “It's such an ugly world. The buildings are stone and dead wood, and the people are so cruel that the animals have stopped speaking to them.”

Nsibidi crossed her arms. “I'm not a child, and I'll manage. If there is a way there, I want to go, to see for myself.”

Mother stirred the rice in sharp, stabbing motions. “You'd be in danger. Most of them have never even heard of dada locks. They'd treat you as a curiosity, a freak. Not to mention what would happen if they found out you could fly.”

“All right, then,” Nsibidi said and stalked off into the house.

Mother must have believed the quarrel won, because by the time she called, “Nsibidi? Nsibidi, what are you doing?” Nsibidi had already found the largest pruning shears, used for heavy construction work, and was sawing through the vines of her dada locks, one at a time, with a determination that would not stop for any pain.

She returned to the fire triumphant, sore, and bald. Holding her head high was easy – it felt so eerily light.

Upon seeing her, Mother burst into tears. “Oh, Nwa, what have you done? What if you've lost your flight?”

“What's the point of flying if you won't let me go anywhere?” Nsibidi snapped.

Mother took her into a big hug and kissed the burning scalp. “What if you can't come back? What if I lose you forever?”

At that, Nsibidi softened somewhat, and tears welled up in her own eyes too as she hugged back. “I don't want to lose you, Nne. I will miss you terribly. But if I don't take that path, I will regret it forever. It will eat at my heart. Please, I want to see the world you came from.” The warm hug made her feel like a child again, and maybe that was the reason she resorted to bargaining: “If I help fry the plantains, will you show me the way?”

Mother laughed sadly, a soft rumble against Nsibidi's ear. “Oh, you silly girl. This is no matter of simple bribery. But yes, I'll show you.”

Hidden against Mother's bosom, Nsibidi smiled.


 

They all came to see her travel – not just her family, but the idiok troop as well. Nsibidi kissed her dear ones farewell, but was surprised when Oji gave her a long-fingered pat on the cheek and said, “I'm coming with you.”

“Are you sure?” Nsibidi asked, and although the argument had meant very little to her coming from Mother, she added, “It will not be safe. You can't even let them hear you speak.”

“I will come,” Oji said, with a simple finality that indicated yet another prophecy.

Nsibidi knew better than to argue; she just nodded. The two of them proceeded on their own, leaving the others behind.

The clouds had drawn tightly, but through a gap Nsibidi could still see the full moon. Heavy raindrops started falling, and as they approached the edge of the jungle, she felt a familiar warm trickle between her legs. Her stomach was churning in both pain and anticipation, but she had taken no medicine, so as to not interfer with what was to come.

At the last tree, they stopped, and Nsibidi, feeling a bit self-conscious, reached under her clothes and let her fingers get wet, drawing on the ground the symbols her mother had showed.

Nothing seemed to change, but as she looked up, she could see on the horizon something that looked like large termite mounds.

“Come on,” she told Oji. The two of them walked off together, and the heavy rain washed away the blood behind them.

The mounds turned out to be a city. Nsibidi watched, more fascinated than she'd been even by the Ooni kingdom, as metal vehicles puttered by large stone buildings, while people hurried by on the streets.

It was different. It was ugly, and noisy, and smelled of chemicals, and as Nsibidi watched, she laughed at the brilliant weirdness of the sight, and stooped to pick up Oji, holding her in a tight, happy embrace at their success.

And though the inhabitants of this strange world were far too busy to notice, Nsibidi could feel her feet rising, just a couple of inches, off the ground.


 

Nsibidi watches Zahrah flying through the air, this way and that. They're in a secluded area, to escape reporters. On the ground is Dari, clapping his hands, and three of Nsibidi's idiok friends, including Oji's son Obax, that she herself named after the chief of the Modern People. They're shouting their encouragement into the air.

This little girl had once seemed so timid, so unlike anything Nsibidi had been at that age. Nsibidi had been pleased to meet another windseeker, but at the same time had brushed Zahrah off as too well-kept, too “civilized” in the terms of these Northern people. Nothing that could fill the hole in her heart of a father who had died while she was off on her travels, a brother who had grown to manhood barely knowing her, or a mother with whom she'd been given only a few short years after returning from Earth.

She has no regrets. By and large, her life has been what she wanted it to be, and her friends among the idioks and the Modern People will always remain close. Still, as human contact goes, Windseeker to Windseeker, she has reconciled herself to being alone.

Now she sees Zahrah fly, this child of the city who walked the jungle alone to save her friend, with a new and bold ferocity.

She sees her mother, long gone, in the girl above. She sees a sister, a daughter, a friend.

Nsibidi smiles, and cheers, giving loud instructions to send Zahrah further on.

It's a month until the next wet season.