When Sembene was four, Tanta Ndey slapped him for saying her rab looked angry.
“You cannot see the rab themselves,” she scolded him. “Only the things they do. Wicked boy, making up stories.”
She was reprimanded for that. Sembene was the last son of his father’s second wife, born against the odds when everyone had thought his father’s fertile days were behind him.There were twelve years between him and his next oldest sister, and he was indulged too much. His brothers Assane and Mamadou were already grown and married themselves, both with children close to Sembene’s age.
Behind Tanta Ndey’s shoulder, her rab had smiled at Sembene with needlelike teeth, but he only bowed his head and said nothing.
There were punishments for lying. It went against kersa, respect for elders. His cousin Demba told him the sisters in the French mission school called it perfidy.
But the rab had smiled, even if no one else knew it.
The lake he grew up on was named Malika. It was the color of a sunset and so large it took nearly two hours to walk around the entire thing. He came of age among salt workers and fishers, playing between piles of salt and stealing away to sleep under the palms as soon as he was old enough to leave his mother’s back. The ocean was not far, only an hour’s walk from the far side of the lake. Sembene was five the first time he was allowed to accompany the fishers there.
“How long does it take to swim across?” he asked his uncle.
The fishers exploded with laughter.
When Sembene realized the true scope of the ocean’s size, he recoiled as if Tanta Ndey had slapped him twice as hard.
He began attending the mission school the same year. Many families never allowed their children to set foot in the French schools at all, even though no religious instruction took place, and Sembene soon saw why. The sisters did not understand rab. They understood Issa Ibn Mariam and words like perfidy and the importance of speaking French in a world that spoke mostly Wolof.
In the village, the aunties would always tsk at him for asking so many questions and talking out of turn. It was beyond his control. His rab was forever prickling at him to speak up, sinking its claws into his shoulders and hanging off him like a woman’s unraveling head wrap until he relented. The sisters did not take kindly to this. And so for nearly three months, Sembene willed his tongue still and did not speak at all.
Soeur Clémence was the one who taught languages. “Your father is a géwél, is he not?” she asked. She used the French word--griot--and Sembene nodded hesitantly.
“And is it not important for a storyteller to speak his stories to as many people as there are willing to listen?”
He wanted to know why his family’s stories were suddenly important when the sisters were so intent on stuffing their own stories into everyone’s heads instead. He didn’t like the way they always wound their beads around their hands and wore the death of Issa Ibn Mariam around their necks like it was something to be proud of.
“Why do you wear death?”
If Soeur Clémence was surprised by the question or by hearing his voice at all, she gave no sign of it. She smiled and responded haltingly in his own language. “Because the death of one may inform the lives of many.”
Soeur Clémence had a rab that burrowed into the folds of her habit like a small nesting animal. She swayed on her feet when the midday bells tolled because her rab responded to their cadence and she had no idea. She would rub her temples and give a little shake to recenter herself, but all the children would slide glances at one another from behind their desks. Any of the aunties in Sembene’s village could have told her to be mindful of this, that every rab has a rhythm that agitates it, but the sisters did not know rab and the children were reprimanded for speaking Wolof.
“It gets bigger when the bells ring,” Sembene said once, forgetting he was not supposed to speak of seeing things meant to remain unseen. “It stretches its arms up like it wants to crawl into the sky, then wraps them around her head over and over. That’s why she gets headaches.”
His cousin Demba sucked his teeth. “Ceey Yalla, don’t let anyone hear you talking like that.”
He had completely mastered the art of stilling his tongue by the time Adja arrived at Malika.
Adja spoke French like she’d been born to do it. She was three years his senior and had no rab.
She was a city girl, newly arrived from Ngor with her family to take care of her mother’s father. In Ngor, she said, she would clean fish and mend nets and boil laundry. Then, when she had finished, she would bully her brothers into sharing what they had learned at school when she was unable to attend. As the children grew older, fewer and fewer girls regularly attended the mission school and Adja was on the receiving end of many stares and speculations.
“I was scolded by relatives who said no man wanted a wife who couldn't run the household,” she said to Sembene, who had not spoken.
“Relatives don’t always know what they’re talking about,” Sembene replied, and she smiled.
“You don’t look at me like you want to ask me questions. That is why I tell you my answers.”
He had many questions, but he hid them. If he started looking at Adja, he would never be able to stop.
Sembene was committing his family’s stories and histories to memory, bit by bit. He had grown up hearing his father tell them to enraptured listeners all his life, and none of them had ever mentioned a person without a rab.
When his people, the Lébou, first came to these lands, the rab emerged from the sea and the forest, so many that every village, every family, every person had one to look after them. The rab were protectors, provided they were treated properly. Sembene had been leaving curdled milk, millet, and the occasional fresh-killed hen on his family’s altar to ensure his rab’s favor for as long as he could remember. Even if a person did not have an individual rab, they bore traces of their family's rab clinging to them like wisps of smoke.
Adja gave him a start when she mentioned leaving kola nuts on her own family's altar. She had utterly no idea what she lacked. At first Sembene thought her rab must be very small. Some of them were, like Soeur Clémence’s, which was no larger than a camel spider aside from those times when it stretched out like an evening shadow in response to the tolling of the bells. Sembene’s own rab had grown as he had, and liked to drape itself across his shoulders like a sleepy, insubstantial scarf. But after months of stealing glances at Adja, he never once caught a flicker of any rab.
No one else realized this, of course.
The rab were evident only in their actions, not their form, everyone knew that.
If you had a marabout make you a gris-gris to find a husband or win a lutte match or haul in nets full of fish every day, it happened by the grace of your rab. And if you fell ill or your wife miscarried, there were two possibilities that loomed especially large: either someone had cast a gris-gris against you or your rab was displeased.
“You can ask me a question,” she said graciously, as they were walking home from the school. “I won’t mind.”
Sembene bit the inside of his cheek to keep from bursting out, where is your rab. “Will you tell me about Ngor?”
And she did. She told Sembene things he already knew and things he had already surmised. Her family were the géwél of their village as Sembene’s were of his, but her mother had left after marrying. Her mother was the one who appreciated her stubbornness and let her continue her schooling even though her co-wife grumbled that she should spend more time looking after the house and memorizing the old stories.
“Yaay always meant to send for her father and sisters from Ngor, but her father never wanted to leave. When we heard he was ill, Yaay and Papa arranged for us to return right away.”
Sembene’s rab was seething down his back like an icy cloak, making him shiver more words out of his mouth. “Do you miss it?”
Adja’s eyes narrowed. “I said one question.”
But she continued anyway, softly speaking of how she had grown up with the ocean, which was always bright blue, and had heard stories of her father’s old life near Malika, where the warm water sometimes glowed a vibrant pink. “I can’t believe you didn’t see the ocean the first five years of your life,” she snorted, shaking her brother off her arm. “That, I miss. And everything is busier in Ngor. Yaay and Papa let us learn French as soon as we could talk since so many people speak it there.”
This shocked Sembene to the core. There were toubab near Malika, of course, but not so many that communication with them was vital. “Does everyone do this?”
“No, but everyone knows you do better business with toubab that way. Even if you never went to school, you know how to say enough words in French to make a transaction.”
She laughed and Sembene’s rab laughed with her.
By the year Sembene turned fifteen, two things had happened: Adja’s grandfather was dead and Lat Dior’s rebels were fighting the French in earnest.
Adja’s family had been prescient about the prominence of the French. The toubab were quickly encroaching. France had already ceased paying rent for their land and seized it for themselves. Fatick had been burned and Ndakarou was now Dakar. Sembene’s people lived their lives just as before, but instead of being accountable to themselves they were now accountable to the French.
Ancestor spirits, the tuur, were displeased. The boroom tuur women associated with each household held ceremonies to quiet them and Sembene would accompany his father whenever his skills were needed. His rab still clawed at him to spill waves of questions from his mouth, but Sembene had learned by now to take everything in with wide eyes and open ears, trying to make sense of it all without making a sound.
Being the youngest child of a géwél family meant that all his siblings were grown and established in the community long before he had a chance. But in Sembene’s case, his talents gave him an advantage.
A géwél’s life was always more than just shilling stories and entertaining the wealthy. There were ndepp, of course. And there, Sembene found his calling.
The ndepp ceremony usually lasted only three or four days, but there were stories or some that had continued for a week or more. The géwél would drum and dance and sing alongside the marabouts and relatives, trying to find the rhythm that would drive the fitful rab out of the possessed person’s body.
The first ndepp Sembene assisted with was for a fisherman who had been acting strangely, shunning his family and sleeping through the mornings.
Mame Kine was the ndeppkat who had been engaged. On the second day, Sembene watched her rolling millet into balls and distributing them among the possessed man’s family members, symbolizing the division of his ailments among them. Only ndeppkats were capable of conducting the ndepp and interpreting the rab’s demands.
For a long time on the third day, Mame Kine only chanted in her low, sonorous voice. This was a crucial step, in which she would communicate with the family’s ancestral spirits to learn why the rab was displeased. On the pallet before them, the rab responded to this by shivering violently, which of course caused the possessed to do the same.
“This one is strong,” the auntie at Sembene’s elbow murmured, watching the victim tremble and writhe.
“Yes,” said Sembene, watching the rab intertwine itself with the fisherman’s limbs like the tendrils of a jellyfish. He drummed his tama until his palms were stinging and the rab never once loosened its hold.
Then, he saw it wince.
Sembene tried to remember the rhythm he had just beaten out and slammed the tama twice as hard, hoping to find it again.
The rab’s face contorted and its many flexing arms loosened, just for an instant.
All Sembene could think of was Soeur Clémence swaying on her feet during the midday bells. He drummed until his arms ached and sweat blinded him, until he couldn’t be sure he was even hitting the same rhythm anymore. The only thing that indicated he still had it was reaction of the rab.
Gradually, the rest of the drummers noticed Sembene’s fervor and took up the same beat.
Mame Kine was bellowing, calling the rab by name, demanding it to cast its malevolence out and leave its victim in peace. This could go on for hours, or even days.
At every ndepp, an animal was designated to serve as the vessel for the sickness infecting the rab’s victim. Only when the transfer was complete could the victim truly become healthy again. Sembene nearly choked when Mame Kine beckoned for the marabout to bring in a goat with its legs bound.
Beside him, his father looked poleaxed. “What is she doing? It never happens this fast.”
“It does this time. The rab is weak. We know its call already,” said Sembene, and resolutely looked straight ahead when the rest of the drummers speared him with their gazes.
“You,” Mame Kine said suddenly. “Over here.”
Sembene obligingly set his tama aside and helped her lay the goat on the pallet beside the rab and its victim. They layered blankets upon it, over and over, until nothing was visible. Mame Kine seemed to keep one eye on the pallet and one eye on Sembene the entire time.
By the time Mame Kine guided the victim to step over the goat seven times, the rab’s coils had loosened and seemed to retract into its body. And when the marabout helped her sacrifice it and coat the victim’s body in the blood, it seemed seconds away from crumpling into a heap.
Her voice was hoarse from overuse. Sembene could scarcely hear it when she barked, “Leave him in peace. Release your hold and leave this man in peace. Do it now.”
The victim collapsed.
Never, Mame Kine said afterward, had she had any ndepp finish so quickly. She was addressing Sembene’s father, but her eyes were on him all the while.
Word spread. Sembene did well for himself.
He built the house with his own hands, slaughtering a white sheep to invite good spirits inside. The floor was laid with natte, the mats Adja was so deft at weaving.
The day of their céet, his rab lay still on his shoulders.
Encountering toubab was not a novelty. Many of them came from France. They were fond of reminding Sembene’s people that, as residents of Dakar, they were as free as the French themselves.
Sir Malcolm then had been only another toubab with a face seared red from the sun. He greeted them in the language of the Bantus, since he did not know the tongue of Sembene’s people. He spoke of the swollen trunks of their baobab trees but called them adansonia. This was the name, Sembene would learn later, bestowed upon them by a toubab explorer who had given them his own rather than acknowledge the possibility that one already existed.
He was, he told them, sailing his way down the coastline after emerging from the depths of Haratin country. He had no interest in discussing Issa Ibn Mariam the way the sisters did. His rab was curled sluggishly around his ankle and did not open its eyes. It looked ill.
Adja served attaya and he drank the sweet mint tea slowly.
“How far have your travels taken you?” she asked. She was like Sembene had once been, curious about everything and not shy to speak her mind. Unlike him, she had never learned to hold her tongue, and Sembene admired that fiercely when he didn’t envy it.
Sir Malcolm smiled. “From among the Hutu to among the Kikuyu and still not nearly far enough.”
Sembene noted the way his smile seemed to spread too readily across his face, the way his rab ruffled when Adja poured more attaya. “I think you will find Dakar is very different from those parts.”
“I don’t have much interest in Dakar.” Sir Malcolm steepled his long, sun-browned hands pensively. “Europe has been trying to plant flags all over your city for centuries. What interests me is seeing what few others have seen.”
“I’m afraid we don’t have many of those either,” said Sembene.
“My maps show several areas that are untouched by Europe.”
Adja slid Sembene an amused look. “But not by us. We Lébou do not settle so far inland, but the Wolof, the Fulani, the Pulaar...every inch of our land has been seen by someone.”
Sir Malcolm seemed to have no answer to that. He sipped his attaya and surveyed the lake stretching across the horizon. “Your people invite strangers into your homes very readily.”
“Everyone deserves teranga,” Sembene said simply.
Adja elbowed him. “He uses the Wolof word because he doesn’t know how you would translate it. Hospitality, maybe? But there is more to it than that.”
“Are you so sure I haven’t done terrible things that would make me undeserving?” Sir Malcolm said it with an amused glint in his eyes, but Sembene noticed the way his rab’s hackles rose ever so slightly.
Adja, of course, was unaware of this. “You may have done terrible things, but it would be terrible of us to deny that you’re a person worthy of tea and conversation.” She nodded towards the kettle. “Attaya is always served three times, and each time is sweeter than the last. That is teranga.”
Sir Malcolm looked at them for a while with an unreadable look on his face. “You know these parts well, I gather. And you speak how many languages between you?”
Adja opened her mouth, but Ndiaye gave a wail from inside and she hurried off, grumbling that her sister was meant to be with him. He was a boy of three and had the lungs of a child twice his age. Sembene had not yet broached the subject of whether they would send him to a mission school when he was older. More and more families were choosing to educate their children on their own, for the sake of proving it was possible.
Sembene leaned in. “I suspect there’s a deeper question you are hoping to ask here.”
“There was. I’m always in need of guides and interpreters. I would pay, naturally, for one or both of you to accompany me.”
Adja reemerged with Ndiaye on her hip. Sembene let that speak for him.
Sir Malcolm sat back with an easy shrug of his shoulders. “Of course. Having a family is truly the greatest adventure. But tell me, if I pass this way again, will you still refuse?”
Sembene laughed. “If you pass this way again, I will have too many children to ever leave.”
Then Adja’s rab appeared.
Perhaps it had been lost for years, trying in vain to find its way back to her. Perhaps it had been left behind in Ngor when her family left. Or perhaps it had fled and its brethren had forced it to come back against its will.
All Sembene knew was that he returned home after entertaining at the wedding of two noble families and it was there.
It seemed to be coming from inside her, like a kola nut bursting from its shell. Shadows rippled in great dark waves from her eyes, from her ears, and even from her mouth when she opened it to greet him.
His wife was trying to welcome him home and all Sembene heard was screaming.
Mame Kine was very old, but her mind was still sharp.
“He terrified our son, our hens, and three of my friends by shrieking like a madman,” Adja was saying. “And he broke the millet pots trying to run away, all because he thinks it’s strange I have a rab.”
If any of this seemed peculiar to Mame Kine, she gave no indication of it. “Sembene, is this true?”
“Is is, Mame.”
Adja rounded on him. Her rab was twisting about her like a dust storm of eyes and teeth. It took every ounce of Sembene’s willpower not to recoil. “What is this nonsense? Of course I have one. Why are you acting as if you can see it?”
“I have always seen them.”
Adja’s mouth hung open. Her rab disappeared inside it, then gusted back out like a long smoky snake. Sembene closed his eyes.
“Have you ever experienced ndepp?” he heard Mame Kine ask.
And, to his surprise, Adja sighed, “Yes. I underwent it once, in Ngor, when I was very young. My rab has been nothing but agreeable ever since.”
Sembene bit his tongue, but it was no use. “No. In all the time I’ve known you, you never had a rab.”
“If anyone needs ndepp, it’s you,” Adja spat. “Perhaps your rab has been making you see things all your life.”
But Sembene’s rab was soft and trembling around his neck, familiar as his own skin.
“Is it...is it possible for one’s ndepp to be too thorough?” he asked Mame Kine, searching her weathered face for even the smallest reassurance. “Suppose...suppose instead of casting out a rab’s toxicity, the rab itself is so toxic it leaves entirely?”
Mame Kine regarded him thoughtfully. “All things are possible. You know this already. You are the proof of it.” She turned her attention back to Adja. “Adja, my dear, why does one so young experience the ndepp?”
Adja’s lips pinched together thin and tight. “Because I let my sister drown. For six days, I did nothing but weep.”
“How does such a thing happen?” Sembene asked softly. Normally, he would have reached out and touched her, but the maelstrom of her rab kept his hands knotted in his lap.
“We were swimming. She went under and never came back up. I could not move, no matter how hard I tried.” She tugged at her head wrap as if it pinched her. Her eyes were downcast, but her rab’s focus was entirely on Sembene. “There was a sickness in Ngor that season. Every ndeppkat and marabout was engaged. My family sought an alternative.”
Sembene waited, but she offered no clarification. Mame Kine, however, had grasped what he had not. “They allowed a toubab to officiate?”
Without thinking, Sembene drew in his breath with a hiss.
Adja met his eyes fiercely. “He taught at the mission school and often visited local families, not to proselytize, only because it was his way. He was fascinated by our customs, he said, and familiar with driving demons away. I am my parents’ oldest child. They were desperate.”
“You never told me a--”
“Of course not. When the ndeppkat learned what we had done, they were as appalled as you are now. It didn’t matter to them that it had worked. If anything, that made it worse. We never spoke of it, but everyone knew.” Adja gave a small, twisted smile. “Papa said I bent backwards so far my heels touched my head and I clawed the natte to shreds. I still don’t know how much is true. We géwél are born storytellers, after all.”
It was unheard of. Their people existed in conjunction with the Catholics only by grace of mutual suspicion-tinged tolerance. Sembene had never imagined anyone would go against tradition to such an extent.
“Your husband may be right. Say he was too thorough.” Mame Kine gently reached into the seething mass of Adja’s rab and took her hand. “Say he drove out the entire rab and it came back twice as vengeful.”
“Perhaps if she underwent ndepp again,” Sembene started, but Adja cut him off with a groan.
“The cost is too great. You think we have money to throw away on this? You think we have so many goats and cockerels we can sacrifice them for the sake of perhaps? All because you think you can see spirits? No, Sembene. This is your burden alone."
It was true.
Outwardly, Adja manifested no symptoms that could justify the ndepp. She remained herself, only angrier. “Why did you never share your secret with me?” she demanded at least once every day.
And every time, Sembene would reply, “Because all my life I was taught not to speak of it.”
Adja would turn her back on him with a sigh, bundling up Ndiaye and walking away in a whirl of rab.
Some nights, he would wake up with Adja’s rab filling the entire room, looking down at him with a grin that seemed to span the ceiling. His own rab spat and bristled, but ultimately cowered along with the rest of him.
It haunted his dreams, where it spoke to him.
You are an anomaly who taints those around you.
You will live with this curse until the end of your days, Sembene.
You will know no peace.
He began sleeping outside, but the dreams pursued him still.
He refused all offers to attend ndepp, no matter how wealthy the patron.
His own mother chastised him for acting like a mad creature. “Why do you behave like this? You shame your entire family. Lucky for you the rest of your brothers have done us proud.”
Sembene tried to explain that he needed to be alone, but this was laughable. The Lébou world was characterized by a bustling slew of friends and family. It allowed no place for solitude.
The day Adja cast him out, her rab was a deep red and spined all over like a sea urchin.
Her friends and sisters surrounded her like flanks of an army and Ndiaye was clinging to her skirt. Sembene could not hear a word she said, only the screaming laughter of her rab.
“Watch over her,” he begged Mame Kine before he left. “Somebody must watch over her.”
Sir Malcolm crossed his path again.
Sembene was visiting Yof, theoretically to help broker a cousin’s matchmaking but actually because he could not show his face in Malika without wanting to throw himself into the ocean and never emerge.
“This time, I will go with you,” he told Sir Malcolm simply, and prepared to disappear from his people forever.
Realistically, Sir Malcolm could have found a thousand men more suited to the task than Sembene. He had never been outside his people’s lands before, only heard stories about them. He did not speak English or the Bantu tongue, which was far more widespread than Wolof, but Sir Malcolm never seemed to mind this and they got along well enough in French.
Sembene’s old habit of holding his tongue proved useful as ever. It became second nature not to acknowledge when Sir Malcolm accepted too many cups of wine, when he would draw a smiling woman into his lap and disappear into his tent to wreathed in laughter.
If a woman’s kin or husband caused an uproar, Sir Malcolm was very handy with a pistol and a machete and the roar of his own voice. They were never in one place long enough to face repercussions.
Sembene had grown up wielding blades all his life, the natural byproduct of a fishing culture. He had seen death before, as a matter of course. His brother Mamadou had joined the rebels years ago and would bring home tales of carnage as often as tales of victory. But anything Sembene had ever wished to kill had been incorporeal. The first time he sank a paaka into the soft warm stomach of a man, the spray of blood was almost a surprise.
And yet, for all his shortcomings, Sir Malcolm was a genius. He seemed to speak a dozen languages already, and he picked up snatches of Wolof from Sembene as if it were second nature. He addressed his porters as if they were his brothers and seemed genuinely delighted to hear them tell about their lives. He meticulously charted their whereabouts, noting which explorers had passed this way before and what pitfalls they had encountered. He sought Sembene’s input and then made him justify it by asking question after question until Sembene’s head was spinning.
Once, unable to swallow his frustration, he demanded, “Why do you ask me anything?”
“Because I value conviction,” Sir Malcolm said. “And you are not the type to speak without it.”
The Sudanese Nuer regarded his smooth face with dismay and informed him he was not really a man. “This is why you have no wives,” they told him.
Sembene had no quarrel with the Nuer. They kept their herds in peace and regarded him as a curious stranger with strange tales to tell. And if they believed that changing his face would change his fortunes, then he saw no harm in believing it with them. Belief was such a mutable thing.
He did not dare dream of returning to Malika or even Dakar. He learned to communicate in the Nuer language and let them cover his face with razor-sharp jabs that made his rab writhe in discomfort. He declined offers of marriage among the Kikuyu in Ethiopia, but drank in their language as well until he could hold entire conversations in it.
When Sir Malcolm returned to England, Sembene did not go with him. “Come with me, Sembene,” he urged. “My children have heard me tell a thousand stories about Africans. You would delight them.”
Sembene forced a thin smile. “I am not good with children.”
Instead, he saw Sir Malcolm off in Algiers and lingered there a long time. Sir Malcolm had been true to his word and paid him well; Sembene was wealthy enough to afford an education, learning to take the stories that lived in his head and put their words onto paper.
And when Sir Malcolm returned with his son and called on him there, Sembene went with him again.
It was different this time.
He seemed troubled and told of an unfortunate incident at home, a woman suffering.
“Miss Ives was once my daughter’s dearest friend.” His voice was somber and his rab looked sicker than ever. “She scarcely moves and hasn’t spoken for months.” Sembene had never known Sir Malcolm to care about a woman who wasn’t willing to part with something, be it wisdom or carnality. This new side of him was something he did not yet know how to make sense of.
Then there was the boy.
He whistled while Sembene bristled and reminded himself the toubab did not know whistling would entice spirits to drag you hellward by the heels. He ate the kola nuts Sembene left out for the tuur and was deeply apologetic afterward. Sembene decided to forgive him the way the marabout had always said to, but didn’t truly believe the tuur would do the same.
At mealtimes, they crowded around the camp stove and ate when they pleased. Peter did not wait for his father to partake first. He seemed to know nothing of kersa and peppered Sembene with all manner of questions.
“We have encountered people who think such markings are a means of opening a third eye,” he told Peter, in response to a remark about his scars. “Others say their people would scar themselves to keep from being sold as slaves. A marked man is of less value than an unmarked one.”
“Father says you were a famous storyteller in your countries,” Peter said, which made Sembene give Sir Malcolm an arch look the next time Peter glanced away. “Is that true?”
“Fame does not enter into it,” Sembene said, measuring his words carefully. He always felt he spoke too deliberately when he used English, but it seemed prudent when wielding a language where so many words meant similar things. “Where I come from, people are born into their occupations. If your ancestors were geer, you will be geer because you are descended from nobility, even if you have to survive by begging. If you are descended from gnegno, you will learn the smithing trade as well. If you are géwél, as I am, you are taught the oral traditions as soon as you can hear them.”
“Some believe the first géwél emerged from a corpse,” said Sir Malcolm. He held his pipe cupped in one hand, and the smoke of it twined upward in a way that reminded Sembene of Adja’s rab. “Only some, mind you, but they believe all géwéls' veins run with the blood of the dead.”
Peter’s eyes were alight. “How fascinating!”
To Peter, everything was fascinating.
His mouth would part and his rab would quiver into a shower of sparks for the smallest thing. Finding spiders in his boots when he forgot to empty them. Sores on his shoulders from the biting straps of his pack. The contrast of a full brown breast in his pale hand when Sir Malcolm urged him to prove his virility.
Sembene privately called him pet-peti, a Wolof word meaning “to bob up and down.” It fit perfectly with the way Peter moved, forever buckling and springing back up under the weight of his pack, the sun, the world itself.
There was also a second meaning to pet-peti: “to make a bubbling sound.”
When Peter’s breaths turned to gasps, then coughing fits that left his shirt collars spattered red, this became accurate as well.
They were in the Congo when Peter buckled and did not spring back up.
Sir Malcolm was determined to foray further and further into what he called uncharted lands, since he never had been able to swallow Sembene’s assertion that nothing was truly uncharted. Peter stayed at base camp, dying in the seeping remains of his own body. His rab had curled into a shape so small Sembene thought he had lost it entirely and gave a start.
Sembene stayed with him, holding a compress to his forehead since Peter lacked the strength to do it himself. Their porters had disappeared days ago.
“Mbaa yaangi tane?” He had been gradually teaching Peter Wolof phrases even though they both acknowledged his accent was atrocious. “Are you feeling better?”
Peter’s laughter was terrible, a sound like stepping on a hornets’ nest. “Dignity tells me I should say yes. But since I've long given up on dignity, no, I feel like fucking death warmed over.”
“Shall I make you some tea?” They had no tea, but he doubted Peter would be able to tell the difference or keep anything down to begin with.
Sembene did not move. He draped another compress across Peter’s concave chest and watched as his rab curled up even smaller, directly over his heart. “I must see if we have sugar. My people serve it sweeter every time.”
Peter’s blue-veined eyelids flitted half closed. “That sounds lovely, Sembene.”
When Sir Malcolm returned, deeply tired, the rab sinking its teeth into his neck was young and fair-faced and had something of Peter’s way about it.
The year Lat-Dior’s rebels were finally defeated once and for all, Sembene gave up on ever returning to his homeland.
The railway had been constructed and the French seized land from chiefs left and right, forcing taxes and money onto people who had never had any use for either.
This time, when Sir Malcolm looked at him with deep haunted eyes and said, “I have need of someone like you, who sees things for what they are,” Sembene took him up on his offer.
London’s stench was incomparable, like rotting fish and the goat shitting itself at his last ndepp and Peter’s terrible bloody breaths. The house in Westminster was cold and full of shadows, big enough to shelter his entire childhood village with room to spare.
He had learned more about Miss Ives, how she had lost her family and gone mad. Sir Malcolm was divulging more and more personal information, perhaps now that he had less family of his own.
“There are times when a spirit may desire a human and refuse to let go,” Sembene said. “It is not unheard of. We call it a farurab. I knew a girl who was desired, defied it, and nearly lost herself to it.” The tinny resonation of the tama had burned itself into his mind for weeks afterward.
“You must let me know if you see one,” Sir Malcolm murmured, one of the only times he had ever acknowledged Sembene’s ability.
Sembene could still his tongue no longer. “Being able to see everything and do nothing is truly the biggest curse one can endure, Sir Malcolm.”
Sir Malcolm waited until his breaths had stopped shaking.
“Then you unite yourself with those who are able to do something. Isn’t that what you did with the ndeppkat? And the Nuer?”
Sembene was silent.
“We are the ones who must unite, Sembene. Even if it causes pain. Perhaps especially then. Will you do that for us?”
Sembene nodded once and slunk back into the shadows that draped the house like its own personal rab.
There were unsettling parallels between Sir Malcolm’s world and his own. Sembene continued offering millet and kola nuts to the spirits in the cold English air, but in England they were not any more easily appeased than they had been at home. Sir Malcolm’s people used cards for divination while Sembene’s used cowries. He dressed in red nearly every day and thought of the Konkouran spirit, who cannot abide the color, and the people in the south who would swath themselves in every other shade in order to stave him off.
Then one evening she showed up at the door, hatless and coatless and soaked with rain.
An enormous rab with many heads clung so densely to her body that she appeared to be walking in a cloud of smoke.
Sembene was suddenly enveloped by something like understanding and something like dread.
“Ah,” he said. “A pleasure to meet you at last, Miss Ives.”