The Heroine Kokofe
By Ife J. Ibitayo
Kokofe awoke an hour before dawn, crusty-eyed and groggy. She wobbled to her feet and washed her face. Her simuclip projected her reflection before her eyes.
Already dressed, her pink all-weather blouse draped over her delicate frame. Her bird-thin cheek bones jutted out of her light brown face. The glow from the simuclip in her hair coated her skin in an unearthly off-white haze. She brushed her teeth and applied some blush. Don’t want to look like a ghost before I hunt a demon, she thought wryly. At least that was what Agba ceremonies used to be about, killing the demon without to put to death the demon lurking within.
Much to her surprise, the pleasant aroma of frying sweet potato wafted into her bedroom. She hefted her backpack and stepped out of her room.
“It’s been a long time since you cooked,” Kokofe said as she took a seat at their dining table.
Baba stood over a frying pan simmering on their portastove. “It’s time I remember how to. You won’t be in our home much longer.”
Kokofe bit her lip. “Yeah.”
Baba finished scraping the fried potato slices onto a plate and glanced at Kokofe. “None of that, Koko. Today is a glorious day for our tribe. I even trimmed my beard for the occasion.” He stroked his salt-and-pepper goatee, and Kokofe couldn’t help but laugh.
He slid a bowl of oatmeal and a plate of fried sweet potatoes in front of her. She stabbed a hunk with a fork and used it to scoop up a bit of oatmeal. She took a tentative bite. Her eyes lit up as she tested the semisweet combo.
“Not too bad, right?” Baba said, spearing a sweet potato for himself. They finished eating and washed the food down with fruit juice.
As Kokofe and Baba strode out of their home, a light dusting of low-glow pebbles lit the dirt path to the village square. The nearby twin gas giants, Ibeji 1 and Ibeji 2, twinkled in the twilight like bright morning stars. Twin-tailed foxlets scampered to the edge of the path, stared at her with their bright green eyes, then skittered away when she drew near to them. The steady hum of insects buzzed at the edge of her hearing.
Baba glanced up at the stars and said, “Mama and Sheshe will watch over you today.”
“And God’s orishas will provide you food to eat, water to drink, and rest at night.”
Kokofe bit her tongue, stilling the sharp response that rose in her mind. She didn’t want to argue with him, not today.
A minute shy of six a.m., they arrived at the village square. It was dominated by the repurposed carcass of the Kwanza, their colony’s one-way ticket to this pristine planet. It lay like a sleeping leopard, food vending stalls and stores crammed to bursting inside its corrosion-resistant hull. Long ago, someone had painted large eyes on its bow, and they glowered at Baba and Kokofe as they stepped into view right on time for the Agba ceremony.
But as the sun rose, so did their village. Hundreds of years and thousands of light years still hadn’t cured her people’s penchant for impunctuality. Most of their neighbors arrived by a quarter to seven, and their village chief, Muhamolu, a boulder of a man with a bass voice as deep as God’s, sauntered in half an hour later.
A few birikume joined the ceremony as well. The natives were mahogany brown and humanoid, but their skin had a consistency like pocked stone. Their concept of time was even fuzzier than the Yoruhili’s, but a handful of the “early” risers had been able to wake up in time.
“Alidayo Lalarun,” Muhamolu said to Baba. “As Kokofe’s father, you lead us in the morning prayer.”
“God is glorious.” Baba bowed his head as he continued, “God is good. God is mighty. You have blessed us with your Ori and sent your orishas to watch over us. We commit this Agba ceremony into your hands. Let your will be done. Amen.”
“Your will be done. Amen,” the community replied.
“Amen,” Kokofe muttered.
Muhamolu clapped his hands together and said, “We have gathered here today for the Agba of Kokofe Lalarun. If she defeats her demon, she will be a full adult in our community when she returns. If she does not, she will be an outcast forever. It only remains for God’s Ori to provide her target. God’s will be done.
“Ori,” Muhamolu boomed, his voice echoing across the village square, “tell us your will!”
A faint, humanoid emanation appeared in front of the Kwanza’s head. It was the buggy remnants of the spacecraft’s AI, to Kokofe at least. But the villagers bowed as reverently to it as God Himself. Kokofe also sank to her knees. Of all days, today she’d need as many allies as she could get.
“For whom?” Ori said, in a deep, resonant voice. As it flickered in and out, it locked eyes on Muhamolu. The chief fixed his gaze on the dirt in somber respect.
Baba gently pushed Kokofe forward and whispered, “Say your name.”
Kokofe cleared her voice and said with as much confidence as she could muster, “Moyororokokofe Lalarun!”
“Processing,” Ori said, and it vanished for a minute. Kokofe had always wondered what it did when it disappeared. The strange cross-referencing associations it made between the colonists’ names and the colony’s animals was still very much beyond her. It returned and said, “Akata.” A hologram of a humongous hairless canine with savage fangs and the Devil’s eyes glared down at them.
An old woman shrieked, and someone muttered in their native tongue of Yoruhili, “The accursed have no luck.”
“God’s Ori has spoken!” Muhamolu boomed, but there was a quaver in his voice. “His will be done.”
“His will be done,” the crowd responded.
The words caught in Kokofe’s throat as she tried to repeat them. Tears stung her eyes. She glanced at Baba, and his normally placid face was gritted in what looked like early onset rigor mortis.
“Who will accompany her?” Muhamolu asked, scanning the crowd. It shrank back as one man at his request, and family was not allowed to come with her.
Muhamolu swallowed hard. “In that case, Kokofe—” A deep rumble interrupted him. It was at the lower edge of hearing range but unmistakable. “Who said that?” he asked.
A large birikume, over two-and-a-half meters tall, stepped forward. His eyes were a startling shade of blue deeply recessed into his rocky face. He had golden etchings all over his body, the marks of a well-respected birikume. He repeated, “I, Tomo, go.”
Murmurs spread through the crowd. The physically formidable birikume rarely accompanied humans on Agba journeys, and when they did, it was often to defeat the easiest of targets.
But Kokofe wouldn’t question her good fortune. “I accept Tomo as my companion.”
Muhamolu nodded. “Let the hunt begin. God be with you.”
At that word, the crowd formed a line, and each person approached Kokofe and repeated, “God be with you.” Some of the aunties laid a motherly hand on Kokofe’s shoulder or whispered a quick prayer over her before turning away.
When the last of the well-wishers had passed by, Baba stepped up to her. She struggled to swallow and said, “It’s the akata.”
Baba stroked her braids aside and said, “I know. But things will turn out differently for you than your sister. You have a birikume with you, and God is with you. He is faithful.”
“God be praised,” Kokofe replied and gave Baba a fierce hug. She turned away from him, toward the rising sun. She nodded to the birikume accompanying her, and they set off toward the wild red grassland that spread away from their village.
At the edge of the grassland, Kokofe turned to Tomo and asked, “Why are you accompanying me?”
“My people have few new stories,” Tomo said, staring intently at Kokofe. “Live through this, Story live on.”
Kokofe gaped at him. Sacrificing one’s life for the sake of having something to talk about, she’d never understand. She took a step into the tall red grass, and the tips of the plants parted in response to her alien presence.
She activated her simuclip and brought up a holographic map. Most of the land around the village had been well mapped in the first few years of its founding, and each new creature had been added to the Ori’s local fauna database. But there was a kilometer’s long dark blob close to the village, the akata’s territory. Kokofe took a deep breath. She pointed at the map and said, “We’ll arrive there by morning if we refill at this watering hole. Hopefully, we’ll spot some animals to hunt at that stop as well. Is that acceptable?”
Tomo made a bubbling noise that sounded like a deep burp, the birikume-equivalent of “Yes.”
They trudged forward in silence, picking their way through the tall grass. The sun rose high into the sky, beating down on Kokofe and sending rivulets of sweat streaming down her face. Not even halfway to the watering hole, she’d already drained her water bottle. A half hour later, she started panting. She bent her knees and gulped down air, “Can we…can we stop for a second?”
“Why that sound?” Tomo asked.
“Just a little thirsty,” she said, smiling weakly. Well, this is disappointing. My Agba’s over before it began, she thought. She settled to the ground and asked, “How are you doing?”
“I drank a few weeks ago,” Tomo said, settling to the ground next to her, and Kokofe’s eyebrows shot up. They settled back down as sleepiness enveloped her. She slapped herself. There were other sources of water in the grassland besides watering holes.
She forced herself to her feet and craned her neck in all directions. “Tomo, you’re taller. Can you see if you can find any wiltfronds?”
“I cannot,” he said as he remained sitting.
Kokofe ground her teeth. “Can you please stand up and check? It’s a matter of life or death.”
The birikume released a massive sigh and lumbered to his feet. He looked around for a minute then pointed and said, “Over there.”
Kokofe put her pack down and hopped as high as she could. Sure enough, she saw several stalks of what looked like dying grass among a patch of perfectly healthy vegetation.
She excitedly strapped her pack back on. She pushed her way through the grass until she reached the stalks. She pulled and twisted the wiltfronds until she uprooted them. Under them lay a shallow, muddy pool of precious water.
“God be praised!” she cried as she took out her water bottle and filled it up. As she drank, the filtration straw cleansed the mucky water, and she satisfied her thirst. She drained half the bottle, filled it back up again, and yelled back to Tomo, “Let’s go!”
By late afternoon, they’d reached the first watering hole. A veritable buffet of creatures crowded around it: lumbering shag oxen, hopping kroorabbits, and apathetic triphants. Kokofe set her pack down and unlimbered the pieces of her sister’s precious railrifle. She struggled for a few minutes to construct it. Then she set her sights on a shag ox sunning itself several paces from its pack. Its coiled tusks glinted in the sun.
As she shakily took aim, Tomo asked, “You shoot good?”
“Of course,” Kokofe said. She took a deep breath and thought, Just like Sheshe taught me. She fired. The shag ox didn’t even flinch as the bullet buzzed past it, but the nearby kroorabbits did. They squeaked in fear so loudly that Kokofe winced. They stomped on their slower brethren as they hopped away from the watering hole. The shag oxen pack bellowed and trotted off as well, leaving only the elephantine triphants. They didn’t seem to have noticed the disturbance as they continued sucking water with their primary trunk and munching grass with their food trunks.
“‘Of course’ mean no?” Tomo asked.
Kokofe ground her teeth. “That’s what I wanted to happen.” She jogged over to a trampled kroorabbit. It stared up at her with mortified black eyes like inlaid pearls. She pressed her hand to its crushed ribcage and nodded. Some of its bones might have spread through its body like shrapnel when it’d been stomped on, but it felt mostly intact. She took out her gutting knife and got to work.
Like a skilled surgeon, she slit the kroorabbit down the middle and began to carve out its thigh muscles.
“Now this you know to do,” Tomo said, and Kokofe started, nearly cutting herself. She hadn’t noticed the giant sneak up on her.
She wrapped a thigh in a sheet of butcher paper from the small roll she’d brought along and tucked it into her bag. As she continued slicing up the kroorabbit, she said, “I enjoyed cooking with my mama growing up. My older sister, Sheshe, liked hunting with my baba. I learned everything I know about shooting from her before the akata…” She snorted. “Apparently it wasn’t much.”
“Yes, not much,” Tomo said, and Kokofe scowled at him. He continued, “But Story has room for many heroes.”
Kokofe mulled his words over as she finished wrapping up the other thigh. She stood up and said to him, “Thank you.”
Tomo scooped up the remains of the kroorabbit. After a few disgusting chomps, he said, “Thank you.”
That evening, as Kokofe roasted one of her kroorabbit’s thighs over a roaring fire, she gazed up at the stars. Tomo snoozed next to her. As she waited for her dinner to finish cooking, she found the constellation her village called Abraham’s Bosom. The night following Mama’s passing, Baba had taken her out to Kumbuka Hill. In tears, he’d pointed out the constellation and whispered, “God wanted Mama to join Sheshe there a little sooner than us. Okay, Koko?” Those words had shattered her faith, and it had taken her many years to rebuild it.
The memory brought fresh tears to her eyes, tears she’d thought she’d finished shedding a long time ago. Here she was sitting on another hilltop, the akata’s lair only a few kilometers away, and she might be joining Sheshe and Mama tomorrow. She shook her head violently. Only if God wills, she thought.
As if on cue, a barking chortle echoed through the grassland, raising the hair on the nape of her neck. She clutched her railrifle until the akata’s howl passed. Only if God wills.
As the first rays of morning stroke her face, Kokofe opened her weary eyes. She hadn’t slept a wink, but by Tomo’s low rumbling, he could probably keep on resting for the next several days. She trudged over to the laggard and tried to rouse him by kicking his leg, but it was like ramming her boot into a rock. She muttered under her breath and used her railrifle to jab at Tomo’s face, gently at first then with enough force to shatter a grown man’s jaw. He finally stirred, sucking in a mighty gasp of air. “We thank Mos,” he said in the customary morning greeting.
Kokofe shivered at the reference to the dream-eating orisha of rest and sleep. “I thank God,” she muttered. “Ready to go?”
Tomo remained seated and asked, “Why you no share tribe’s gods?”
“I do.” Kokofe gritted her teeth. She hadn’t thought she’d have to have this discussion with a walking boulder. “But there is one God, not fifty. And we’ll need all the help we can get from Him if we’re going to make it out of this alive.”
Tomo nodded and stood up. Together they descended into the heart of the akata’s territory. The grass grew higher as they trudged lower until it was even taller than Tomo’s head. The bottom of the stems darkened to a deep brown, giving the field the appearance of a sea of bloody spears. She heard nothing but the pounding of her heart in her ears. She clutched her railrifle, finger hovering over its trigger. Tomo abruptly whirled and yanked Kokofe to the ground.
She tumbled into the grass and bit her tongue. She stifled a groan as Tomo pointed with one of his three fingers. Kokofe could hear it now too, the heavy putter of something padding through the grass at a light jog. The creature approached within a few meters. Kokofe tensed, readying her railrifle for the moment it appeared.
An enormous black blur pounced out of the grass. An earsplitting cacophony deafened Kokofe as the akata roared. It landed on top of Tomo, pinning him to the ground with its paws. The massive birikume strained to free himself from the akata’s grasp, but even he was no match for its overwhelming strength.
Kokofe steadied her shaky hands and sprayed the akata’s chest with a barrage of bullets, but instead of piercing the beast, they barely cracked its skin. It froze and swiveled its head to glare at her. It was like staring into the black, soulless eyes of Satan himself. She screamed and aimed at one of them.
As if the beast had read her mind, it ducked its head and took a massive bite out of Tomo. But as it chewed, it barked and spat out what it’d broken off. It tossed Tomo’s body away like a ragdoll and disappeared into the grass, howling as it went.
Kokofe ran over to Tomo. His entire right side was a ragged mess, a mixture of rocky carapace and fizzling brown liquid. Kokofe reached out to him when Tomo groaned, “Don’t touch. Will burn.”
“There must be something I can do,” Kokofe whispered, mind racing.
His body quivered with the effort as he sighed, “Take story…home.” His blue eyes rolled back into his skull, and he lay still.
Staring at his dead body, the deathly reality of her situation gripped her like a vice. She was no hunter. If she ever made it back home, it’d be in a coffin. A tear slid down her face and landed in the remains of her friend. The brown liquid within him sizzled and popped on contact. Story has room for many heroes, Tomo’s words returned to her.
She dug through her pack and retrieved her remaining kroorabbit’s thigh and her water bottle. She carved a hole into the thigh, making sure the water bottle fit. Then she sucked the bottle dry. Lips moving in silent prayer, she wrapped it in several layers of butcher paper and dunked it into Tomo’s blood. She clenched her teeth in agony as the searing liquid seeped through and burned her fingers.
She sealed it and stuffed it into the kroorabbit’s thigh. Then she crouch-ran away from the flattened grass that Tomo and the akata’s fighting had left behind. The now familiar padding of the hellmutt’s paws followed seconds later.
She watched it emerge from the tall grass, and she shivered. The beast was hideous. Its pug face was tugged back in a permanent sneer, revealing massive, yellowed canines. Its body was a solid brick of muscle ending in a ragged tail.
It sniffed at Tomo’s corpse and turned away from it in disgust. Then it approached the kroorabbit’s thigh. It sniffed the meat tentatively. Then with a massive chomp it consumed the meat and shattered the blood-filled water bottle.
It immediately tore at its throat with its paws. Its sharp nails shredded the armored layers of its throat. Kokofe stepped out of the grass and took aim again, but as soon as the akata spotted her, it dove into the tall grass and disappeared from view. Kokofe sprinted after it, firing wildly in the direction she’d seen it run.
Something that more resembled a furry tree branch than a tail collided with her chest. The railrifle flew out of her hands, and she landed hard on her shoulder. She screamed as she felt something give. A massive paw pressed her body into the ground. As she fought for air, a part of her brain thought, At least I went down fighting.
But suddenly, the pressure abated. The akata collapsed on its side, wheezing as the birikume’s blood liquified its insides. As it writhed in pain, whining pitifully, Kokofe searched for her railrifle. She found it a few meters away and used her good arm to level it on one of the akata’s eyes. She took one final shot.
One more step, Kokofe told herself. She willed the heavy weight of her right leg forward. She did the same with her left. She lifted her weary head to see if she had crested the top of the hill she was trudging up, then repeated the process.
She hadn’t had a drop of water in…she couldn’t remember how long. She had even lost track of where she was going. Her internal compass urged her forward, just barely. One more step, then I’ll take a short break.
She’d been telling herself that lie over and over again, the hope of rest pushing her exhaustion back just enough for her to keep plodding forward, but as she collapsed to one knee, the weight of her backpack weighing her down, she thought she might finally take herself up on that offer.
“Koko? Koko!” She knew she must be hallucinating. Her father wouldn’t be all the way out here. But at least the sound was comforting.
Something began to shake her, “Koko! Wake up, Koko!”
Kokofe’s eyes fluttered open, and she saw Baba leaning over her, alarm in his eyes. Several other villagers surrounded her, and she realized she must have reached the top of Kumbuka Hill. As Baba helped her to her feet, her bag split open and the heavy jawbone of the akata toppled out.
As the rest of the villagers stared in disbelief, Baba hugged her tight and whispered, “You’ve lifted the curse on our family, Koko.”
When Kokofe groaned, he let go. He eyed her arm and asked, “What happened to your shoulder?” Then he looked around and asked, “What happened to Tomo?”
Kokofe sniffed back tears and whispered through cracked lips, “Baba, get the birikume. I need to tell them our story.”
By Tina Connolly
About this story, Ife J. Ibitayo says: My parents are Nigerian immigrants, and I grew up in a strongly Christian household. I loved that this story gave me a chance to explore the intersection of my cultural and religious heritage with my deep passion for science fiction.
And about this story, I say: I very much enjoy the kind of intersection that Ife mentions. I was immediately fascinated by the setting– one of my favorite lines, right at the beginning, was the description of the defunct spaceship, that it “lay like a sleeping leopard, food vending stalls and stores crammed to bursting inside its corrosion-resistant hull.” The ship has outlived its purpose of transportation, but it has found a new purpose–many new purposes–on this planet. Not only does it serve as a marketplace for the community, but they have found a way to incorporate its old, buggy AI into their rites of passage.
And of course, not all the villagers feel the same way about the ship and the AI, which gives the story a richness of texture. There is a spectrum of reverence towards it. Its choices are obeyed but also unknowable. It is implied that the AI is making certain choices about which animal it gives which person to hunt. So why then, is it giving Kokofe the same animal that killed her older sister? The spectrum of belief in the AI here means many things are never defined–they are not important to this story, Kokofe’s story. In my mind, I think, maybe the AI chose the akata a second time because the akata is still a clear danger to the villagers, both human and birikume. But it does not matter if I interpret it as that, or as a family lifting a curse. It is still story, and whatever the motivations behind it, we have added one new story to our tales we can tell.
Escape Pod is a production of Escape Artists Inc, and is brought to you with a creative commons attribution non commercial no derivatives license. Don’t change it. Don’t sell it. Please, go forth and share it.
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Our opening and closing music is by daikaiju at daikaiju.org.
And our closing quotation this week is from Sue Monk Kidd in The Secret Life of Bees, who said, “Stories have to be told or they die, and when they die, we can’t remember who we are or why we’re here.”
Thanks for listening! And have fun.
About the Author
Ife J. Ibitayo works as a Guidance, Navigation, and Control Engineer by day and writes stories by night. He graduated from Purdue University with a master’s in mechanical engineering, and he lives in the Greater Washington, D.C. area. His work has also appeared in Andromeda Spaceways Magazine and tdotSpec’s Speculative North Magazine.
About the Narrator
Mofiyinfoluwa Okupe is a young Nigerian writer and a reluctant lawyer. Through the mediums of poetry and personal essays, her work explores the themes of womanhood, memory and self. Her work majorly revolves around the complexity of human emotions and how we as human beings deal with them. Her work is published in The Kalahari Review, Agbowo and The IceFloe Press. Her Medium page is keenly followed and enjoys a healthy followership and engagement. She tweets @fiyinskosko on Twitter