The Sea Goddess’ Bloom
By Uchechukwu Nwaka
There is doubt in my heart.
Here, in the Blackwater, doubt is dangerous.
Doubt is rancid. Like slitting the mud-smeared belly of a catfish, only to find its guts blackened by pollution, then watching it spill back into the blacker waters of the creek. Blackwater is a literal name; it is not symbolic. These people do not care about legacies. The only thing that matters is continuity. Continuity does not require permanence.
At least Oba says so. Surely Oba cannot be wrong.
Yet I doubt.
I fix my gaze ahead as the boat rocks gently. My visual field is narrowed by the hood of my raincoat. Nowadays, the pattering of rainfall is the new sound of night, alongside the endless buzzing of mosquitoes and the engines of boats always running. Two others ride with me, clad in raincoats as well. Incandescent lamps from the stilted houses reflect over the surface of the blackened waters like the souls of the previous occupants of this settlement, trapped beneath the waves.
In the centre of the settlement, there’s a bonfire. The fire rages despite the rain—only the Blackwater would come up with water-proof fire. Speakers blast old-school hip-hop as bodies twist around the flames, the firelight glazing sheens over their dark skins. Is it the rain or the sweat? A contagious energy ripples outwards, sending impulses down my fingers where they drum against my laps, in tune with the music. Life in the Blackwater is ephemeral. Akin to the glory of a blaze at the tail end of a fuse. There is something liberating about it.
But fuses die eventually.
The boatmen lead me towards a house at the edge of the bonfire’s reach. Beaded curtains adorn the entrance, shimmering like stars threaded on a fishing line. As we’re about to enter, the curtain parts and a girl walks out. A tattoo of a mermaid runs along the length of her arm, and the scaly tail—vibrant in green and red and blue—is well-defined against her brown skin. She fixes a passive glare at me before turning away.
Beyond the curtains, Oba sits on a throne-like chair, overlooking a wide table filled with maps of Flooded Eko. He smiles broadly as we step in.
“Zalu! Just the man I’ve been waiting for.”
I pull down the hood of my raincoat. The room’s yellow lamps refract against water droplets on my glasses. It’s slightly disconcerting.
“Oba. The fishes at the southern creek are dying.”
“I suspected as much,” he says. “That is why we must find a way to take the Island.”
Or sustain the Blackwater. I swallow the lump in my throat. “The Island is a fortress. We can never take it in one fell swoop.”
“You’re not wrong. However, there is a way.” Oba smiles. A deep scar runs obliquely across his face, cutting through the bridge of his nose. Whoever it was did not like him. Hard to imagine why not. Not after all the settlements the Blackwater has consumed.
“You’ll be infiltrating the Island, Zalu.”
I narrow my eyes at him. Again I ask, “How?”
“They’re taking in new people,” one of the boatmen says. He has a deep Ijebu accent marinating each word. “They have a festival a few days from today, and they’ve been looking for new workers.”
“You, Zalu, are going to infiltrate their city and take down their defences, allowing the rest of us to advance.”
“I’m Blackwater. They’ll spot me coming from a mile away.”
“No they won’t,” Oba deadpans. “Nobody really knows your face. Remember it was only your parents at the frontlines. I’m sure they kept you sheltered because they foresaw a day like this.”
Or I refused to serve, and they died compensating for me.
“The Blackwater takes what it will, when it will.” The words are a bitter pill in my mouth. “Subterfuge doesn’t really seem like the Blackwater way, does it?”
“I am the Blackwater way, Zalummadu!” Oba rises, and all of his six-foot-seven shadow falls over me. The man is like a human tank. His muscles bulge under scarred black skin, no stranger to battle. Just like Daddy’s. Muscles will never stop a bullet though. I have two urns filled with ashes as testament to that fact.
“If I didn’t know any better I would think you’re refusing the assignment.”
I level my gaze with his, even if I have to crane my neck.
“I am Blackwater. I will serve.”
The sky is overcast when my boat enters Island waters. Numerous buoys float over the waves, blinking with the tell-tale red lights of hidden cameras. They would intercept Oba before he even got to their gates. Other boats pull out of the mist that carpets the sea’s surface. Some I see, adjusting sails. Others, I only notice from the hum of their boat engines. None of them are Blackwater. Their—our—entry is always heralded by war drums that serve only one purpose: announcing a settlement’s imminent extinction. I wrap my fingers on the rail and squeeze, gazing towards the Island’s entrance. I am the Trojan Horse. I am the vector of their inevitable destruction.
I am Blackwater. I must serve.
The Island is part natural fortress and part manmade. The boats pull in from the sea, towards a stretch of water that the maps claim was once a beach before the Great Floods. Now it is an estuary of sorts. A high wall surrounds the Island settlement, formed from a cloistering of cars that were pushed against the barrier that once separated the land from water. The wall is no dam in itself, but at a height of almost fifteen feet from flood level, nobody can ambush the Island.
It also looks too artificial to have been formed by mere coincidence.
My boat joins the queue on the narrowing channel. The gates into the Island are an agglomeration of metal plates welded together in such Frankenstein-like diligence, the entrance resembles the gaping maw of a submerged creature of the sea. Albeit one made of metal. By the gates there is a massive warship. It would be surprising if the Island didn’t have any. Four garrisons line the top of the wall, and another central garrison lies directly above the gate. If the Blackwater is to invade, I will have to take out the buoys and the gate from there.
Or I could just abandon them.
My boat inches towards the checkpoint. Smaller boats flank my vessel and they begin to board. The guards wear casual clothing with Kevlar suits. One of them approaches me and scans my face with a tablet.
“We’ll be searching your boat,” he informs me. Out of courtesy, because they had already begun their search, descending into the living decks. The man scrolls through a directory of faces on his tablet, then takes another look at mine.
“Zalummadu Ibe.” The man’s accent sounds Northern. “Any relation to Kalu Nzama Ibe?”
My heartbeat spikes for a moment. A memory flashes. An argument about how the world was different now and Oba understanding what it meant to survive. About cowardly sons too idealistic to serve.
He scrutinizes my face for another long moment. I adjust my glasses on the bridge of my nose. One of the guards that had been searching the lower deck comes out, holding two urns.
“Found this below, Captain Gowon. Looked suspicious.”
“Those are my deceased,” I snap.
“Where’re you from?” Gowon asks. “Nobody does cremations. Not anymore.”
“I’m not from anywhere. Nobody is anymore. Not really.”
The man scratches his head for a confused second. “Sounds poetic. What line of work are you into?”
“I’m a biologist. LASU, class of 2044.”
“Ah, just before the Great Floods. Swear if we had one more storypoet I’d personally send them back.” He gives an eye signal to the guard with my urns and he sets them on the floor. “Take him to Sky Garden. Welcome to the Island, Mr. Ibe.”
In the Island, the floodwaters are clean.
Not crystal clear; it is flood from rainwater, after all. But the water is teal green, almost like a watercolour painting. Most of the buildings are high-rises, with boats anchored to their fronts. There are stalls on the streets—boats of all sizes sporting wares under makeshift tarp roofs and a spectrum of neon lights. The Island does not pulse like the Blackwater. Instead boats wade the flooded streets in easy familiarity, greetings filling the air. Soft music from many corners meet in the centre of the thoroughfare and harmonize. The spices of grilling catfish under smoke-hazed fluorescent light waft over the waters. My mouth waters.
The guard boat stops by the front of a high-rise. The high-rise is not the tallest, but a halo rings its rooftop, spreading over the buildings and the surrounding waters like a divine hand of god reaching the waters from heaven. The guard doesn’t need to speak for me to know. This is Sky Garden.
The guard turns to me. “This is your stop, LASU.”
I nod, and guide my boat into the lobby. Even here, the water shimmers like something alien. Yet the ambience does not hurt my eyes. There is another boat just by the stairs, empty. I take a deep breath, and reach for one of the urns on the deck. I undo the lid and hesitate. The ashes stare at me and I imagine Mummy’s disdain if she ever knew of the fragility of my resolve.
She was a plunderer, too. Uzoamaka Ibe.
I am Ibe. I, too, must plunder.
I part the surface of the ashes, and under the ethereal light, the gleam of my dagger’s hilt reminds me of my duty. I am Blackwater. I brandish the weapon, my favourite tool in handling the flesh of fish, now to be used on human skin.
How much different can it possibly be?
I follow the stairs to the top of the building. My legs are tired by the time I get to the rooftop door, twenty floors up. I take a deep breath, feel for the dagger in my back pocket, and push the door open.
The light momentarily blinds me. I freeze, disoriented. There are no flood lamps, so where is the light be coming from? My vision begins to focus. True enough, the entire rooftop is a garden, with plots of several plants I recognize. Yet in the centre of the garden, on a plot twice as large as the rest, is the source of the light. Slender curved petals that shine as though they contain an essence of sunlight within the cell walls of their leaves. Each flower looks like something out of a children’s story, their edges blurring into one another in soft dappling bioluminescence. Before I realize it, my feet cross the rooftop, and I find myself gazing at the sea of otherworldly horticulture.
“Impressive, isn’t it?” a voice interrupts. I blink in embarrassment and look towards the newcomer. A woman, not much older than I, cradling a vase of those flowers.
I manage to find my voice after an eternity. “It is… I’m Zalu.”
“Yeah, the biologist from LASU. Gowon informed me.” She sets down the vase by an empty plot I hadn’t noticed earlier. “You do know about plants right? Most people only got biology degrees back then because it was their only option.”
I laugh. “You’re not wrong. But it grew on me.”
“Ah, joking already aren’t we?” She offers her hand. “I’m Isime.”
I take the handshake. Her hands are gloved but her fingers feel a little too rigid. She notices my gaze and smiles. “It’s a prosthetic,” and she lifts the cuff of her sleeve. Under the flowers’ glow, the artificial arm glistens, an enthralling obsidian. I had no idea we had advanced so much.
“It’s not Island tech,” she says, almost reading my mind. “But more on that later. I need your help managing the garden.”
My eyes scan the rooftop gardens, the columns of fruit and tomatoes and tubers. “Is this the food production hub of the Island?”
“Nah.” Now on her haunches, Isime cradles one of the flowers from the roots. Gently, as one would with a baby, she turns towards a flowerbed. “This was a Milian’s workshop. I was just an apprentice myself, like you are now. Back then, my job was to observe, so I planted those.”
I only stare, wide-eyed. “Did you just say a Milian?”
She grinned. “In the flesh, Zalu.”
My breath catches in my throat. Milians are an extra-terrestrial race that emerged from the sea during the Great Floods, helping settlements survive the endless rainstorms like our very own Nigerian Atlanteans. It explains the Island’s walls and gates. I’d never met one of them, but then why would a Milian ever appear to the Blackwater?
The dagger suddenly feels too heavy in my back pocket.
“So those flowers. They’re Milian?”
Isime nods. “They taught me how to grow them before leaving. Now I need help, and here you are.”
A warm feeling bubbles in my chest. Treacherous. An antithesis to my mission here. I cannot help the quiver that has found its way into my voice. “Y-you will teach me how to cultivate those?”
“You’ll have to manage my crops first!” She points at me with mock seriousness. “If you show some promise, then yeah, eventually.”
“We call them the Sea Goddess’ Bloom,” she smiles. “On the night of the festival, we’ll spread them over the streets and watch them float over the water and into the sea.”
“That sounds… beautiful.”
“Sure it is. You’ll see. For now, you can settle in any of the rooms on the nineteenth floor. Feel free to make yourself at home”
There is doubt in my heart, festering like an open wound.
A soft rain patters against the windows of my new abode—a converted office, with its own bathroom. A luxury that can be murdered for. I sit on a couch and twirl the knife between my sweaty palms. There is work to be done.
I slip out the door and head down the stairs. The exertion is welcome, and by the time I get to the bottom, my mind is clear. The second boat still floats there, and I imagine it to be Isime’s. A strange thought occurs to me to climb in, but I shrug it off.
My urns are still on deck.
This place, this Island, is strange. Many times in the Blackwater, your net gets a sudden tug and you think you’ve caught a big one. Only, you’re wrong. It’s just Oga Romanus—after four days of being declared missing—flesh bloated and eyes white. Just dead Oga Romanus, wearing an ugly gash on his neck where his gold chain should have been. Didn’t The Ijebu start wearing something like that very recently?
Blood water. Shitwater. Blackwater.
Slowly, I undo the lid to Daddy’s urn. Within the clumps of ashes, a red light blinks at me. I take a shallow breath and hold it. Within, there is the faint beep-beep-beep of impending disaster. The Ijebu is renowned for his incendiary genius (water-proof flame, remember?). If only those guards knew what they were holding in their hands.
Taped to the lid is the detonator.
I stuff the detonator in my pocket and fasten the lid over the urn. Then I sail out of the building and towards the docks by the gates. If I blow up my boat, it will take out the other boats docked there, too. Since everybody will be so distracted by the festival, and then the fire, nobody will notice Oba’s army advance into their waters until the war drums shake down the gates and rattle their walls.
By the corner of a street, on what resembles the roof of a submerged church, there is a storypoet. Coloured lights phase between red, green, blue where they wrap over his raincoat. A few boats idle beneath his stand, occupants listening. I draw closer, expecting to hear more tired verses about righteous conquest and bloody survival like the Blackwater storypoets sing with their talking drums.
Instead, this man sings of renewal.
He tells of the Milian of the Island. Tall and gracious, sculpted of coral and the dust of the seafloor. He sings of the Sea Goddess’ Blooms, remarkable flora that is both moon and sun, cultivated with a devotion to every living creature. Then his song whispers into a mournful tune, as he remembers the millions lost under the floodwaters, never to see the sky again.
There are tears in my eyes when he finishes. There is applause, and a small drone hovers from boat to boat, accepting donations in a suspended purse. I don’t donate. After all, if my mission is complete, none of them will ever see the sky again.
“I noticed your boat wasn’t docked by the stairs,” Isime tells me two days later. Less than twenty-four hours to the festival. “Did something happen?”
I pause my fertilizer work. “Nothing really. I wanted to try the passenger canoes and left my boat at the docks.”
Where it will explode on the night of the festival, taking out your garrisons. You’ll never see them coming.
Us! Us. I am Blackwater, too.
“Oh?” she says. “There’s just something about that festive spirit right?”
I nod. Truly, the Island had slowly been getting livelier. Louder music, brighter lights, bolder spices. Everything hung over the air like potential energy, brimming with possibility.
“It’s one of the few times of the year we can go all out on resources.” She heaves a sack of Sea Goddess’ Blooms into a shed. They resemble bundled moonlight. “Come on then,” she says. “I want to show you something.”
She leads me to a flowerpot. The soil within it is a rich loam. There is no seedling.
“What am I looking at?”
“Wait for it,” she grins. “Anytime now.”
The soil pulses for a split second. So fast I suspect I imagined it. Then again, this time casting a nebulous shadow like lightning within a thundercloud. A shaft of light pierces the soil, streaming into the air. Infinite tendrils swirl within the light. No. The light is the million billion tendrils weaving into form, twisting into a stem, splitting open like an embrace.
“I know,” Isime replies, sounding almost breathless as two leaves of the Sea Goddess’ Bloom part from the stem, like the wings of an angel. “That was my reaction the first time, too.”
“It feels like I just bore witness to something sacred,” I stutter between my words. I want to reach for the two tiny leaves glowing from the stem of the newly sprouted Bloom. Stroke it with my fingers. Do the cells glow under magnification? Will this undersea Milian flora draw me closer to redemption. To God?
I sigh instead, eyes falling to my gloved hands filled with compost.
What the hell am I even doing?
“What’s wrong?” Isime asks.
“Just thinking of my late parents, that’s all.”
“Oh. How did they die? The floods?”
“Nah. After. Flooded Eko can be a dangerous place.”
“Tell me about it.” She sighs, placing the pot down by the new patch of Blooms from my first day. “Structural collapse, militants, repurposed agbero? Let’s not even talk about the Blackwater.”
My pulse does a single flip. “What do you know about the Blackwater?”
“Nomads that live on semi-floating villages and other people’s homes. Is that how you lost your family?”
“Yes.” Mummy only wanted the electronics. Barter always paid off in the Blackwater. She was unlucky that day. Thought the building had been cleared before going in. Uzoamaka Ibe got slugged in the head and she fell into the flood, a trail of blood marking her aquatic grave.
Kalu Nzama Ibe followed not too long after.
“But you made it. You have a fresh start. They would be proud.”
“Would they?” I turn to meet her gaze. “Even though this is betrayal?”
She pats me gently on the shoulder. “Survival is never betrayal, Zalu.” The sky rumbles overhead. “See? Even the sky agrees.”
I smile. “Or it’s telling us to hurry up and get our work done.”
She strokes the leaves of the new Bloom. Her fingers leave trails of vibrant blue. “I think you’re ready, Zalu, the biologist from LASU.” she says quietly. “You’re a good man.”
I think of the Blackwater, preparing for invasion. My boat by the docks, waiting to herald them. I am not a good man. Maybe not yet. Maybe never. But I can try to do the right thing.
“No, Isime,” I say. The sky rumbles again. “Not yet.”
The sky has broken by the time I find a canoe. I need to move my boat away from the rest. Thunder rumbles overhead as I arrive at the docks. There are floating platforms demarcating the boats from the thoroughfare. The rain increases in intensity, clattering loudly where it impacts against the boats. The wind howls against my ears and slaps my face. I have no choice but to take off my glasses.
I find snorkelling gear on the deck.
I pause, reaching for my dagger. Have I been discovered already? Someone emerges from below deck, their slim figure silhouetted against the lightning flashing in the sky. They hold one of the urns in one hand. Another streak of lightning trails across the sky, illuminating a mermaid tattoo on the intruder’s arm.
“You…” I narrow my gaze. “Did Oba send you? Why are you here?”
She lifts the urn. Mummy’s urn. Good, it’s not the one with the bomb.
“You stripped one of the urns of their explosives. We found it in your hut while mobilizing for the attack.”
“Yes,” I reply carefully. “To conceal a weapon. In case I had to take a hostage.”
“Those were not your orders, Ibe.”
“I was given full discretion over my task,” I hiss. “How did you even get here? What is your mission?”
“I swam under their buoys.” She brandishes a detonator with her other hand. “Oba was sure your values would falter. I’m here to ensure you serve. Properly.”
Don’t tell me she re-armed that urn!
I dive for it without thinking, and the sudden movement catches Tattoo Girl by surprise. She takes a backward half-step and slips, and the urn drops. I reach for the urn, catching it mere moments before it strikes the deck.
Pain bursts behind my cranium in actinic aggression. Tattoo Girl clocked me in the face with the full swing of a kick. The urn rolls away from my hand.
“Oba was right,” she says as she climbs over me. “You are a coward.”
The sky flashes again, and her blows fall. Her knuckles are heavy mallets. Relentless. Punishment made flesh and bone.
“You’re a disgrace to the Blackwater!” she screams over the roaring downpour.
I taste blood in my mouth, feel the thunder on my face. Somewhere in the struggle, the hilt of the dagger materializes in my hand. Wet. Familiar.
It cuts through her neck—skin, fat, muscle. Not unlike a catfish.
Tattoo Girl clutches her neck, wide-eyed. Blood streams with unrelenting abandon, hot against my face under the cold rain. In that haze of blood and water and myopia, the world has never been clearer. I stagger to my feet as she falls to the floor, choking. Dying.
“I will serve.”
My boat rows out into the night. I easily make it past Gowon at the gates because biologists have things they need in the open sea. When I pass the buoys and their motion sensors, I find what I can only assume to be Tattoo Girl’s boat. She really did swim all the way inland. Why does the Blackwater not direct all that energy into sustainability?
I toss her body into the ocean. Then I head towards the Blackwater.
I will serve.
There is no bonfire tonight. The rain is too heavy. Besides, tomorrow is a big day. Lights stream through the beads on the curtain of Oba’s hut. Two small war boats are docked just in front of the house.
The Ijebu parts the curtain and steps out. He lights a cigarette and drags it for a long time. He does not see my boat lurking in the shadows. Neither does he see me, wading knee-deep in the filth they call water.
It’s funny how easily he falls when my knife meets his throat.
Oba snores over the table with the maps. Ever the warlord. The rain hammers on in affirmation. I leave the urns by the entrance.
The Blackwater is a cancer. My greatest service will be to cure Flooded Eko of this cancer. If Oba is the Blackwater way…
The explosion takes Oba’s house. Then his war boats. Then like a fiery baptism, it sets everything ablaze, burning righteously even under the pouring rain.
Tomorrow is the day of the Island’s festival. I will spread Blooms in honour of the Blackwater. A mercy they never showed anyone else.
I turn back towards Island waters as my past burns into the night. I am Blackwater no longer.
By Tina Connolly
And we’re back! Again, that was The Sea Goddess’ Bloom, by Uchechukwu Nwaka, narrated by Somto Ihezue.
I really enjoyed this story about a person choosing which world they want to live in. I also really appreciated that it had a happy ending, because at times I was worried it wasn’t going to! I thought Nwaka did a really great job showing the two different cultures, and showing the temptations our protagonist has to stick with the familiar, even when shown a new, healthier way that he could live and be. His new acquaintance tells him “Survival is never betrayal”, and we see over the course of the story how the words “survival” and “betrayal” shift their meaning for him in what he chooses to do.
I also really liked all the gorgeous and specific details in this story. The island is happy to take a biologist but would be less thrilled about one more storypoet. They immediately let him go to the Skygarden, where there are incredible, light-producing plants. Right away they offer him a kind welcome, the chance for him to truly belong to something great. All the details about the island’s work to thrive, and the kindness he meets there made it sound like a lovely and appealing location. I was really rooting for the protagonist, so like I said, I was really happy when he made the choice to do the right thing and find a new way that he himself could thrive.
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And our closing quotation this week is from Ursula K. Le Guin, who said: [T]he strongest, in the existence of any social species, are those who are most social. In human terms, most ethical…There is no strength to be gained from hurting one another. Only weakness.”
About the Author
Uchechukwu Nwaka is an Igbo medical student at University of Ibadan, Nigeria. His works have appeared in PodCastle, Omenana, Fusion Fragment, Hexagon, among others. When he’s not trying to unravel the mysteries of human (or inhuman) interaction, he can be found binge-watching anime, slush reading for Fusion Fragment, or generally trying to keep up with an endless schoolwork. Find him on Twitter at @uche_cjn.
About the Narrator
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 other things.