Blood Harmony

In Issue 58 by MoAde M. J.

Blood Harmony
Photo by andreiuc88 on Shutterstock
Synopsis

Blood Harmony is an Afrofuturist alternate history dual-perspective novel about two siblings, a boy and a girl, who find their way back to the Angolan matriarchal tribe they were born in. Their mother, based on the legendary Queen Nzinga, has discovered a way to harness the spirits of the wild to fight off the colonial powers of the Portuguese. The book explores the consequences this has for their family and the world at large in a tale of deceit, betrayal, and broken connections.

Chapter Two
Zilla

Under low light, Zilla’s fingerpads brushed the floor feeling for that telltale groove. When she found it, she took hold firmly and cracked the floorboard away. It had been done many times. It would look the same after.

Here, in a shallow dug hole underneath the cabin floorboards, the wooden box came delicately as if it were made of the dirt around it, as if it crumbled. Like the cabin, it was nothing to look at, just a rough gesture towards the idea of real craftsmanship. Also like the cabin, it was functional, and that was what mattered.

For years now, Silvano hadn’t found her statues, carved and squirreled away in this box as delicately as she could muster. Zilla leaned against the wall. For half the year, she and Silvano travelled his route. But on those occasions when they had a home, this cabin made of wood and patchings-up was it. And in his house, she’d had time to store new carvings safely in her box. When Silvano’s heels dug thuddingly into the floor, it was usually underneath his very feet. This was pattern of him. He did not observe. Zilla let out a small breath. Today was their last day here, for a long while. For the next half year, she’d be parted with these items of sentimentality. But that was okay. They’d be safe here.

She brushed sandy dirt from the cloth-covered top. When she’d made it in her younger years, she hadn’t been able to fix a proper lid to it. Zilla took a moment, to allow the dry unstirred air to fall on her shoulders and tickle past her skin. She unwrapped the box and began placing the figurines and whittled sticks all around her, cataloguing them as she did every time it was opened. This was her ritual, and it calmed her.

Quiet moments like these were her favourite. Even when Silvano was around, in the silence at least, there was an empty space that she could interpret comfort into if she so pleased.

“Come here, girl,” she would imagine him saying. “Let me teach you.”

And then he would tell her stories of far away. Of his travels. Of his love. He would say “Before Leonor left us, I know you were young, but she was so kind to you. She wanted you to be more than a market child, raise you as ours. Don’t you remember? It’s not your fault she left. It wasn’t your fault.”

And Zilla would say, “I know, yeah, I know,” because he would’ve said it so many times before that she would’ve believed it, all of it.

The daylight was leaving more now. She’d rushed through all her chores to give her time for this, but when her master Silvano came back, they would ride through the night until they reached Port Strong. Then once they docked in the desert port, their travels would begin in earnest. Silvano was a hard man to please. They would travel through bitter frigid nights and rest during hot arid days. They would go as fast as he demanded for as long as he demanded until they reached his destination. Where, Zilla never knew unless she was able to intuit it on her own.

But before all that, Skersha. Skersha had been quiet for days now, longer than in any recent memory. It would have been a nice reprieve from the constant chattering and judgment that emanated from within Zilla’s own mind, except it wasn’t. Skersha never missed a chance to torment her before their biannual trip. It was another kind of going-away ritual. This silence sent sick stomachy shivers down Zilla’s arms and put her on edge. It felt wrong. It felt like waiting. The anticipation of pain only makes pain that much worse.

She repeated the ritual, touching each piece in her set like talismans of luck. Real ones, infused with some meaningful charge, not like the animal body parts Silvano carved up and sold to the highest bidder.

“There’s no such thing as luck,” he’d tell her just after selling some bone meant to enhance the wearer’s own. “There’s winning and there’s losing. You succeed or you fail.”

She tapped each piece again. Sometimes even thinking about Skersha was enough to draw her attention. Every wait came to an end.

There, pulling her only belongings from their hiding place, was where the she-wolf found her, appearing without a sound.

Zilla’s eyes darted to the body at her left that had not stood, leaning against the cabin wall, a second before. She looked to the window on Skersha’s right to assure herself that she was still alone, that Silvano was not yet coming back. Her bony fingers clenched and ached, gripped tight around the precious box. Nowhere near as hard as to damage it, only as hard as to keep it safe.

Surviving Skersha was about always finding new ways to predict and contain fear. Otherwise, it would overwhelm everything. She refused to allow that. She refused to lose. She blew a deep breath through her teeth.

“Are you in the mood for a game?” Skersha asked, leaning on the sill.

Zilla took another breath. “He’ll be back any time now.”

“Then why did you call me?”

Zilla grit her teeth. “Aren’t you busy? I didn’t mean to. You can go back.”

Skersha growled from the windowsill. She disappeared and reappeared in a blink, now staring down at Zilla’s upturned face, close enough to be distinctly unnerving. It was unnerving how Skersha’s human form was simply a twisted replica of Zilla's own body, full grown and properly fed.

It mostly unsettled in the details. Where Zilla had limp, long black hair, Skersha’s had streaks of gold. Where Zilla had large pale eyes, Skersha’s were yellow. Where Zilla’s teeth were human, Skersha’s were sharpened to a point. And instead of brown skin, Skersha was faded, still dark, but with a tinge of grey. The image of Zilla’s own rigor mortis. Using Zilla as a template had been easier than making one anew, or so Skersha had claimed, back when Skersha was still stumbling through her abilities. These days Skersha still used the body often.

Skersha sighed, easing her body down next to Zilla’s on the floor. “You know full well these woods bore me. If I weren't in your head, I might wonder about your sanity, living here.”

“You don’t—don’t help.”

The responding laugh: Skersha’s head-thrown-back explosion of sound that had the wooden panels creaking under her feet.

Zilla looked away. She hated mind games. But she just had to get through them and then she could forget. With a care she reserved only for creations of her own making, she returned to the ritual of placing her figurines in position, touching each of the pieces one by one. The latest was placed among them, at last completing the chess set and adding yet another carving to her growing collection. She didn’t actually know how to play, but she’d seen them in markets and had adored the pieces’ shapes.

“You should smile more,” Skersha said, when she felt the girl ignoring her.

“I am smiling.” Zilla’s upper lip curled like a wordless snarl. “Can't you tell?”

The dark wood ran soft and grainy under her fingers. Zilla closed her eyes, if not to better feel her creation, then to block out the image of her mental companion.

“It’s boring here,” Skersha intoned. Zilla’s eyes popped open just in time to see the she-wolf licking her long canines in a way that already sent a spider-silk thread of terror down Zilla’s spine.

“What do you want?” Zilla breathed out. “We’re leaving tonight.” She tried to soothe her own tense fingers, tried to stop how her body shook. She counted it a blessing that she didn’t stutter.

“Let’s play.”

Skersha leapt, leaving air, like a pounce. She was gone. The cabin creaked. She was to Zilla’s right, picking her up and pushing her back. Zilla could only grip with hands tight until she couldn’t anymore. The girl didn’t feel her back slamming into the wall, not with all her focus on the box, the way its impact with the floor seemed to vibrate out into all the air around her.

“Skersha don’t— Stop!”

She reached out for her figurines and a force shoved her back again. Her shirt bunched up in Skersha’s claws as she was pressed harder into, and then up, the wall.

“You’ll see,” the she-wolf said, not a strand of her unnatural yellow streaked hair out of place, the image of her arms folded across her chest even as her invisible spirit claws dug and pushed into Zilla’s person. “It’ll be fun.”

And when Skersha released her, Zilla fell, knees to floor.

Boot. Boot. Boot. A turn. A repeat.

Skersha took long, measured paces while she seemed to be thinking up what to do next. In times like these she had taken to conjuring heavy heeled shoes, as if for the sound’s dramatic effect. She must have figured out that it reminded the girl of her master, made her tremour against the air.

It wasn’t anger. Zilla knew by now that anger would get her nowhere fast. It was just…

It was just ridiculous. That Skersha in over a decade and a half of living alongside Zilla had not found a way to get through hard days, boring days, any day really, without forcing the girl to suffer. The two of them did share a mind. And sometimes, they’d talked. They’d sorted out the basic facts over the years. How Skersha remembered nothing before Zilla and Zilla remembered nothing before Skersha. For as long as they could remember, they’d lived together. They’d lived with Silvano and Leonor. And then just Silvano. As Zilla had grown older and learned all her master taught her of his trade, Skersha had taught herself the powers of the mind. She was learning new tricks every day, yet she’d not once come up with a better use of her time. If anything, the attacks had escalated.

“What are you thinking?” Skersha said. Her mouth protruded from her face, but not the way it should for either species. The image constantly shifted as if Skersha had yet to decide which features would make the sight most horrific. The bones of her wrists snapped off and then slotted together again, wolf paws stabbing out from underneath Skersha’s fingernails and folding in together until each wrist led to two hands, the upper side the fur and claw of a wolf but the underside remaining the smooth idyllic hands of a person who’d never worked a day in her life.

The whole thing was so performative.

Of course, Skersha could change from one form to another in less time than it took her to blink. Undoubtedly, this was more effort. She was showing off a new trick.

“Yes, that,” Skersha said, stepping forwards, and Zilla knew that whatever pride the she-wolf must have felt in her new trick had instantly dissipated. “What were you thinking just now?”

“I wasn’t—”

“Don’t lie to me, girl,” Skersha muttered, “you often feel many things but the only time I sense that flavour of amusement is when I find you’ve been mocking me or your master. And he is not here.”

Zilla’s jaw tightened, and now she took a half step back, only to find herself against the cabin wall, her box right aside her feet. It would be sunset soon, and then he would be home and if he found her carvings, she had no doubt he would destroy them. When he’d been a child, his master hadn’t allowed him any possessions either. He thought it built character. She just wanted the whole thing to stop.

“Well?” Skersha demanded. And suddenly, she was angry. In her anger, she released her distorted image and flickered back to humanoid. She began pacing like earlier. These thuds somehow louder. Each strike of the heel seemed to echo.

Boot. Boot. Boot. A turn. A repeat. Boot. Boot. Boot. A turn.

With every pace Zilla could feel Skersha’s fury like a pressure. She really had no idea why Skersha was angry. Sometimes she just was. She seemed to desire Zilla’s fear, and yet whenever she finally got it, all it did was make her angrier.

Zilla looked up across the room to see Skersha, standing, pacing, moving. Then transforming into what she considered her ‘most natural’ form. It was one of those wolves with fur the colour of Skersha’s golden-black hair. It preyed on the same animals Zilla’s master trapped and sold for a living. An African golden wolf. Nzongo.

Skersha had a fascination with animals. She’d insisted she was one of them. She’d demanded that Zilla refer to her as a “she-wolf,” even in her own private mind thinking her own private thoughts. On occasions, she checked.

Clic-k. Clac-k. Clic-k. Clac-k. A turn. A repeat.

The sound of Skersha’s claws scraping at the floor had Zilla tightening her jaw. It wasn’t anger. It couldn’t be. Zilla knew by now not to be angry around Skersha, didn’t she?

But again, Skersha was being ridiculous. They’d never even been on a hunt with Silvano to see wolves where they lived. Wolves didn’t live here. They lived up north. Or maybe down south. Zilla wasn’t sure, but she knew Skersha wasn’t some mystery. Skersha knew as much as Zilla did about their shared past, which was nothing. If the Creature, which was what Silvano told her Skersha really was, had any memory of being a wolf in some past life, she would have told Zilla. She could never resist bragging.

“Tell me what insubordinate thoughts are in your mind before I have to pry from you!”

And suddenly, Skersha appeared yet again up close and personal, not a step taken. Her words pierced past personal space until they spat on to Zilla’s cheek. The girl winced her whole body away, twisting, panic involuntarily rising.

Once it got this far, there was no pacifying, only withstanding.

Some moments, Zilla wished for Silvano’s apathy. Always, she hated her master, hated him for how little he seemed to care. Hated him for how incapable he was of summoning any emotion for her. Hated him for how he’d caused her, again and again, to run to Skersha and confide in her.

Because no matter how hard he was, Skersha was always worse.

Skersha sent the rancid smell of burning into her nose before lancing her side with the pain of searing flesh, and Zilla screamed.

For a moment, she held no thoughts in her mind but fear and fury as she was being burned, distracted. But a moment was all Skersha needed. Through the opening offered by Zilla’s panicked pain and disorientation, she sunk her jagged mental teeth in deep. Skersha forced through the expansive holdings of basic analysis and emotion and dug down to her memetic and retentive core.

On the outside, Skersha had disappeared. Her Energy was now focused. Zilla tried not to fight because she knew that was part of the hunt, that the violation was what made it sear through her. If she could relax and let Skersha in, it would all be over in a moment. But it was partly subconscious. No part of her wanted any part of Skersha to infiltrate her thoughts. Skersha took her time in perusing.

And in the middle of everything was Zilla, shoved down to her own core consciousness, fighting off the urge to scream. So easily peeled back, the way a bullet peels back sheets of metal. Skersha knew it. They could both feel it.

It was like a disturbed sleep when she was released, the feeling of finally being allowed to relax, yet something thrumming wrong so deep within her mind. Even the suddenness of Skersha’s vice grip loosening nearly made her lose consciousness.

“So, you were mocking me,” Skersha confirmed. But the words came through a sheet of unfiltered water, and she wasn’t sure if in her groggy state she responded with a grunt or not.

The last of Skersha’s energy retracted from Zilla’s mind like a pull then a snap. Her body jerked and with a gasp her hands sought out her sides to trace the sweaty skin of her ribs, no tender burnt flesh. The pain was gone and only a long-faded Energetically healed burn scar, from years ago, remained.

She was propped up against the cabin wall. Her palms face up at her sides. Her figurines were strewn to the right of her foot. Her toes wouldn’t move. A long strand of drool connected her shirt and her mouth. Her body trembled again and her eyes wettened without her permit. She pressed the scar again, just to make sure.

The things Zilla knew to be true never helped her. Skersha only ever inflicted memories on her, pains Zilla had felt before and which Skersha had marked to remind her of later. She was learning new tricks every day, but affecting real matter was something she generally tried to avoid.

“Did you like that?” Skersha asked.

Zilla looked up, slowly. She waited for the speech.

“Did you like that? Because that’s what happens when you challenge me. I can tell. I can always tell. You can’t hide anything from me. Silvano is your master, but I own you, do you understand?”

Zilla’s eyes unfocused and she got to her feet, back to the wall. Nothing more would happen to her now, she supposed. It would use up too much of Skersha’s precious energy. Gingerly, she picked up her figurines and set them right within their wooden box. The she-wolf’s face filled with fury so complete that if it went any further it would crumple in on itself, and that’s nearly what it seemed to do as Skersha disappeared into nothing. Maybe she’d been wrong.

A light seemed to flicker in the spot Skersha had disappeared from, fluttering where Skersha had visited. It was like the afterimage of staring at the sun, only truly visible when Zilla closed her eyes, disappearing just as quickly as Skersha had.

“He’ll be home soon,” she said to the open air. To the vibrations in her own jaw. To the alert and watchful presence within her. Outside her dreamings, the reality of Silvano menaced her waking hours. He’d gotten better, she thought. But there was a reason she had a burn scar, old and healed but very very real, for Skersha to draw upon. She felt oddly ready. For anything. What else could Skersha do? She felt within her Skersha’s desire to return and inflict further pain. Any moment, Zilla would regret anticipating it.

Skersha bawled laughter, the sound hitting Zilla’s eardrums with a ring-ting ache. She winced away from the sudden noise, but when she whipped to the right, Skersha was gone again.

“He doesn’t understand you at all.”

Her head went left to follow the sound.

“And you do?” Zilla said.

Skersha appeared where Zilla looked, towering above her. She hissed out, “I invaded your mind, and I can do it again. This is why your log of a master has yet to break you. He doesn’t understand you like I do. He doesn’t understand what makes you hurt.”

And then Skersha held her box, the carvings Zilla had made and hidden over years of accumulated effort.

It slid into the fireplace without so much as a thud. And as Skersha watched her with pointed eyes, silently threatening against every urge in Zilla’s body that twitched towards retrieving it, the box cracked along the long side, and then split down the center.

About the Author

MoAde M. J.

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MoAde M. J. is Tiv Nigerian and Irish-American. They are an undergraduate student at Syracuse University. Their poem "No Kill Cropping" has appeared in Mom Egg Review and their nonfiction essay "Namesake" was a merit winner in YoungArts 2018. They live with two roommates, a cat, and a garden full of tomatoes.