Home > Unnatural Creatures(12)

Unnatural Creatures(12)
Author: Neil Gaiman

She frowned questioningly at Afam, now. She wasn’t in the mood to speak to anyone today. She just wanted to cook.

“Come!” Afam said. He paused. “Hurry!”

It was the pause that got to Ozioma. And a feeling. She let go of the spoon and it sunk into the thick red stew. She ran out the door without bothering to put sandals on. The air was heavy and humid. It pressed at her skin.

She followed Afam up the road. Past Auntie Nwaduba’s house, where Auntie Nwaduba had once slapped her for not greeting her loudly enough. Past Mr. and Mrs. Efere’s house, the old couple that liked to grow flowers during rainy season and hated when Ozioma got too close to them. Mr. Efere sat on his porch in front of his tiger lilies, suspiciously watching her run by. Past her uncle’s home. To the back. Through his yam garden where she’d saved him from the cobra. And finally, up the road to the center of town, the meeting place at the giant kapok tree that reached high in the sky.

Afam stopped, out of breath. “There,” he said, pointing. Then he quickly backed away and ran off, hiding behind the nearest house and peeking around its corner. Ozioma turned back to the tree just as it began to rain.

Shaped like two spiders, a large one perched upside down upon a smaller other, the thick smooth branches and roots were ideal for sitting. On days of rest, the men gathered around it to argue, converse, drink, smoke, and play cards on different branch levels.

Ozioma frowned, as thunder rumbled and lightning flashed. This was the last place anyone wanted to be during a storm. Aside from the threat of being struck, the tree was known to harbor good and evil spirits, depending on the day. Or so it was said. Today, it was clearly harboring something else. As Ozioma stood there taking in the situation, big warm droplets fell like the tears of a manatee.

It was the season where the tree dropped its seedpods. In the rain, fluffy yellow waterproof seeds bounced down like white bubbles along with the drops. Six men stood around the tree, in shorts, pants, T-shirts, and sandals. They were as motionless as the tree. Except for one. This man writhed in the red dirt, which was quickly becoming soupy like the stew she’d left to burn. The man was screaming and clawing at his eyes.

Ozioma caught the eye of her oldest brother. The son of her father’s second wife, he always turned and walked the other way when he saw her coming. He stood still as a stone beside the writhing man. Ozioma didn’t allow herself to look too closely at the man in pain on the ground. She’d recognize him. She looked up at the tree and beyond it and felt her heart flip, then she felt her body flood with adrenaline. She blinked the raindrops from her eyes, sure that she couldn’t be seeing what she was seeing. But she was. It was just like in the stories the local dibia liked to tell.

The enormous chain dangled through the heavy grey clouds between the tree’s top branches. It looked black in the rain. Ozioma knew it was made of the purest, strongest iron that no blacksmith could bend. It was older than time, the ladder of the gods. And something had slithered down it.

“How many?” Ozioma asked in a low voice, addressing the man closest to her. It was Sammy, another cousin who’d stopped talking to her after the cobra incident. She was worried he wouldn’t hear her over the rain but she couldn’t risk speaking any louder.

“One,” he whispered, water dropping from his lips as he spoke. “Very very big, o! Under the roots.”

She could feel all eyes on her. Everyone wishing, hoping, praying that she would get them out of this. All these people who otherwise wouldn’t see her, who refused to see her. Ozioma wished she could go back to cooking her perfect stew.

She could see the creature between a cluster of the tree’s roots. Part of it, at least. She let out a slow breath. This one would take some convincing. This one was bigger than two men. It could certainly raise its forebody to her height. The better to spit its venom into her eyes. A spitting cobra. The venom would be a powerful poison that burned like acid. Its victim wouldn’t die; he or she would be blind for days and then die.

Still, if it was a spitting cobra, even the other villagers knew that this kind of cobra’s eyesight was poor. And if one remained very still, it couldn’t differentiate a human being from a tree. This was common Agwotown knowledge. Thus as soon as this one spit in the one man’s eyes, leaving him thrashing with pain in the dirt, everyone immediately knew to freeze.

Ozioma’s mother once told her that when she was a baby, Ozioma used to eat dirt and play with leaves and bugs. “Maybe that’s why you can speak the snakes’ language. You loved to crawl on your belly, as they do.” Maybe this was true. Whatever the reason, before she even saw this snake, not only did she know it was a spitting cobra, she also knew that it was not like the others.

Slowly, Ozioma crept forward. It was watching her from between the roots. It slowly slithered out. Its face was otherworldly, that of a sly old man who has lived long and quietly watched many wars and times of peace. Beads of water ran down its head and long, mighty body.

“Ozioma, what are you going to do?” her brother whispered.

“Quiet,” she said. Only when the monsters come do they remember my name, Ozioma thought, annoyed. Now they have fear in their eyes that I can actually see because they look at me.

Ozioma stood there in the rain five feet from the creature, staring into its eyes, her jean shorts and red shirt soaked through. The men around her stayed frozen with fear and self-preservation. Its eyes were golden and its body was jungle green, not the usual red brown of spitting cobras. It slowly rose up and opened its hood, which was a lighter green. Still holding itself up, it glided closer while remaining upright, something that was difficult for most cobras.

Ozioma wanted to tear out of there screaming. But it was too late. She was here. It would spit poison in her eyes before she could escape. She’d put herself here. To save her people, people who hated her. Her father would have done the same thing. He’d once faced armed robbers who’d tried to rob a market. He’d been the only one brave enough to shout at those stupid men who turned out to be teenagers too afraid to wield the machetes they’d threatened everyone with.

The rain beaded on the snake’s scaly head, but not one of the tree’s fruits dropped on it. When it spoke, its voice came to her as it did with every snake, a hissing sound that carried close to her ears.

Step aside. I want this tree. I like it. It is mine.

“No,” she said aloud. “This is our town tree. These are my…relatives.”

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