Author’s Note: “I thought it might be a good idea to share something with you that shows what can happen to short stories that never get published. This story (below) was written in 2005 and, just as I felt inclined to submit it, in 2006, I realised that I could synthesise some of the ideas in it, much more eloquently, in a novel I was working on called Afterbirth. For that reason, I never sent it out. In the end that novel changed its name and eventually was published as Tail of the Blue Bird. People who have read the novel will perhaps recognise some of the similarities. I hope this will work for you, Younglings.
Arriving on a Friday night flight, James Moorhead found Kotoka International Airport abuzz with families waiting to welcome their missing parts back home. He was approached by a short man with a slight limp who asked him if he needed a taxi. James nodded.
The air was balmy; it reminded him of nights spent in his ex-girlfriend’s father’s car on the shoulders of minor roads, exploring the permutations of intimacy. The sea breeze got stronger as the yellow-ended taxi approached Bukom. Kiosks and low tables lit with kerosene lamps appeared with increasing regularity as the street lamps faded into the suburbs.
Mrs Yartey was waiting by her door, a still figure framed from behind by a fading pulse of orange light. Hands on wide hips, eyes restless, she smiled as the taxi stopped in front of her house and James emerged. A picture of him was clutched loosely in her left hand.
“Ah James, you have arrived.”
He smiled back, remembering the picture. It was of Fred Yartey and him; taken the day after they finished their second year exams. Mrs Yartey had her arms open, so he climbed the two dwarf steps that led to the doorway to hug her.
Fred had warned him with a left-handed smile: “Ghanaians shake hands, Ghanaians hug. If you don’t it’s considered rude.”
“Kwaw,” Mrs Yartey called. “Come and take your brother’s friend’s things inside.”
The taxi driver was waiting by his car with James’ bags as Kwaw emerged to take the luggage inside. As soon as his hands were free he rubbed them together and grinned, staring expectantly at James.
Mrs Yartey addressed the man, “How much?”
“Madam, twenty thousand.” He shifted his feet and deepened his grin.
“Ah! You think money grows on trees eh? Because you pick someone up from the airport you think you can charge dollar rates? I’ll give you ten thousand. The airport is not far.”
“Madam, try for me. Let me charge the man; fifteen thousand.”
“My friend, the man is my son. I can’t let you cheat him. Ten thousand is my last.”
The taxi driver took the money, with quick-fingered contempt. He climbed into his seat, muttering silently to the gods of his thinning hair, and drove away.
Mrs Yartey shepherded James inside. Across the road, the area fish seller tut-tutted and shook her right leg.
The Yarteys lived in a structure like a stadium with living quarters instead of stands – an enclosed courtyard. There were seven other families within the compound, but only the Yarteys had a door that opened directly onto the street. Their lives used to expand to embrace the entire building – all two floors with the upstairs balconies overlooking the courtyard – but they had gradually reined in the spread of their existence, leasing most of the rooms out to help pay for Fred’s degree. Once inside, Mrs Yartey led James up a short flight of stairs into a square blue room. It had no adornment except a metal double bed and a homemade wooden table beside it. His suitcases stood against the wall to the right of the bed.
In this subdued box of blue, James curled into the night’s soporific humidity, a jangle of limbs twisted in memories of Oxford’s chill, his long legs breaching the limits of the hard mattress, dreaming of great achievements and soft limbs.
The next morning he set off towards the city with a yellow notepad and Kwaw in tow. Walking briskly under a canopy of neem trees, he cast the occasional glance at young women setting up their wares for the day. He was animated as he outlined his ideas to Kwaw, a serious-looking young man with a slanted smile.
James had travelled to Ghana to do some research for a thesis he was writing on Belief Systems in Primitive Cultures for a PhD in Anthropology. Indeed, what had started as a casual argument with his friend Fred in his first year of University had become his post-graduate thesis: The Disappearing Men of Bukom.
Having despaired of trying to convince his friend along the tame tree-lined paths of Oxford, where punt boats guided by precisely-placed poles reinforced notions of serene control, Fred had offered to have his family put James up in Accra one day – just so he could see for himself what Fred was talking about. After a decade, Fred had completely forgotten about the argument and was surprised when, James, two years into a PhD, his interest in his degree subject suddenly rekindled after three years working in PR in London, had called to ask him if the invitation still held.
“There has to be an explanation. They can’t just be disappearing into thin air. These men have consciously relocated or…”
“Or what?” Kwaw raised an eyebrow.
“Been killed. Murdered.”
“James,” Kwaw smiled. “You don’t understand this place. There are things around you that you can’t see.”
The mottled sunlight shining through the tree canopy made the path look like the inside of a beehive.
James shook his head and raised a hand with enthusiasm. “Au contraire. I think I have been studying Anthropology for long enough to be able to generate a sound assessment of the situation.”
“And how exactly does Anthropology help you do that?”
“Well, I have studied similar cultures and beliefs. These stories are often a way of enforcing obscure laws. I can draw parallels.”
“Parallels that apply to Ghana?”
“Well, partly. Ghana is quite interesting actually because primitive society appears to co-exist with industrialised society. That’s why this fable…”
“Oh, so we are primitive?” Kwaw stopped a passing banana seller to buy a bunch of freckled yellow fruit and some groundnuts. He helped the boy replace his tray of goods on his head, then offered some bananas to his companion. “Here James, some primitive food.”
James smiled, took a banana and placed it in his pocket, then continued his argument “In many ways, yes you are primitive. There is a prevalence of subsistence modes of production, low standards of education, strong belief in taboos and fables… I mean this story of disappearing men is preposterous. There is no scientific basis.”
Kwaw laughed, holding his hands out like a beggar. “But what if science is a fable? All science is based on assumptions at some point, right?”
“Man, let’s not get silly. We both know that’s nonsense, utter nonsense.”
Kwaw paused, chewing on a mouthful of groundnuts. It was clear to him that he couldn’t convince James based on arguments. He was the kind who formed opinions and tunnelled ahead according to whatever map emerged in his head as a result of his musings. What his brother’s friend needed was experience. He put his hand on James’ arm. “Hey, are you in a rush to go to the Arts Centre?”
James’ plan for the day was to go to the Art Centre in the middle of Accra to buy gifts; stop at the Visitor Centre for some information; get acquainted with the local transportation system – and take down some notes.
“No. Not really.”
“Then come with me.”
They turned left onto a smaller path that led to a beach, and followed the jagged outline of the shore. In the distance they saw fishermen sitting on the battered shells of worn out canoes. Mending nets. Kwaw continued to bait James. The breeze carried their debating voices west.
“Why aren’t selfish societies like the United States and England considered primitive?”
James ignored the question. “You are just like your brother. He quit Anthropology to study Law because he didn’t like the way the books referred to African societies.”
Kwaw laughed, a loud evacuation of mirth that rang long in the sea air. “We’re here.”
They had arrived in front of a large wooden building that leaned like a coconut palm. The wood was stained black. In the courtyard, two youths were smoothing a solid wawa door with planes. There was a carpet of wood shavings on the ground around their dark feet
“Kojo, is Ayitey here?” Kwaw asked the darker of the two boys.
“I’m here.” It was a voice deeper than the sound of hollowed wood under water.
James turned to look at the speaker. He was at least six-foot-four. His skin was an uncommon shade of brown that glowed. He was bare-chested and only wore one item of jewellery; a leather necklace that came to his solar plexus with a pattern drawn out with cowrie shells. He drifted into the courtyard with the grace and assurance of sunrise.
Kwaw walked up to shake his hand. “Ei, Ayitey, how is it?”
“We’re holding on. How are you?”
“I’m fine. I’ve been getting ready for school. This is Freddie’s friend James”
Ayitey shook James’ hand.
“He’s staying with us while he does some research.”
“What research?” Ayitey asked as he strolled over to feel the surface of the door that the boys were sanding to smoothness.
“He doesn’t believe in the disappearing men.”
There was a long silence. James noticed Ayitey and Kwaw exchange amused looks. The sanding blocks slowed in their rhythm as the boys looked in their direction, their arms caught extended in the slow grace of their craft.
Kwaw broke the silence by slapping the surface of the closest worktop. “Anyway, is my desk ready?’
Ayitey nodded. “Come inside and have a look at it. We’re varnishing it. I’ll bring it to you tomorrow.”
“Ayitey, I swear, if you don’t bring it tomorrow I won’t pay you.”
Ayitey slapped palms with Kwaw and laughed. “When have I ever let you down, eh? Anyway, does your friend drink? I have some palm wine in the back; we can talk and drink.”
They woke up to loud voices in the compound of the Yartey’s house. It was eleven days after James’s arrival. A Tuesday. The fish seller, Adjoa, was gesticulating and pointing to a spot on the ground. Mrs Yartey secured her sleeping cloth around her chest and walked out, barefoot, to Adjoa. James and Kwaw followed. When they were close enough, Kwaw translated what she was saying to James.
“They have come back. They have come back. They are trying to take my husband away.”
The spot she was pointing to held a footprint. Its lightness and curvature suggested that it had come from a woman’s foot. The toes were uncommonly long. When she saw James, Adjoa stopped speaking and her right leg began to shake.
With an exaggerated inclination of his forehead, Kwaw signalled James to come with him, guiding him inside Adjoa’s house. Her husband was tied to their bed. He was blindfolded and his mouth was covered with a wet cloth. Kwaw set him free and spoke to him for a few minutes.
As they left, James spoke. “What was all that about?”
“Adjoa’s a seer. She always ties her husband down when they are about to come. They only take those who follow them. They come for men who have no children.”
“The water maidens. They are the ones who make the men disappear. It is said that they are irresistible. First they enchant you, then they return to take you away.”
“So how come all the young men haven’t gone?”
“They only come for two men each year.”
James ran into the Yartey house and emerged seconds later with his yellow notepad, a pencil, a torch and a tape measure. He measured the footprint and noted it. Then he traced the footprints back to the beach. Mrs Yartey and her son went in back inside. It was only 5:30am.
It was 7:00am when James returned.
Kwaw jumped up the short flight of stairs and peeked round his door.
“Did you find anything?”
James was sitting on the table by his bed with his head cradled in his hands.
“No. When I got to the beach, there were thousands of similar footprints heading in differing directions.”
“I’m sorry,” said Kwaw.
He walked in. Holding out a thin package wrapped in the remnants of a faded newspaper. “Adjoa said we should give this to you to wear.”
“What is it?”
It was a necklace. Made of leather with a pattern drawn out with cowrie shells.
“She says they’ve seen you now. You went to the beach on a Tuesday. They’ll come for you next because you are one of them…”
James examined the necklace carefully trying to figure out why it looked so familiar. “What does that mean?”
“No, ‘one of them’”
“Oh. They always bring the babies back to the families to raise.”
“Bullshit! I’m not getting involved in this superstition circus. How could I be one of them? My grandparents were from St. Lucia for Christ’s sake. I’m almost white.” He threw the necklace against the wall.
Kwaw headed for the door. “I would wear it if I were you. She’s never been wrong.” James stood up slowly, his eyes fixed on the necklace. “Hey, isn’t this what the carpenter guy wears?”
The door was half open. “Yes. He is one of them. That’s why I took you there. He’s a mirror image of his father yet his father was not seen for a year before he was brought to his grandmother.” Kwaw walked to the bed and sat down. “A woman walked in in broad daylight and handed him over. Nobody had ever seen her before. All the men followed her trance-like to the beach where she disappeared.”
“What did she look like?”
“According to Adjoa, she looked like they all look; indescribably beautiful. We all describe them with a chant we learn while playing as kids: their complexion is whatever the water gives; their fingers are woven diamonds; their smile is sunset on an overturned horizon; their toes will lead you to heaven. They are irresistible.”
James wasn’t convinced. “Fable, it’s all myth. Listen to that song. Can’t you tell by the inflated descriptions?”
“Is the bible much different?”
James didn’t answer. He looked out at the tops of the palm trees visible from his room and wrung his hands.
“I really would wear that necklace…”
“No way. If I wear it, I denounce the very reason for which I came here. I’ll get to the bottom of this without any of these absurd accessories.”
He brushed past Kwaw and headed towards the beach with his notepad.
The sun sets as always; turning the sea to orange at the boundary of the horizon. A child plays in the sea sand. His carefree laughter carries west in the wind. In the western world he would be called an orphan; in Bukom, his parents are simply elsewhere. This child made the headlines in the UK. Exclusive Pictures of Abducted Brit’s Son. I could tell you more but it wouldn’t tell you what you need to know. Nothing has changed here except James Moorhead disappeared one morning without saying a word to anyone. He has become local folklore. The sun disappears like men into the sea.
© Nii Ayikwei Parkes
[writer . editor & curator]www.niiparkes.com