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“How can a stream be sad?” I asked.

He looked at me like a hapless ofeke. He picked up the beads as if to say, “As I was saying …” As he rubbed them, his eyes rolled until I could not quite locate his consciousness. It was through this tactile intimacy that he looked deeply into our people’s stories. These beads had accompanied him as he went looking into our deaths and births, desires to leave home and return, conflicts and reconciliations, hopes and ambivalence. I comported myself even more reverentially. Yes, I may have come with a gift, but I was still a guest.

He threw the beads again and they splayed out in response. There was no chance pull of gravity here. Their entire configuration was holy. Their every turn was an answer to questions we ferried across with gin, alligator pepper, nzu, and our intention to be here. The perimeters of the oracle had become the edges of eternity. I felt my heart flutter.

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“O nwero ife m na-agwa gi o ka agwaro gi. Am I telling you anything you haven’t yet been told? Did Omaliyi not already tell you that she was sad? This generation. You do not listen!” 

I cast my eyes down from the weight of my ancestors’ disappointment. The next time he looked into the oracle, I was frustrated by my illiteracy in the language they spoke. I ached to also have the capacity to move deftly between the revolving doors of the incarnate and the ethereal.

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I then got pouty. Why did he make me feel like such a disappointment for not understanding? How was I to believe that a stream from my hometown was sad? And if the stream was sad, why did it need to travel so many kilometers into the city to tell me? I wished we were not slowed down by the need to translate, so that I could explain myself directly to the spirits.

 “Is that not what she told you though, that she was sad?” This time he was tender, even pleading, as his eyes softened. 

“Yes.” That is what she told me. 

“But how can a stream be sad?” I still asked. 

He shook his head as he sighed. He wiped the tears from the corners of his eyes.

Illustration of clay pot used to divide story text


Decades ago, we used to come to Omaliyi’s shores to bathe and fetch water. The day would have broken, but the sun would not yet be overhead. I would have already been done sweeping the compound by then.

“Olamma, i ga-echu?” My cousin Nkoli’s question would cut through the morning mist. 

“Ee,” I would respond. Of course. I always went with her. I would greet Mama in the kitchen as I ran out, with my wrapper tucked in the crack of my left armpit, a soft landing for ite mmili’m, my water pot, to balance on my head once I filled it at the stream. I carried ite mmili’m with both hands as we walked to Omaliyi, much to Nkoli’s amusement. 

It had taken me months of convincing Mama to buy ite mmili’m for me. I had passed it by for months as it gleamed in its baked red in front of Nwunye Okeke’s shed at Eke market. I would stop by her shed just to feel its intricate designs. She would already be molding more water pots. I was clumsy and could not imagine making clay dance between my fingers the way she did.

From its round bottom all the way to its narrow mouth, ite mmili’m was lined with thin, concentric circles. There must have been hundreds of them, winding up and down its length. They had been diligently hand drawn. The circles did not zig or zag and the width of the distance between them was exact. Every day I passed by, I was glad that no one had bought it, and yet nervous. Would people pass by such a beautiful water pot for so long?

When my mother finally paid for it, I carried the water pot like it was sacred to me.

Enuma would tease me that I was behaving like young men idling about at the compounds of women they hoped to marry. Enuma was the kind of woman that loved all the children and yet genuinely made each of us feel like her favorite. All of us were happy that Mr. Okeke had married her into our village. She offered to sell the water pot to me at a cheaper price. She also offered to hide it from inquiring eyes for a few days. I pleaded with my mother, promising not to drop it like the previous one. When my mother finally paid for it, I carried the water pot like it was sacred to me.

With small pieces of cloth wrapped around their loins, the men showered in their demarcated corner of Omaliyi. The women had theirs, too. Sometimes my aunty Ada Ukadike would be there, and I could spot her by the uli designs on her body. I would see her again later in the week when she gathered the young girls to teach us to dance. I called her Mama Obele because she was the wife of my father’s younger brother. Some people called the dances we learned from Mama Obele a form of idol worship. While the catechist did not quite approve of my participation in such dances, he never stopped me, thankfully. Every Sunday, once I was done singing in the morning Mass, I would rush my errands so that I could dance.

Our mates would only be heading to the stream as Nkoli and I were on our way back. Nkoli and I would beam at each other with self-righteousness as we passed them by. It was good to have a head start to the day. Next, we would warm some food for our respective families, and then we would get ready for school.

Mama Obele taught us the old songs. She made sure we remembered to smile when we danced. Sometimes she designed costumes for us, and every time we had to perform, she would paint us with uli just like she did herself. When we were done dancing, she would bring out a pot of akpu with ofe onugbu, ora, or ogbono. She would serve us a massive lump of akpu on one plate, ofe on the other, and then ask the eldest of us to prepare a basin of water for everyone to wash their hands. We would all reach for the ofe and akpu. As five little hands hungrily scooped and subsequently doused in soup, it was magical how quickly a heap of akpu could disappear. 

Illustration of clay pot used to divide story text


I left the village for university in a neighboring town. After that, I did my youth service in a distant town. Upon graduation, I headed to the city. It was the place where the jobs were. We have a borehole in our hometown now. Our people have a water tank that rises high up into the air, which you can spot when you turn into our entrance. My water pot sits outside the usekwu. It has seen several rainy, dry, and harmattan seasons. I used to tell my daughter about Nkoli and I’s adventures so often that she could repeat the stories to me by heart. However, I had never gotten around to showing her Omaliyi. Now that I think about it, I never taught her the dances we danced. The language is also fading on her tongue. 

When I reminisced with old mates at functions, they would mention in passing that Omaliyi was no longer the Omaliyi of my childhood. They would say that she was now smaller. I could not even imagine that. She had served my parents and theirs ever since our ancestors migrated from the Delta. Our elders used to tell us that Omaliyi was a piece of Agulu lake, the one that sat majestically beside Idemmili’s shrine. Agulu lake was protected with alligators, and no one dared to fish there, but Omaliyi was friendlier; she let us play and wash in her. 

I longed to take my daughter down to Omaliyi one day. I wanted her, too, to fall in love with Omaliyi. Yet we lived far away from it all. There was a lagoon in the city, but it was not the same. When I unwrapped my bag of memory and browsed all its jewels, it wasn’t that lagoon I saw. It was Omaliyi I saw, so vibrantly that I would forget that many people I remembered being in her waters with were now dead.

Illustration of clay pot used to divide story text


The eze mmụọ told me I had to bring a cock, and that this time he and I would go to Omaliyi to present it to her. I knew that Agulu lake was full of crocodiles so I thought she would be the one to want blood. Yet, I did not push back. I was tired of asking disappointing questions. The next day I came with a cock flapping his wings all about me and smelling of his droppings. 

We walked to Omaliyi together. She was miserable compared to my memory of her. She was small and petering out. Buildings towered over her and instead of being our jewel she was now in our shadows. As I stood on her edges, I remembered the songs Mama Obele taught me, and my feet remembered how to dance to them. I started to dance. A heaviness soon descended on my chest, and I understood. 

Of course, a stream could be sad. Where were the plants that had flanked Omaliyi’s banks in perpetuity? Where were the little creatures that made their home beneath her waters? Who would not be distraught, standing there before the moon, stripped of the ways in which she had always understood herself? 

I was surprised at the audacity to cut Omaliyi from her floodplains, and that no one had thought to at least make up for all the plants they had cut down. Our ancestors had made it a taboo to harvest the plants around Omaliyi’s banks or to build close to her shores. We had asked why, and they only said that the spirits willed it so. We had laughed, saying it was all so superstitious. Shrines had been erected close to her banks, with people coming to give offerings to her there. I could no longer find the shrines. This was a slap on her face.

Of course, a stream could be sad. Where were the plants that had flanked Omaliyi’s banks in perpetuity? Where were the little creatures that made their home beneath her waters?

The eze mmụọ slashed the throat of the cock, sprinkled the fizzling blood on me. I winced. He handed the cock to me. He asked that I walk to Omaliyi’s center by myself and offer the blood still dripping from its neck. I walked further into Omaliyi, but he asked me to go even deeper. As I went in, I became a teenager visiting her waters with Nkoli again. Where was Nkoli, I wondered? We had lost touch. My tears began to fall.

I thanked the cock and held it up in the air, then I turned its flapping neck upside down and let the blood flow. Red splotches soon started to spread out through the water, turning to streaks and then disappearing. I waited as the eze mmụọ had earlier commanded. 

The cock had stopped wrestling, its entire body becoming limp. I could still hear the blaring of horns as cars drove past the main road nearby. Yet, as I kept listening, an ancient silence took hold of me. It was the silence of Omaliyi the old people spoke of, the one they said you would hear if you came by her alone late at night. Yet, which child dared to come to her alone after dusk? It was the silence that came over her when she communed with people our uninitiated eyes could not see. I closed my eyes.

Omaliyi spoke to me in a picture that flashed before my eyes. She was flowing again, her banks extended, her sides and insides rich with life. Our children would sit with her so she could tell them the stories we forgot to tell them. Visitors from all over the world came to be told her stories and to present offerings to her. Our children sang her songs and danced her dances. Mama Obele and all her friends were smiling as they danced. Goosebumps moved over me. My heart was flooded with joy. I had been away from Omaliyi for so many years, yet here I was standing in her heart, speaking her language. I was moved to kneel until the water was close to my throat.

“Ozugo!” the eze mmụọ yelled, tapping me gently on my free hand. I didn’t want to let go. He insisted on holding me and tugging me until I stood up. He said it was enough for now. He warned me that Omaliyi could be intoxicating, and that the uninitiated had to be taught to navigate her with care. He asked me to rinse myself in her waters and then begin to make my way out of her heart. Later, his apprentice took the chicken to prepare a lunch that we ate.

Illustration of clay pot used to divide story text


I fu n’anya. To see in the eye. To say I love you is to say that you see me in the eyes. Which is different from seeing the utility in me. In all their education, this generation had not been taught how to look at me properly. They were taught to look past me. They gazed at me with the excitement in their eyes only to wonder, how nice would it be to build near her? Or to ask out loud, how much value could they hope for their pockets from me? I came to accept after wishing it wasn’t so, that I had become a mere object.

Was this the way to treat an elder? Not just any elder, but the one who cared for their mothers, and washed their mothers’ mothers’ bodies? I, who fed them, washed them, put songs in their mouths, and inspired them when they went far from home? I, whose waters had flown through their land, feeding the trees whose sturdiness kept their soil protected? Yet, they sighed and gasped at the gulleys that had begun to erode their roads. You should have seen them, getting down from their cars at Eke market so that they could push them manually past gulleys. Once they got back into their cars again, they would turn on the gears and drive into such short-sighted oblivion. How could they tread on the earth in such an entitled fashion?

I just wanted to be seen. To be treated with dignity.

I just wanted to be seen. To be treated with dignity. To be looked in the eye. As our people say, a yara m a noolu na mmili, ncha abawa mu n’anya. I cannot be in the water and yet allow soap to be getting into my eyes. The soap was getting into my eyes repeatedly, and I needed to rinse my eyes. I therefore sent word for one of mine. 

I had always been fond of Olamma. I still remember the very first day Olamma came by me. It was not the first time she remembers, when she could already walk. Even before then, she had been brought by me a few days after she was born, as they dipped drops of my water into her toothless mouth to welcome her to the world. I still remember the softness of her gums and her curious tongue. 

Some months later, her little feet tried running into me and when her mother would dip her in, she would be wild with glee. All the years that she came by, even as her feet got bigger, she remained delighted to see me. She and Nkoli would come so early, and as they fetched from me, they would sing to me. I felt she loved me just for me, not only for the water I so gladly gave her. One day, I never saw Olamma’s little feet again, and I never heard her joyful squeals. I longed to be sung to, to be danced for again.

I sent for Olamma with little signs — memories that were vivid, dreams that were intense enough to have her wake up tired, even whispers on the voice of the breeze. Then I got tired. Olamma was not the one to understand subtle signs. If it were her grandmothers, a subtle sign would be enough for them to decode what I was saying. But this was a generation that had forgotten so much and was moving too fast to be able to remember. 

How can a stream be sad? Olamma pondered over and over. She asked herself if there was more to it. She wondered if the images symbolized something else. Perhaps a watery part of her life? Did the sadness signify something she craved, perhaps more fun in her life? Indeed, she had been working too much to make time to have fun lately. She kept downplaying my signs until I sent the eze mmụọ to their compound the last time she visited, to tell her point blank what she already knew. How much more stubbornness did I have to bear? I am, after all, a descendant of Agulu lake, the one who is adorned with crocodiles.

As I did to Olamma, I did to Nkoli, to the girls that danced with them, to their classmates, to the children of Mama Nkoli, Mama Olamma, Mama Obele, Nwunye Okeke, and their friends. I woke them all up one by one. I made their spirits restless and flooded their dreams with my waters. I let them feel my sadness until they could not tell where my sadness stopped and theirs began. It was hard. There was so much to dredge away, but I was diligent. I called them to me.

It was a trickle first, then a flow, then a whole stream of people remembering.

In time my little friends — fish, mollusks, nematodes so small to the eye, who made their homes in my waters — came back to me. Today, my banks have been redecorated with my neighbors, the plants with whom I made a pact to live together from the beginning of time. My flood plains are now free of obstructions, and I can take up all the space I used to. Today, no one comes to my waters without knowing what I mean to these people. Nobody can disrespect me anymore. It was Olamma that championed it all. I knew that I could trust her with something this important.

The other day, I was visited by a friend from so long ago. She had been refurbished, but how could I forget Olamma’s water pot? As the water pot lapped up my waters excitedly, I remembered the years when I filled her to the brim. I remembered titillating her young insides, full of the memory of Nwunye Okeke’s hands, knowing she would come back again for more. This time, Olamma’s daughter was the one bearing the water pot.

Read more from the 2022 Imagine 2200 contest:

Ebele Mọgọ (she/her) is a public health doctor and biomedical scientist whose work focuses on research and innovation for healthy planetary futures. As a writer, she explores her fascination with interiority. Her writing has most recently appeared in Claw & Blossom, Edgeryders Science Fiction Economics Lab, The Other Side of Hope, and Jalada Africa. She is an Igbo Nigerian woman currently residing in Montreal.

Mikyung Lee (she/her) is an illustrator and animator in Seoul, South Korea. Her poetic and emotional visual essays focus on the relationships between people and objects, situations, and space.