Last Ritual of the Smoke Eaters

I didn’t want to eat Joshua, but he turned into dust, and the way things go in Carucchi village is that if someone turns into ashes you inhale them till there’s nothing but smoke in your lungs and redness in your eye. Sometimes we have to eat people to make us less lonely. I didn’t want to do it, but Joshua named me as his eater, so my entire village forced me down on the floor and told me it was necessary. Great-aunty Chinny held my hands and made me inhale his smoke till his entire presence was roiling through my body like the last movements of a dragon.

When Joshua had finally settled in my body, he felt like a weight in my throat.

• • • •

Joshua and I used to play by the riverside all day and night. This was before his death and before he left and before the inhalation. This was before him telling me he loved me (he always loved me). The riverside was considered to be one of the safest places in our village, the place where youth could go to avoid the dreaded dragon’s breath and the insecurity of the nation and the fear of living life in worry. The river was thought to be some anti-dragon zone, and it was believed that if we stayed there long enough, we would prevent our own deaths. We could hold space for our futures, laugh and sing and love once again, and we could hold on another day longer.

Joshua was always an adventurer. He would wade through the water like he was fighting the biggest smokebeast dragon, splashing through the river like he was slicing through its depths like a sword. He couldn’t swim properly, but when he waded all the way to the deeper parts of the river he would drag me in, as if I was his life craft. We would laugh and he would tease me for being silly and I would chase him around the water, screaming at him for getting me wet. As if no one ever went to the riverside without knowing they’d be soaked. As if wetness wasn’t everyone’s private rebellion against the heat of the dragon.

On the river shore, after we had finished playing and we were waiting for our clothes to finish drying on rocks nearby, Joshua told me he was going to join the soldiers leaving for war. He didn’t even let me speak, the way he blurted it out—he was so adamant about it, because he knew I always interrupted him. I was going to tell him that he didn’t have to go because his family were always fighters, that he didn’t have to be a hero by being a warrior, that sometimes being a hero means staying home, but you could tell he’d been thinking about it forever and he’d made up his mind. Come a fortnight from that day, the Carucchi soldiers would be raging war against the ferocious dragon territory of the East, and no one would be able to stop them.

I could see the pride in his eyes when he told me. I didn’t want him to leave, but everybody has their own personal ways of fighting, of dealing with a life under despair, and I didn’t want to stop his. I sat with him in silence, waiting for our clothes to dry on the rocks. I held his hands the whole time, my own private prayer that he would return after his departure, and smiled at him like I understood his decision.

• • • •

The weight of Joshua consumes me. It is charcoal and raw in my throat, and it presses like iron in my sleep. When I step out of my hut of mourning at dawn, everyone in Carucchi looks at me like I’m a sinner. I just want to take a walk to see my loved ones, but it’s a life full of burden for those who mourn. I walk through the growing streets like I am a ghost, like I am the shadow of something unreal, and no one will touch me or even look at me, no one will answer me when I ask for directions. No one will ever love me again the way he did. My head is so fuzzy and full of grief that I can’t even remember where anything is, not my house, not to talk of that riverside where we always swam. I don’t even know which places are now dragon territory, if there’s anything left of this world beyond the little of these huts, beyond this city.

I’ve never left Carucchi, and that’s because I’ve been told not to. But it’s so small. Limited from the world I want to know.

I keep walking aimlessly on the streets until the mourn watchers come. The soldiers always step in with their dark horses when a person leaves their hut during funeral season. Someone on the streets must have told Grand-aunty Chinny that I was found outside my quarters, so I’m not surprised when the squadron ride up to come and take me back to the place I’m imprisoned.

“You know how this goes,” one of them says, a barrel-chested man with a sympathetic voice, and I nod along with him, too weak to fight.

“I just wanted to explore, that’s all. See my family. Take some air,” I reply, and the barrel chest nods like he understands. This doesn’t stop him from clasping the iron chains to my arm, quickly latching me on to one of their horses.

“I get your plight. I truly do. But a person like you—you can’t just go out when you want. You’re not yourself. You need time to heal,” he says, giving me a sad smile. I remain silent as they carry me back to the hut. If I was strong enough. If I was strong enough, I would have told them that the process of healing should allow me to walk where I want, to explore the world, to hold him in my own way. But my head is dizzy and my mouth is full of clumps.

• • • •

Joshua was always restless. He never had a home. I could see it in his eyes—that need for instability, for lack of roots, for impulse. Even though he had a place to stay, a place he lived, that didn’t mean he didn’t want to explore new worlds. He came for dinner at my hut three times in the week before he left, eating everything my fathers cooked for us. He brought some plants from his garden and roasted them over a smoke fire with my grandma, telling her how much of a good friend I was. My grandmother laughed repeatedly at the word friend—she knew what we were, and there was no point in hiding it. Carucchi soldiers were not supposed to have loves, were not supposed to entertain any sort of relationship, but my family has always been lenient to harsh laws, and my grandma never told.

On the dinner table, my fathers discussed the details of the war with Joshua, how scary it must be to go into the heart of the dragon-world. They asked him rather quizzically, inquiring rather bluntly into the nature of things. Was he forced to go? Did he have no choice in the matter? One of my fathers asked him if he thought it was right, going to the dragons’ territory to go and harm the beasts. They were predators yes, and nobody disputed that, but is an animal a monster or just a thing that lives? Did they really deserve to be killed and made to go extinct?

Joshua said, puff-chested, that the dragons were evil beasts that needed to be exterminated. I didn’t say anything, because I didn’t quite know what to think. My whole family burst into murmurs of quiet speech—it was a tone of disapproval, and they didn’t like the way he had answered the topic. Joshua was very in-his-head about things, so much that he had a hard time noticing other people, so it was no surprise that he smiled as we scrubbed our plates after dinnertime, brushing my head with a hand full of soap, remarking to me that that went well. I smiled to him softly, but I didn’t tell him about the argument I had with my family when he left. About his views on life, about his naivete, about the way he said words like he had never been challenged on them and hadn’t chosen to challenge himself.

But it’s complicated, with the ones you love. It’s often difficult to talk to them.

• • • •

A few days after my surprising walk out, I am calmed once again. The people in my hut give me something for my sleep, and they watch over me day and night. I know from Grand-aunty Chinny’s words I am to be observed constantly, as they don’t want me taking flight. The last person who walked away from their hut after performing the rite of swallowing ashes caused a whole cassava season worth of bad luck.

The new servers that they brought to my hut are more attentive to my needs. They listen to me when I speak—about him, about my love for the water, about our stories. I tell them one of our private memories when I’m lonely, about how we used to go to the waters at midnight when everyone was sleeping. Joshua loved to see the stars when he swam, and I loved to follow him, wading my hands through the water like it was the only thing in the world.

“Was it then that he confessed his love for you?” one of my servers asks. She looks so inquisitively, and she smiles widely as she brews a cup of stewed river leaves for me.

“No,” I tell her. “It wasn’t then, it wasn’t there. He was leaving soon, and it wasn’t the right hour. If he said it before he left the first time, it would be all we’d think about, and we needed to focus. We had to be strong, so we kept it in. We had to survive.”

“That’s beautiful,” a voice says, and I am caught off guard by the person in front of me. It is that guard with the barrel chest again, standing in front of the doorway.

“Why are you even here?” I speak. I try to demand an answer, but I’m too shocked to challenge him further. I haven’t left my quarters or done anything since I walked out, so I should be allowed some peace.

“Calm down, calm down, I’m not here to grab you,” the barrel chest laughs, like it’s some sort of a joke. He points slyly towards the door, and in comes her. Grand-aunt Chinny.

She’s not exactly my Grand aunt, but the way things go in Carucchi village is that everyone who is your elder is your aunty. She is a regal woman, if cold and stoic, and she doesn’t walk with a slow step that signals her old age, but rather barges into the room like she’s fighting war. She comes wearing a dress made of dragon talons that rest at her shoulders, their skin as her shoes. She stares at the servants, and they all flee from my beck and call, moving to the other side of the prison-sized room. When she looks at me, I feel that clump in my throat.

“How are you doing?” she says, but she doesn’t care. Her words are strong and hard like jagged ice, yet more tender than I expected. I fumble around with my words, not knowing what to say, but she is so impatient that I quickly stumble on a reply.

“I’m s-surviving,” I sputter, forcing back the croak in my throat. I can’t cry in front of the Grand-Elder, it’ll just make me look pitiful.

She ignores my croak and goes on with her conversation. “I heard you’ve been going around the village in your state—you know you can’t do that.”

“I just needed some air.”

“Is air worth risking the entire village? Is it? I’m not one to hear excuses, do you hear me? You know very well that you’re in a fragile state and you choose to risk the lives of everyone around you. Joshua was a warrior, and we don’t know how you’ll react in his new body.”

His new body—how she refers to those of us who hold these lives. She thinks of me as a puppet—a museum of a warrior. I have hardly been a person ever since he passed.

I want to argue, but I bow my head instead. “I understand, Grand-Elder.”

She pays me no mind. “It is fine. You had a moment of weakness, and I’m inclined to sympathize with that. At least once. But this cannot happen again. Do you understand me?”

I respond with a layer of resignation. “I understand.”

She pats my head when she leaves, but she gives me no eye contact. She is never anywhere for long. I stay still in my sheets even after she leaves, feeling the clumps in my throat, the building and rollicking, the roar, threatening to overtake me. Joshua moves in my body like fire and dust, the weight of rebellion. But I don’t say anything. I just let her leave the room.

In the night when I sleep I see his face again, angular and righteous. Joshua is swimming like all those days before, hands outstretched like home in the river, and he’s calling me, calling me, calling me to come back to him.

But I’m hesitant.

• • • •

Joshua’s body makes me different, though.

The first week they put him in me, I fidgeted all those nights. I cried in my covers, I couldn’t sleep, I woke up every morning and the sweat beads built up on my forehead like testimonies, oily and slick. He was everywhere I went, in every breath, every blink, every vision. When the mourn-watchers came to inspect me and ask me what was wrong, I couldn’t even tell them anything. There was a fundamental shift, a change, a reckoning.

I couldn’t tell them that inside my system, Joshua and I were fighting.

• • • •

Joshua wasn’t always perfect. He wasn’t mean, truly, and he never tried to hurt me, but he wasn’t always good. But who is? On the first days after he came back from the war, he was arrogant, more than ever, a cocky man. He said words I never expected him to say and left plates for me to wash in the hut. The war had changed him, and it was clear in his eyes that he’d let himself be operated on, be charmed, be deceived. He knocked books off my reading stool, bumped into me without remorse, told me to cook dragon eggs. When he even swam, it was no longer with the tenderness of before, the love. He was cutting through the water as though he was a knife and wanted to hurt.

I tried to talk to him about the violence, the apathy, but he seemed insistent that it was nothing. He said that he was just tired from all his work, didn’t I get that, and if I wanted to help him I could just stay out of his way. Prepare him food. Give him love. He didn’t explicitly say the words, but I knew he now wanted a type of love that was built on silence and non-acknowledgment, on meekness and submission, on looking away. But I was raised in a culture of speaking and arguing, and I was reading books on past history at the time that had prompted me to start asking big questions the way my family did, to dig deep, so I couldn’t let it go. Each night I spoke to him, prodding questions concerning the war, the dragons, the costs.

“Are you sure it’s as awful as it seems? I just can’t understand how these beasts could be so bad, Joshua, to create a whole war. The dragons always used to be tamer, more docile before this, and I’ve never pictured them to be the kind of things that could—”

“You don’t stop, do you?” he snapped, cutting me off. He turned from where he slept, staring with a fierceness, as though he could spit at me. “Let me ask you this, Effiong. Have you at any point in your life carried your things and seen a live dragon?”

“No,” I said, my voice low. I could never risk the trip: the dragons were too far away, and I was scared, deep down. But I dreamed about it. “I’m not trying to fight with you. I just ask you this because I need to understand that there can be no other way this violence can be avoided. That assures me. Don’t you at least comprehend, how I, as your partner, would want you to be safe at all costs?”

Joshua’s face softened and he grabbed my hand. He grinned like a boy, for the first time since he’d been gone, and laughed like he had received a gift so precious. “So I’m your partner now?”

“Well—we have to call this something, don’t we?” I paused, flustered for words. My head was getting filled with butterflies and I felt so hot.

“Don’t worry about me, eh, partner?” He said, rubbing my head. He made me feel like stars. “I’m perfectly all right. Everything I do, I do it out of necessity. For us. And the violence is a required outcome. It always is, for war. I love you, my Effi. So much. We’re doing important work.”

That was the first time he said it. That night, it was like the water had come from the river and decided to settle our hearts.

• • • •

Grand-Elder Chinny comes in the next market week with new arrangements. She says that I am clearly hysterical, so even though I have learnt my lesson I must still be observed. She places dozens of mourn-watchers outside my hut, servants who crowd over me daily, telling me when it’s time to do my prayers, my resolutions. I am supposed to wash myself three times a day, to cleanse my thoughts of all rebellion, to let his host move in peacefully with me. But I fidget and scream all night in my sleep, and when I try to wash myself in the morning, my body feels like rancid fire. It’s like me and Joshua are repelling each other and the things we used to love, breaking apart because we struggle to bond, separating because our beliefs are different. We’re fighting because we don’t believe each other.

And Joshua was always determined to win an argument.

The barrel-chested mourn-watcher catches me wincing after my second wash, gritting my teeth, and he stands close by. He tries to look stoic, focused on his job, but his brows furrow when he talks to me.

“Are you well?” He asks. What a question.

“As well as can be.”

“Is it difficult?” He replies, after a while. He’s been losing his demeanour the more he talks to me—his hands start fidgeting. “I know it’s not easy, I mean I couldn’t even imagine what you’re going through, but . . . is it painful? It’s not supposed to be painful if you’re carrying the body of someone you love.”

I turn to look at him, not wanting to say anything. What a question. I don’t know how he expects me to answer. I pause, bite my tongue, feeling those clumps bubbling, roiling through my throat. I try to press it down but It’s hard. It’s hard. He’s threatening to come bursting through me.

“I should go,” I try to say, but the barrel-chested man grabs my hand. He looks so insistent, staring into my eyes. He’s so unsure and it’s killing him. I always wanted Joshua to look like that.

“I just want to know that I’m doing something right.”

I can’t even answer. My throat catches. The sky goes dull and hazy, swirling into a mass of brown. The cassava leaves swing on their trees, as the wind pushes them off the branches like a sandstorm. Ravens fly away from the sky, down to earth, as if to avoid this. The world around me feels gray, menacing, and in my throat I can feel something crack.

“Are you okay?” The barrel man asks me. “We need to get you somewhere safe. Now.”

But I don’t have the heart to tell him that this isn’t the weather. There’s a build-up, a charcoal swirling, the wind of a tempest, threatening to seep out of me. There’s his spirit, weighed ice, sorrow and haunting, clawing at the edges of my tongue. There’s an endless amount of iron clashing, in my vocal cords, as he fights through my body, ruining me. I can’t keep him in, yet I can’t leave him.

I open my mouth and Joshua comes screaming out of my body in the shape of a dragon.

• • • •

The evening Joshua died, I didn’t need to be told. For the past few nights, I had tossed and turned in my sleep, gotten up aching, feeling the covers underneath me burn. I had thrown up ashes in the sink, scratched myself feral, woken up from dreams where I swam in waters made of fire. I knew something was off. I just wondered how long they would keep it from me that I was mourning someone I had already lost.

The squad of soldiers came at quarter to dusk on the third day after his death, with the village flag at half-mast. They came with funeral songs, with excuses that I was far too sick to hear. They tried to placate me by giving me a dragon’s egg, by telling me that he died a hero, that he was a victim of an outnumbered dragon attack in one of the major battles. But I just wished he was there. At my bed, rubbing my head, telling me there was never any need to worry. Telling me that I should take off my shirt and dive into the water with him and remind him that we were alive.

I read a book every night. I sank to the ground and scratched blood into my eyes. I tore my clothes. I screamed all day. At night, I whispered. I sat in unwashed shame. I couldn’t see anyone that wasn’t my fathers. They begged me to calm down, but I couldn’t stop reading, about dragons, about forgotten histories, till my hands were thin. Till my eyes were gaunt. Till I had stayed up weeks after his death and realised the simple truth: that no beast in our vicinity had expressed the original instinct to attack humans. The evidence was clear. We had gone there first, decades before, and stolen the dragons’ smoke, their eggs, their talons, their land. We had gone back, season after season, to take more, to fight them, to carry all they had.

I sat with this truth with a sickness in my stomach, but it didn’t even matter. The next day, Grand-Elder Chinny came with the squadron to tell my family that Joshua had named me as his smoke-eater, and I accepted immediately. I let them force me down. I wish I refused outrightly, fought tradition, but I wasn’t strong enough. I loved him fiercely. I felt like I could do it as his partner, and I was never ready to leave him.

And deep down, I thought that if I did it, I could understand his decision.

• • • •

Joshua shoots out of my throat like an arrow launched, like a slingshot pulled back, like a released prisoner. His body goes reddish-black and full of cloud like smoke, dead around the edges, all blunt where he used to cut. His eyes come out hazy, less with that grin of his, and all that’s full of them is sorrow. I try to back away, but Joshua’s smoke-body wraps himself around me, pressing against my chest.

“Please,” he croaks. He is barely able to talk. “Don’t leave.”

I look into Joshua’s eyes and there’s no sharpness there, like there was before, no hardness. There’s darkness in his eyes, confusion, a hollowness that comes with the consequences of a violent war.

All that’s left of him is this smokebeast dragon.

The barrel man looks at me and raises his firearm, aiming it towards Joshua’s body “He’s tainted. No wonder you’ve been so sick. I have to get Grand-Elder Chinny. We have to kill—”

“Don’t shoot,” I shout.

“I have to,” he says, pistol leveled. But he’s hesitant.

I look into his eyes. “I’m begging you. I know what you’ve been taught about dragons, but this will solve nothing. He’s not doing anything. You have to trust me.”

The barrel-chested man gives me a sad smile before triggering his pistol. “A person like you—you’re not yourself. You just lost someone. You’re still sick. You can’t know what’s right.”

Joshua’s dragon looks at me, and he gives me one final gaze before he dives up in the air, into the sky, deep into the haze. The barrel-chested man shoots twice but I hit his gun away, so it misses him, misses him, and the gunpowder pellets go into the air like fireworks. Joshua was always a swimmer, and his dragon moves through the sky like a beast underwater. Before he vanishes, I can see his talons stretch out to me in the sky, calling me, calling me, calling me one last time to come to him.

But I don’t. I can’t go back. As much as he tried, we both know he could never control me.

And now, there’s too much ahead of me. There’s a buildup in my spirit, roaring, defiant in the face of submission. I grab the pistol and jump on the barrel man’s steed, and in the midst of the confusion, away I go. I’ve never left Carucchi, but it’s clear that I need to. I have to go to dragon territory. I have to fight against the violence and destruction. I have to move like the water: into the wild, fluid and on my own, past all that rocks against me. So how I flow, into my new world.

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