I lick the blob of blood on the tip of my thumb and resist crying as we paddle our old canoe toward the effulgent rays emanating from the lake.
“We should probably uproot that tomorrow morning.” Papa tips his head toward the slim plank jutting out from the water near the rickety dock behind.
My attention, however, is on the shafts ahead. From close range they appear to touch the night sky. “They are so beautiful. Do we really have to catch it?”
“We can either start wishing, after we’ve lost our home, that we could still picnic here every night to watch its lights, or we could sell it and settle our mortgage.”
“But what do they do with it—jujuists? Emeka said they use it for blood money rituals, but mama’s stories say blood money comes from human blood.”
“Ha, blood money rituals.” He stops rowing, just as the rays surround us, and gives me the paddle. “Ridiculous.” Then he grabs the net beside me, gives me an I-will-be-right-back pat in the head, and dives into the water.
I note he didn’t take the fishing rod, and the bait plate is empty.
They say diamond fish are clever enough to recognise bait, but their sluggishness and lights in the dark make them easier to catch at night. Still, in the whole of Awka town, only one fisherman has ever caught one. And today he resides in an orange mansion near the outskirts, and the jujuist he sold the fish to is now the most powerful—or rather, the most patronized.
I extend my curious left hand into the rays and notice the mark on my thumb is no longer bleeding. In fact, it has disappeared. I check my right thumb just to be sure, but it is unhurt.
I have barely begun to wonder how when the beams start dancing around like stage lights seeking a performer in the sky. They do so in a confused way, as if disturbed or running from something. They stop after a while and distort into curly wisps.
Darkness swoops on my surroundings and the voices of the night reveal themselves. I shudder, suddenly feeling the chill of the lake breaching my wool sweater and assaulting my poor body from all angles.
“Papa?” I whimper in response to some splashes in the dark. The boat jerks and a black figure I’m familiar with climbs in. I let out a sigh. “The lights are gone. Did you catch it?”
“Son, we are going to be rich!” Folding his net around something black and placing it at a corner, papa clamps me in the shoulders and hugs the air out of my lungs. “You want to school at Harvard? Cambridge?” His grip loosens and he pulls back, sitting with a slouch. “I only wish your mother was here to see this.”
Our row back to the lake house is adorned with conversation of how we are going to turn the house from its damp, termite-infested state to something classy. And as I climb onto the quaky dock, I avoid gripping the jutting plank for support again.
We put the fish in the drum of water on the backyard porch. And while papa bargains with one jujuist after another on the phone in the parlour, I rest my elbows on the rim of the drum with my jaw on my arms and shine a torch on the fish, begging it to forgive us and show me its beautiful light.
It just huddles there, the size of my twelve-year-old arm, face flat and tail a mosaic of all the primary and secondary colours, looking sad. Its deep black body is spangled with what looks like grains of diamond. I turn off my torch and it begins to glow faintly.
I rush inside, shouting, “Papa, it is shining again!”
But papa is still on the phone, so I waddle back to the porch to find the light has died and water is splattered on the wooden floor near the drum. My heart quickening the pace of its beat, I focus my torch into the drum.
“Papa! Papa!” I dash inside again. “There is a thief in the house! The fish is gone!”
We search the whole house but can’t find the thief. Instead we find something else—another set of rays in the lake. Although it is already nine pm, papa canoes into the water and fetches the fish.
We decide to keep this one in the bathroom tub and while papa sits on the backyard porch continuing his calls and looking out for the thief, I transfer water from the lake to the tub.
I stop on the porch on the fourth run and lower my iron pail to the floor, and stretch myself. “Do all diamond fish look alike?” I ask papa as he terminates a call and begins to dial another number.
“To fishes we humans look alike, son.” He returns to his call.
I proceed into the house and, on reaching the bathroom, the slimy yellow footprints and some splashes of water that now design the tarnishing white tiles alarm me so much that my pail slips off my hand and pours its water in the corridor. The shutters swinging in the night suggest someone has just escaped through the window.
“Papa! Papa!” I scoot back to the porch. “There are feet in the bathroom, and the fish is gone!”
Again, we can’t find the thief and a new set of rays in the lake gives us another diamond fish that night. This time we carry the drum on the porch into the kitchen and papa asks me to stay there and watch it while he rushes to the parlour and fetches his mobile phone.
I watch papa hurry out. Then I turn around to find a girl standing before me. She is naked. It doesn’t occur to me to blush before freezing in my position, my mouth agape like those of the people in movies do when I press the pause button.
Her eyes are two green isles on white seas, and her skin somehow is black—I thought mama said black people don’t have bright eyes—and shiny as if spangled with diamond grains, her plaited hair strangely fanning out like rainbow fins. She must be wearing a wig or something.
“Where is the diamond fish?” I ask.
She cocks her head. “The fish?”
“Yes, the fish.”
She puts her hands behind her. “I will throw it back in the lake.”
So it’s the same fish we keep catching. I should call papa.
“Something that beautiful…” A tear rolls down her cheek and I fight a desire to console her. “Those jujuists…they will kill her. They will eat her.”
Kill? “Why would someone pay that much for something only to eat it?”
“They eat it to increase their magic tenfold. Tenfold times tenfold the many eggs in her womb.”
“She is pregnant? How can you know that?”
“Ebuka?” Papa’s footfalls come from the corridor. “Who are you talking to?”
“Eh, no one.” I turn to the door and there is papa.
His eyes move from my sweating face to the floor. “What’s the fish doing there?”
I turn to the girl. She is gone and the fish is lying between a set of yellowish footprints. I look at papa and tell him I saw the thief, but do not tell him it was a girl, a naked girl.
Papa decides to stay awake all night in the kitchen and watch the fish.
The jujuist comes in the morning wearing a baggy gown made of sackcloth, bead necklaces and bangles and rings and anklets, carrying a big Ghana-must-go bag filled with one thousand naira notes, and tying palm fronds and vulture feathers around his dada head. The funny thing is that he came on a speed boat—in that stupid attire of his. Ha!
He puts the bag on the dock and dances to the drumming of his iron staff for a while. Then he says, “The fish.” The rims of his eyes and mouth are lined with chalk.
Papa passes the bowl containing the fish to him. He looks inside and I can see the lust in his smile. He tips his head toward the bag. “That’s fifty million naira as agreed.” Then he turns and dances toward his boat.
Tenfold times tenfold the many eggs in her womb. I charge forward, knocking the bowl out of his hand. He yelps as I and the container drop into the lake and I feel a sharp stab in my stomach.
My face is in the water, my mouth taking in as much of it as it can. There, just before my sight fails, I see the jutting plank. I hang from it like a goat about to be charred. Only instead of my body dripping kerosene, it is immersed in a crimson pool.
I can’t work my limbs. My eyes close.
Later my eyes open. I’m alone in my room, and I feel my life draining away through the hole in my stomach. I can’t see the wound, but I feel it—that numbness, that coldness.
Where is papa?
I know he is running around trying to borrow money from our distant neighbours. He did it when mama was dying. The doctors wouldn’t treat her unless he made a deposit of one hundred thousand naira.
I can see her now.
The door opens and she walks in—the naked girl. She stops halfway to my bed, holding her side as if her life too is draining away through there. “The eggs are now in the bottom of the lake,” she croaks. “Soon there will be more diamond fish here than there has ever been in any other waters. Unfortunately, diamond fish die from laying eggs.” She pulls back, resting on the doorframe for support.
“What happened to you?” I ask.
“She is in the bowl in the kitchen,” she replies. “You can sell her and keep your lake house. Or you can eat her and heal tenfold faster.”
This story originally appeared in The Literary Hatchet.