Then came that day…

Excerpt from Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor

Photo by niko photos on Unsplash

This is an excerpt from the book Remote Control by Nnedi Okorafor.

Then came that day, the day she unknowingly stepped onto the path to becoming the infamous Sankofa. She’d drawn one of her “sky words” in the large area of dirt beside the tree and then climbed up to look down at it. The constellation that her grandfather called Sagittarius had guided her hand. But tonight, a playfulness had made her see it differently. Like new. Writing it upside down, it made more sense. And then she’d added the flourish from the part of the constellation that had never been there until tonight. She giggled, delighted by her work. The sky words looked like a Sankofa bird! She looked back into the sky to make sure she’d gotten the design right. And that’s when she saw what her brother Fenuku later called a “meaty shower.”

A minute later, Fenuku dashed out the back door and Fatima saw him gather with his friends nearby to watch it. She’d climbed higher in her tree for a better look. Even her parents came outside to watch. The whole village would talk about it for weeks because not only were there beautiful green streaks decorating the sky, but one could actually hear the “shower” hitting the shea tree leaves like rain. One had even zipped down and hit the dirt at the base of the tree, right at the end of the swirl of one of her sky words.

Fatima climbed down to see if she could find it. there it was, like a tiny Sankofa bird egg or …seed. It glowed a bright green like a star. She paused for a moment, wondering about the “sky words,” then she giggled, rushed forth and grabbed it. It wasn’t hot to the touch, but as she’d held it to her eyes, she could see that its light was seeping from it like oil. She cupped it in her hands and the light pooled in her palm and seemed to absorb into her skin. It burned and she hissed. Maybe it was hot. She dropped the thing and it sank right into the soil like a stone into water. She got to her knees, saying, “No no no, come back! I’m sorry! Come back, little see!” But it was gone.

Fatima never told her parents or her brother because she was sure none of them would believe her. About a year later, maybe even exactly a year, that afternoon, when she was five years old, bothered with malaria-caused fever and aching muscles, she’d still managed to climb into the tree and sit on one of the top branches. It had been a while since she’d drawn “sky words.” He grandfather had passed away months ago and she no longer looked at the sky so much, and so she no longer drew what she saw. Now she spent her time playing with her dolls in the tree or just hanging from its branches.

She rested her head against the tree’s trunk and shut her eyes. She loved this tree so much and every so often, it seemed to love her back, too, its leaves looking greener in the sunshine than any other tree. A cool breeze blew and being up here, she felt it directly. She was supposed to be in bed, but her mother was talking to her best friend, Auntie Karimu, on the other side of the house and Fatima had taken her chance.

She’d giggled because on the other side of the tree, she saw the red-furred animal curiously looking at her as it rested on a thick branch. The fox who’d escaped from the zoo two weeks ago and had in the last few days decided to make this tree its home. He was another reason she spent time in the tree. She’d been sitting between her mother’s knees having her hair braided when the brief news story played on her mother’s tablet. She and her mother had giggled about it because the news story had described foxes as craft. “They’ll never find that thing,” her mother had said.

The breeze blew harder, rustling the fox’s fluffy coat and feeling wonderful on her hot sweaty skin. Something below caught her eye. When she saw the soil churning, Fatima wondered if she was having one of the visions she often had when her malaria fever got high. Her furry friend on the branch across from her whined and moved further up the tree. Fatima, however, climbed down to investigate.

Maybe it’s a mole, she thought. Or a spider. She hoped it was a spider; she liked spiders. Whatever it was, if it was coming up at the base of the tree, it had to be something good, for this was where the seed from the sky had fallen. Because of the seed from the sky nothing bad or scary could ever come close to this tree, at least that was how Fatima understood it. Even her father knew this tree was a good good tree; sometimes he even laid his prayer mat right on the spot where the thing was ascending.

What she immediately noticed as her bare feet touched the ground was the smell. Her parents had been traders until they acquired a small shea farm years before she was born. Today, their small farm extended a quarter of a mile from the house and Fatima was quite familiar with the tree’s fresh scent, but this one always had a stronger nuttier aroma than the others. And now it smelled as if a whole truckload of sliced shea fruit had been dumped at her feet. Even in the strong breeze, it was powerful and heavy.

She wiped sweat from her brow as she stared down. the red soil was churning as if small hands beneath it were stirring and kneading the earth. The soil sank down and a hole about the size of both of Sankofa’s five-year-old hands appeared. Then something flat and brown was pushing through it. She stood there fascinated. A wooden box. About six inches long and four inches wide and two inches deep. There was no latch, no lock, and it was a rich brown like the tree’s trunk, though the wood was smooth, not the spongy rough of the shea tree.

“Oh!” Fatima whispered as she bent down to pick it up. “Is it for me?” Of course it was. She claimed it immediately, or maybe it claimed her. It was something valuable, or maybe it saw the value in her. It was beloved like something she’d lost a long time ago and just found, or maybe it had found her. It was like something she would own in a future life. Yes, oh yes, it was definitely hers.

She picked up her box. It was surprisingly heavy and she had to cradle it to her chest. She froze, staring at the hole. The box had been resting on a tannish-white root about as thick as three of her fingers put together. “Thank you,” she said to it.

She sat down, Then she pushed up the box’s thick lid. A hearty scent of crushed leaves rushed out and her eyes began to water at the sight of what was inside. Oblong in shape, it was just a little larger than her Father’s big toe and it had a smooth almost tooth-like surface. It was no longer leaking the glowing green light, but it was definitely the seed that had fallen from the sky and sunken into the dirt. “You’ve come back to me!” she said to the seed. And as if it had been waiting for these words, the root that had presented it glided back into the soil.

When she picked the seed up, her fingers went numb and she felt a warmth spread all over the rest of her body. She held it to her eyes as a green mist like incense smoke wafted from it. She laughed, blowing at and sniffing the mist; it too was warm. When she opened her mouth she found she exhaled the green mist a bit, too. After a minute, the mist disappeared and the smell went away. Fatima giggled, cupping the seed in her hands, imagining it to be delicate and alive like a baby mouse.

“Hello,” she whispered to it. “I’m Fatima. Maybe you like the heat from my hands. I have a fever from malaria, so I’m not feeling very well.” She set the seed back in the box and shook out her hand until the feeling returned. Then she shut the box and got up. She used her sandal to push soil over the hole the root had left and took the box and its seed inside. By the time she stepped into her bedroom, her fever was gone. She simply didn’t feel it anymore. The next day, even her parents were sure that her bout with malaria had passed.

As the days rolled on, her parents and brother came to know of the wooden box she liked to keep in her room. Her father would joke about the box with his friends, saying his imaginative daughter said the tree gave it to her. Her mother would talk about it at the market, saying her daughter treated everything like a person, even things she dug up from the ground. Her brother only rolled his eyes when he saw his sister plying with it. Fatima told the seed stories, she climbed into the tree with it, she snuck it to school in her pocket. “It doesn’t have a face or a name,” her mother had jokingly said one evening as she tucked Fatima into bed. “What is it with you and that old thing?”

“It’s my thing,” Fatima said importantly. “A nice thing that listens.”

Nevertheless, though she didn’t know it then, finding that seed in the box was the beginning of so much. She loved her favorite tree, shared its space with a fox who didn’t belong in Ghana, and because her bouts with malaria had passed, she was a happier child. No matter how late she stayed in that tree, mosquitoes no longer bit her. She was well enough to make friends and go with them to watch her older brother Fenuku play football on the nearby field. Life was nice and fun and happy for Fatima that year.

Her parents didn’t ask where she’d gotten the seed in the box. To them, it was just a thing. Maybe it was just a petrified palm tree seed she’d found somewhere in the shea tree farm and polished up. Maybe a teacher at her school or someone in the market dropped the box. Maybe it was an old jewelry box; her parents had lived in their small house since before both Fatima and her brother’s births and there were certainly many forgotten random things in that house. It was all possible and normal. Her brother wasn’t interested in the seed either. It was a thing that you didn’t plug in, a thing that couldn’t connect to the internet. To him it was a boring thing.

Have you read this book? I’d love to hear your thoughts in a comment below!

Remote Control – Summary

Here is the book summary:

The new book by Nebula and Hugo Award-winner, Nnedi Okorafor.

“She’s the adopted daughter of the Angel of Death. Beware of her. Mind her. Death guards her like one of its own.”

The day Fatima forgot her name, Death paid a visit. From hereon in she would be known as Sankofa­­–a name that meant nothing to anyone but her, the only tie to her family and her past.

Her touch is death, and with a glance a town can fall. And she walks–alone, except for her fox companion–searching for the object that came from the sky and gave itself to her when the meteors fell and when she was yet unchanged; searching for answers.

But is there a greater purpose for Sankofa, now that Death is her constant companion?

Copyright © 2021 by Nnedi Okorafor.

You can find more details here on Goodreads and on StoryGraph.

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