Every morning when he paddled out Adom wished for the end. But every time the ocean sent him back and spat him out. Moyo, they called it, the same word all the way up his contrary continent: the heart spirit inside you.




Adom felt it now, warming his chest as his blood picked up. It always did when he thought about surfing the Black Mamba. From here it looked like a long, smooth right-hander, sheltered and easy to enter. He knew the stories – what surfer didn’t? – but the warnings couldn’t stop the wanting. It was said, long before surfers ever took to these waters and before even the fishermen, that a snake-goddess guarded the bay, and only the most daring came back. Most did not. Mami Wata granted your heart’s desire – but it had to be the truth.

My wish is the same as always, Adom thought, feeling his heart squeeze with pain. I wish I was someone else. I wish I was strong. Adom had seen enough tears on dry land. He ate the memories, his armpits burning with their own salt as he sat on the sand and counted his wrongs: his kind, thin father who disappeared in the mines; his fat mother who heaved with asthma; the ears that made his friends call him Sputnik; the job so lowly that he told people he was unemployed; and now, last and worst – faithless black-eyed Amina who left and married his cousin. He nudged his old single-fin hand-me-down board and looked up at another set peeling heavily over the boulders.
Even the man who sold fish in the market knew his shame. ‘Do you think you are the first man whose woman has left him? You don’t belong here. Go back to the sea.’ His gums were purplish when he smiled at Adom. ‘You have a bad wind in you, my brother, and the water will let it out. Here, for you – tilapia.’

Thanks for nothing, Adom thought, fingering the fish’s dull eyes, its zombie teeth. He knew that already. The endless sea held purpose: no human pain, and no human pity. In its living waters a billion creatures met and mated and murdered without calling it luck.But he’d had enough. Today would be different: today he would paddle out and face the Mamba, and himself. And if he didn’t come back, then he didn’t deserve to.

Adom took a deep breath and got up. The warm greenish shallows took him; the uncaring salt moved his muscles; it licked him clean to the roots of his hair. Deeper now, he lay on his board as he had once lain on supple, shifty Amina. He paddled further out, the rip pulling him easily into the line-up. And he felt the old relief wash over him.

Why had he waited so long?

Quicker than he thought, he was at the backline. Another set stacked and broke, but he turned his back to the waves. He was here to petition Mami Wata. Adom shook his head to clear his ears and the water trickled out, warm as blood. He thought he could hear the sand below him as it shifted into new shapes, taking on her form.

He sat up. ‘Here I am!’ he shouted, his arms held wide. ‘Grant my wish!’

Silence but for the water’s trickle from his hands and the rumble of the waves as they broke. Back on the beach the dark palm trees huddled, whispering against him. Where was she? He had expected the waters to roil and part. Mami Wata would rise from the white shells, naked to the waist, and take him in her dripping arms. She would crush him against her, and he wouldn’t resist her hand around his red human heart. Then death, or paradise: he wasn’t sure. He didn’t know what came next.

Adom shuddered. His head was thundering. The roar seemed to be coming from below, somewhere deep in the crevassed ocean floor. He saw it from the corner of his eye: a big line building and deepening, wiping out the horizon.

He turned and paddled knowing he was too far, too late. The wave reared and flicked him down, faster and faster, the water growling all around him. He popped to his feet and felt the acceleration. He tilted back to try and drive the nose of the board up, to project himself along the giant dark wall. Instead, the nose of his board dug in and the momentum carried him over and into the trough of the breaking wave. Through the violent turbulence that followed, his ankle was yanked down sharply and the rest of his body followed. His ragged leash was useless: he felt its snap like a broken rib.

Down in the dark and cold he felt something other than water, and the shadow seaweed snaked around his legs. Adom choked and struggled against the slimy shackles. I didn’t really think it would happen! he thought. It was just a story to scare children from swimming, wasn’t it? He kicked against the leathery straps in a frenzy, but he was caught. He didn’t want to die in this reversed mangrove forest, the starved clawed masses gathering to devour him: crab and lobster and bird. And woman.

Because then she was here, filling his sight, the water stinging his eyeballs. She floated upright like a seahorse, radiant and pulsing with silver light stolen from undersea creatures.

‘You call, but your tongue is lying.’ Her thick tail swayed lazily behind her, the scales like coins. Adom’s stomach shrank with fear.

‘But your heart is loud. I hear what it is saying: Show me what is inside me. So this is what I give you: not what you want, but what you deserve. Another chance.’

She reached out, but not to enfold him. Adom felt the tidal pull and then the release, his body being shot up through the murky deep, his lungs burning but his heart buoyant. He passed through each ocean zone from blind dark to blazing light, the wild joy swelling as he ascended.

When he surfaced his board was waiting. He scrambled on and lay shaking with the horror and delight. The sky was a prism of colours, and he couldn’t feel the difference between the sea and his body. He wiped the water from his face with his palm.

Another set was coming.

He was ready for the Black Mamba.

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