Standing in Line at the End of the World:
How One Man Became a God
As Told to Isha Kiss
by Malon Edwards
For you, the Day of the Redeemer is a day to throw off the genteel and chaste Iaran shackles of society, let your hair down (or preen your crest feathers or touch-up your nacreous black lips), raise your petticoats and fulfill your every desire.
But for He Whose Name Shall Not Be Written Here, it is the shortest twenty-four hours of his divine existence. It is a reminder that, for the other three hundred and sixty-four days of the year, he cannot kiss, cuddle and caress his one and only true love.
In his own words, He of the Papules, Lesions and All Things Abhorrent tells how he adored his mother, saved allkind from extinction, and became a god, yet still seeks eternal redemption from Our Mother of the Flowing Waters.
We’d heard some crazy shit about Mount Kilimanjaro long before we left Chicago. Black-lipped oyster women whose pearlescent bald heads taste like spun sugar. Big-lipped catfish men who secreted an aphrodisiac through their skin. Azureus harpies with feathered breasts and furred testicles who cried tears of bliss.
But nothing could have been crazier than what we saw when we came out of the rain forest and into the Mandara encampment: Mami Wata, buck naked, suckling the last men and women on earth.
I hadn’t seen her in decades, but Mami Wata looked as if she had aged centuries. Her once unblemished white skin was yellowed with age spots and her high but heavy breasts had become shriveled, dangling, floppy dugs. I never thought I’d ever see her tore up like that. Then again, I never thought I’d see her again.
“Have you finally come to join me, Franklin?” she had called to me as my group of eight pushed further into the encampment.
She’d always told me I would come back to her. I’d always told her, ‘Fuck you.’ Yet, there I was, standing with her at the end of the world, watching her cradle grown men and women to her wrinkly tits. And she was loving every minute of it.
I just smirked and looked at the fifty equally naked people standing in two tight single-file lines waiting their turn with the water goddess. “Sure.” I shouted back to her. “I can do crazy.”
I don’t think I’ve ever pissed off that many people faster in my one hundred and forty-seven years. Harpies gnashed their beaks; oyster women gasped and gave me the evil eye and catfish men rolled up on me as if they were going to kick my ass up and down the mountain. Mami Wata cackled and raised a hand twisted by rheumatoid arthritis to calm them.
But when they quieted, she wasn’t laughing anymore. “Forever the asshole,” she said, the misshapen fingers of her left hand stroking the smooth, sugary head of the oyster woman who knelt at her feet nursing with earnest. Sucking on her right tit was a catfish man. “But I see you finally got the point, hm?”
You’ve heard of Clockwork Clara, right? She infected more than one-hundred people with gear lock and helped spread disease across all twenty-four Territories. No? Then you’ve certainly heard about Dry Steam Pneumonia. Shriveled one hundred and fifty-five pairs of semi-mechanical lungs. And they still teach the O’Leary Disaster in history class, don’t they? That airship started the Great Chicago Fire, killing more than two-hundred people. What about the Fortis Uhren? Three-hundred and fourteen souls were lost when it capsized off the northeast coast of Brazil. Or the Coal Dust Poisonings of 1925? Nine hundred people, mostly children, stoked their thoracic boilers with the tainted coke and died painful deaths. The list goes on: Metal Rot, Mainspring Mumps, Copper Croup, Moldboil, Ashlung, Nickel pox.
When all was said and done, thirty million people on six continents were put in the ground. And their deaths—if you asked Mami Wata–were my fault.
I had pissed her off and she let me know about it. But that was only the beginning. Sick and tired of my trifling ways decade after decade, Mami Wata unleashed her you-should-have-never-fucked-with-me masterstroke: The jellyfish.
It might sound like nothing, but the Bloom was no joke. She wiped three-point-four billion people off the face of the earth with it. The entire global population. Just to prove a point. Just to show me that when you step out on Mami Wata, bad shit happens.
All I can say to that is: point fucking taken.
I first met Mami Wata in the Audy Home. That was where underage offenders in Chicago’s Twin Cities went until they reached the age of majority. She liked bad boys. The badder, the better.
When offenders in the Audy Home turned eighteen, it was off to the gaoler’s pen to serve the rest of your time. Not for me, though. I had a date with the Haymarket Square gallows. Or I would have, had it not been for Mami Wata.
The Cook County magistrate sent me to the Audy Home for breaking Tommy O’Halloran’s jaw in three places with my then aluminium hand. Tommy and I had been playing the dozens in the Collier’s Folly with the other coal backers like we did every morning as we waited for the barges to come down the Chicago River. Tommy got hurt feelings when the loudest laugh of the morning went to me.
I’d cracked, “Yo’ mama so fat airship riggers have to secure her to the bed every time she lay down!” Even the grizzled, just-off-shift-but-still-coal-blackened miners snickered at that one over their beers.
So Tommy came back at me with, “Yer Mum has a peg leg and walks like this!” and then stumped around the bar like a cripple. I dropped him to the sawdust-covered floor with one punch. Nearly killed him.
See, Ma had just gone to the bodger because she couldn’t stand on her polio-withered left leg anymore. She couldn’t afford a steam surgeon or metallurgist, neither. I’d say money was tight back then, but it wasn’t. Money can’t be tight when you don’t have any. Ma had spent all her coin and mine six months before on my polio-stricken left hand. And even then there wasn’t enough for all five fingers. Being a widow did that to you.
The Cook County magistrate had been best friends with the Chief of Police, and that meant there was no chance of me getting off for giving Tommy a copper jaw. The magistrate explained from his bench on high that we New City people were a civilized sort, unlike our Old City neighbors to the north, so he wouldn’t hang me until I reached the age of majority four years later.
In the meantime, it was the Audy Home for me, and outdoor work detail. Didn’t really bother me none, though. It wasn’t worse than unloading coal barges into collier wagons on the banks of the Chicago River with the other coal backers every morning.
Third day into it, Mami Wata came to me. I’d been clearing the high grasses at the 26th Street Beach of trash and my guard was off somewhere stoking his boiler so his lower body wouldn’t run down. Mami Wata had waited until I was crouched at the shoreline before emerging from Lake Michigan. All I remember is porcelain pale skin, long, loose black curls, and those lovely breasts I would get to know well over the years.
I was too gobsmacked to speak at first, but Mami Wata was used to having that effect when making her first appearance.
“How would you like to live eternal?” she’d asked me in that was husky-soft voice of hers.
I was too distracted to answer, and it wasn’t by her tits, neither. What had me going were those curvy hips of hers. They tapered into a sleek, vivid green fish tail I could see just beneath the surface of the water.
But I did my best to gather my composure, gave Mami Wata a mix of my don’t-fuck-with-me and my-shit-don’t stink posturings and said, “Who’s asking?”
A faint smile touched her rosebud lips as she said in that wonderful voice of hers, “My one request is that you forever remain devoted to me.”
I was a bit of a mouth in those days, so I came back at her with: “I don’t like fish.”
That was the wrong thing to say. Next thing I knew, Mami Wata was all up in my face, long, sharp wet-black teeth bared. “Fish likes you,” she said in a voice that, for one horrible moment, had become suffering and hunger. My testicles shrank.
And then all of a sudden her voice was husky-sexy again and those nasty-ass teeth were gone. “Do you wish your mother to be a mudlark the rest of her days?”
I wanted to get furious with her for mentioning my mother, but my balls were still somewhere up inside me. Besides, her skin and breath smelled like sweet, wonderful loveliness.
So instead, I said, “Don’t talk about my mama,” my voice all small and little boy. Now, it wasn’t as if I would have done something if Mami Wata had started cracking on my mother. But nobody, and I mean nobody, insulted my mama.
After losing my father to the Canaryville mines in 1886, Ma scavenged the muddy banks of the South Branch of the Chicago River during the wee hours of dawn for cast offs she could sell later in the day to put a decent meal on the table at night. For thirteen years she did this. You’d be surprised at the shit people threw away and what little coin people paid for that shit.
And Mami Wata knew this. She’d often glided just beneath the surface of the murky, trash-filled river in search of her next devoted.
So she just smiled when I tried to find my balls, her teeth very white and very straight, and said: “Know me true when I say I do not speak ill of Widow Mudlark. I merely wish to reward her tireless efforts as a loving mother.”
And, as if I needed any more convincing than her voice and tail, she made the entire surface of the ribbon lake undulate to the horizon in a whisper of water so that her tail became legs. Thighs and calves and buttocks like wonder and beauty and awe. My flat-fronted breeches grew a little.
“Be my devoted for all eternity,” she whispered into my ear, “and your mother will not want or need for the rest of her days. Wealth beyond measure.”
All it took was an unsure nod for Mami Wata to claim me. With a bone-white hand tipped with wicked-black claws, she snatched me into the water before my head stopped nodding. The lake swallowed us, long and slow. As we descended into the depths of the dark water, Mami Wata flattened her breasts against my chest and embraced me so tightly that the air was forced out of my lungs.
She held me that way for a long time, until I could no longer fight the urge to inhale water as if it were air. But when I finally did open my mouth to breathe–to scream–I wrenched my eyes closed because those horrid wet-black teeth were back again, coming at my face.
I won’t even try to describe the pain. It was unlike anything I’ve ever felt and seemed to last forever. I would swear on my mother’s grave that I felt my blood spurt and heard my bones crunch.
But when I opened my eyes, five years had passed, my face was intact, and Mami Wata was nowhere to be found.
I’d found it quite disturbing to see Mami Wata in such a state on the mountain that day. But I had to see up close just how old and ugly Mami Wata had become, so I shouldered through the gauntlet of hostile stares and naked flesh, through the two single-file lines of supplicants or disciples or whatever the hell they were, right up to her water and ice throne.
My group of eight didn’t have the swagger in their step or the smirk on their faces like I did, but they followed me anyway. And what I saw up close was far from the beautiful water goddess I once knew.
If she had any teeth left in her head, there were three; if she had any vision left in her eyes, it was milky. Slivers of deep crevices etched her face; patches of her scalp showed through wisps of scraggly, long white hair. She was so scrawny that I thought her elbows and knees would pierce her wrinkled skin if she bent them too quickly.
But her voice was ever bright and strong when she leaned forward, looked down from her high dais at the girl behind me—my girl—and said to her: “Does he wake you in the middle of the night screaming for the souls of the billions he has killed?”
“Fuck you,” I told Mami Wata before Iara could answer.
Which pissed Mami Wata smooth the fuck off. I knew because she got that face. It was a face I had come to know quite well over the years, a face I could still see despite the deep wrinkles scoring her hollowed cheeks and sunken mouth. My total volume of bullshit through the decades had created that face.
“Oh, Iara,” Mami Wata said shaking her head at my girl. “We’ve chosen so badly, haven’t we?”
When I look back over the years at my relationship with Mami Wata and all the shit I now know about her, I should have put two-and-two together right then and there. I should have known about her and Iara. It just makes sense. It explains the disappearances. The mood swings. The slips of language.
But I was tired that day. And I was scared. My cockiness was a front. I wanted to curse her out some more, not kiss her narrow, wrinkly ass.
I mean, she’d said I killed billions. That’s total bullshit. I killed exactly three hundred and forty-two people. And I didn’t want to kill anymore. Or wake up screaming in the middle of the night.
So I pulled Iara forward to stand next to me, laced her slender honey-hued fingers against the smooth brown knuckles of my vat-grown left hand and said to Mami Wata:
“Look, we don’t want no trouble. The mountain is big enough for all of us. My people just need a bit of food, some clean water and a place to sleep.” I remember that the sun was just about to set. “In the morning, we can talk about how we can work the land to earn our keep.”
I shouldn’t have assumed she would take us in. But it was the end of the world, right? My people were tired, hungry and dying. They didn’t have the strength to turn back; they’d risked their lives and travelled thousands of miles to get there. Besides, they could see that those happy-ass motherfuckers standing in line were well-fed.
But instead of welcoming me and my people with open arms, Mami Wata, with that look still on her face, said, “Fuck you, too.”
And then gently, as if they were milk-drunk newborns with full bellies, she pulled her left nipple out of the mouth of the oyster woman, her right nipple out of the mouth of the catfish man, and licked her head and licked his back.
She probably doesn’t believe it, she probably thinks I was off somewhere with some other girl, but I spent that first year after I woke up from her face-biting looking for Mami Wata. Paris. Tokyo. New Orleans. Then I got smart about it. I tracked her down to her origins.
Mami Wata had looked nothing like she did five years before. Heart-shaped face. Smooth mocha skin. Long, wavy red hair to her shoulders. Full lips. Hazel eyes. But what really did it for me was the thin, slinky silver see-through floral dress to her ankles. It reminded me of her mermaid tail. Got me all hot and bothered.
We did a week in Senegal. Five weeks in Nigeria. A year in Trinidad. Three years in Guyana. It was a wherever-she-goes-I-go relationship.
And then she disappeared. Gone. Just like that.
I looked all over for her. Old places. New places. But it was like she’d fallen off the face of the earth. After awhile, I got tired of looking. She obviously didn’t want to be found. So I tried to make her come to me.
Ndeye was the first one. She was sweet, with her wind-up heart, but she didn’t bring Mami Wata back to Senegal. I stayed a few weeks longer with Aonika in Nigeria, only because I was intrigued by her lovely detachable clockwork faces, but that also didn’t work. Neither did Shani’s wind-up poom poom that she never wound because she was on to me, or Anana’s seductive music box song voice. Or so I thought.
It took me until Trinidad to realize that our relationship had suddenly become wherever I go she goes.
It wasn’t a coincidence that Senegal was hit with Ashlung while I was with Ndeye, Nigeria with Moldboil when I hooked up with Aonika, and Trinidad with Copper Croup while I visited Shani. It also wasn’t a coincidence that all three girls died.
It was more than enough reason for me to get back to Chicago with the quickness, though. I thought I was fleeing death, but I was just in time for the coal dust poisonings. I also thought I was invincible back then. I believed that whatever Mami Wata had done to me when she took me down into the dark water of Lake Michigan gave me a fortified constitution, slowed my aging to a crawl, and made me impervious to every disaster and disease she conjured.
I remember feeling the flames of the Great Chicago Fire licking at my skin as I walked out of them on Dearborn Street, unscathed, unsinged and untouched–and into the next girl’s bed. And the next girl’s. And the next girl’s. And the next girl’s.
The tripped out thing about all the death Mami Wata laid at my feet is that she wasn’t trying to kill me. She was preparing me. But my preparations wouldn’t be finished until she sent the Bloom and put a stop to my bullshit real quick.
Six years before I found Mami Wata in the rain forest, me and three hundred fifty people set off in a caravan from Chicago for South America. We were the last to set eyes on the North American continent. Only eight of us arrived in Rio de Janeiro.
Mami Wata had executed the Bloom with such swift brutality and efficiency that we had no idea Oceania was the first to fall because we were dealing with our own shit. She sent trillions of jellyfish to devour the world: Small, microscopic Irukandji jellyfish that were ingested and made people explode, and monstrous Nomura jellyfish with tentacles so long they pulled down dirigibles and bombers.
The jellyfish devoured everything. They were ravenous. The Irukandji could even live in the bloodstream for a short awhile and be spread through bodily fluids.
We never had a chance against her wrath, her scorn, her pettiness. One billion people–just under one-third of the world’s population–died that first year of the Bloom. It was as if Mami Wata had roared at me, ‘I told you not to fuck with me!’ And for once, I listened. But by then, it was too late.
We’d left Chicago because we’d heard this tinny, static-chopped transistor radio report that the Christ the Redeemer statue in Rio de Janeiro had somehow repelled the jellyfish. It wasn’t even standing when we got there.
But Iara was. She was the only one left. We’d found her on a desolate street practicing her footwork with a soccer ball. She was beautiful. Still is, especially that tail.
But back then, she had this sexy tomboy thing going on. Lovely golden skin. Pouty mouth. Short, dark faux-hawk with a cute little bang falling over her curved forehead. Footballer’s body. It didn’t matter that she couldn’t speak English. That only added to her sexiness.
She had seen the Irukandji make people bleed from the inside out. She had seen blooms of Nomura gorge on fleets of jet fighters and dreadnoughts launched out of the port–at the same time. But all she did was keep working that soccer ball. For thirteen months she did that.
And then we arrived, and all she did was give me strength and love and purpose.
She had been waiting for us. For me. She took my hand and led us to tables of bean stew with pork, rice, and sautéed collard greens. Polenta cakes with okra and tomatoes. Chilled corn pudding sprinkled with cinnamon. Beer.
We ate so much and so fast we got sick. It had been more than a week since we’d eaten. Our rations went only so far during our trek from Chicago to Brazil, even though we stayed away from the Caribbean Sea and the Atlantic and kept to large towns and cities. Most of the food we came across had long ago spoiled.
It was a given that I stayed with Iara in her ocean view villa. She knew my name. She knew my nightmares; she knew my screams. She held me and whispered me back to sleep. Those were the only times I understood her. She told me about the oyster women and the catfish men. The blue harpies. The wooden schooner she’d hidden away from the jellyfish.
After a week of feasting in Rio, we sailed the schooner down the coast of Brazil to the Prevailing Westerly Winds near the Falkland Islands. On the deck under the stars, Iara promised me redemption when we got to Mount Kilimanjaro. I believed her, especially when the westerlies blew us east around the coast of South Africa to Madagascar, and the enormous tentacles just beneath the surface left us alone.
So did the storms when we entered Canal de Moçambique. Iara had kept the cyclones at bay and prevented them from smashing us against east coast of Tanzania. She guided us as if it were an afterthought while holding me the darkness of the captain’s bunk. She said I would be forgiven. Perdoado. She’d whispered that a lot.
But she was wrong. There is no redemption in my anointed godhood. Only disgraceful purpose.
This might make me seem soft, but Mami Wata’s ‘Fuck you, too,’ hurt my feelings. My face burned with the pain of it on the mountain that day as I stepped closer to her dais and tried my best to save the lives of those seven people with me.
“I’m sorry,” I remember telling her, my voice low, my tone contrite. “It was all my fault. I won’t do it again.”
She didn’t say a word. She just looked at me through her filmy cataracts.
I should have just kept my mouth shut. I should have waited out her silence. Eventually, Mami Wata would have said something, even if it was another ‘Fuck you.’ But I wasn’t patient back then. Waiting–for anything–irked me.
So I looked at Iara for a brief moment, turned back to Mami Wata, and filled the mountainside hush with: “I love you. Is that what you want to hear?”
It was as if I’d spoken words to begin a ritual. Mami Wata sighed, her frail shoulders bowed forward, and whispered, “What I want is to die.”
These days even, my Portuguese is still not as good as it should be, which is embarrassing considering how long I’ve known Iara–both pre-godhood and post-godhood. But it was impossible to misunderstand Iara’s intent when she ascended the dais, embraced Mami Wata and murmured in her ear.
Iara kissed Mami Wata with her sweet mouth, and as the dying goddess began to dissipate, her essence flowed into my lovely girl. Dimming motes of amber light sifted through Iara’s eyes and nose and mouth. She glowed with the mingling, nipples poking through her official 2014 World Cup Brasil home shirt, until there was none of Mami Wata left.
The most beautiful thing in this world was to see my girl assume her godhood. Golden light pulsed from her in an explosive radial arc. Rivulets flowed down from the glacial ice above us. When the pure, clear waters coalesced into one runnel and bathed Iara, the mountain stream rippled and her strong, lovely bronze legs became a sleek, golden mermaid tail.
Shouts of joy and fervor went up from the people around me and from my group. Hands tore off our clothing, sought pieces of Iara’s Brasil jersey. Tongues licked oyster heads; catfish backs; harpy faces. Ecstasy and aphrodisia and bliss were heavy in the air. Orgies would commence; the world would be re-populated again.
But as the rising waist-high waters around us touched my crotch, my back bent crooked, my legs bowed and wobbled, my skin wizened, my fingernails yellowed and thickened—and my transformation into the god Babalú-Ayé was complete.
If Mami Wata had kissed me like she kissed Iara that day, I swear before me and all things dreadful that I wouldn’t have stepped out on her. But we never kissed. We just fucked. Obviously, I wasn’t special enough. And that most likely was my fault.
Looking back, I was ignoble with Mami Wata. I’d lied to her. I’d deceived her. I’d broken my promise to her. But worst of all, I loved Iara. And why wouldn’t I? She didn’t slaughter billions of people. I couldn’t help but find that sexy.
The odd thing about all of the death and destruction Mami Wata wrought is that she was also known as a fertility goddess in some of those countries she annihilated. She had given life with one hand, and snatched it right back with the other.
But she didn’t want to do that anymore.
While I was between the legs of those other girls, Mami Wata was giving babies to women who had been barren for decades. She was enacting climate change and eradicating droughts. She was blessing farmers with their largest harvests ever. And once Iara assumed her godhood, she wanted to do the more of same.
So they made me the harbinger of pestilence.
After Ndeye, Aonika and Anana died, I’d thought I was invincible. I’d thought I was immune to disease. I had no idea that the illnesses Mami Wata had unleashed upon the world had been sitting inside me dormant, waiting for my transformation. Waiting to ravage my old, decrepit body so that I would have to purge and inflict contagion and malady and blight upon the now teeming masses.
They want you to believe that they are pure. Holy. Immaculate. But they’re conniving. Mami Wata/Iara–the now joined goddesses–wanted to enjoy their burgeoning world-brood as Mother and Creator. Not Oblivion and Destroyer. They wanted to cultivate cultured and refined children who talked perfect, acted perfect and looked perfect. They wanted to love the ones worth loving, and leave the rest for me to sort out.
But most importantly, they wanted to punish me for my trifling ways.
So now I do all of their dirty work. And man is it dutty.
As the world’s population grows, I cull the weak and sick and evil from their brood. Except for today. The Day of the Redeemer. The day I throw off my godhood and regain my youth. The one day I’m allowed to become nothing more than a man who curses and fights and fucks to his heart’s content.
But not this year. I’m done with that.
When Iara merged her essence with Mami Wata she stopped loving me. And now, more than anything–even my need to purge disease–I want her to love me again. I need to hear her whispers. I need to feel her arms cradling my head as I sleep.
But Iara the water goddess can’t love me. She can’t love misery. She can’t love iniquity. She can’t love a god to whom children sing:
Babalú, Babalú get out of here,
Now my Nan-Ma has no cheer.
Babalú, Babalú go catch your ride,
Because of you, Nan-Ma died.
But one day she will. I can change. Even if it takes me eternity to show her.More stories like this by topic: African-American authors, Authors of color, Black authors, Characters of color