How Shasa Became a Priestess

Before she became a woman, and before she became a priestess, Shasa’s father tried to kill her. He chased her mother and her brothers out of the house and gave her the worst beating of her life. Shasa felt each bruise as it spread under her skin, renewing the faded purple from old hurts, and each new threat her father spoke struck her like another blow. When he staggered back to take another drink from his bottle of blood-dark rum, Shasa pushed her body up off the dirt floor and threw herself out the doorway.

Her father’s roar chased her away from the hut and into the jungle, where the river rushed from the village towards the loa Simbi’s lagoon. Shasa had been dreaming of the lagoon for many nights, feeling the coolness of its blue-green water closing over her head, seeing Simbi weaving toward her across its surface in the form of a great snake. In her dreams, the water tasted sweeter than rain in her mouth, but Shasa did not know how that water would really taste. On the first walk to the river that she could remember, Mama had warned her not to let herself get swept into the lagoon, and Shasa had never disobeyed her.

“The lagoon, and everything that enters it, belongs to Simbi,” she had said, setting down her pot on the riverbed while Tumo and Duka, Shasa’s brothers, waded into the shallows to fill theirs. “That is why we pour rum for him into the water, but do not swim in the lagoon. If we did, we would be offering ourselves to him.”

“What would he do with you?” Shasa asked.

“Simbi would drown you!” Tumo cried, splashing Shasa. Shrieking, Shasa leaned down and splashed him back. Duka jumped forward onto the water with his arms spread wide to splash them both, and a pot was almost swept away in the waves they made. It was only a story then, like the ones about how the spirits of the dead sunk down into the Dark Waters below the earth—as real as the moon, but just as far away.

There were other stories about Simbi’s lagoon, too, and those were the ones Shasa prayed for as she stumbled between the tall trunks of the trees, the sound of her father’s unsteady footsteps crashing through the brush behind her. It was said that sometimes, if Simbi found a child he liked in his lagoon, he would take them away to serve him in his home and teach them how to conjure. Years later, they would return as powerful priestesses and sorcerers. Perhaps he would tell Shasa what loa to call on to keep her safe from her father.

If not, then Shasa would drown: but better to give herself to the god than to be killed by her father’s rough hand.

The shortest way to the lagoon, and the quickest way away from her grunting, drunken father, was the river. Shasa’s hope rose in her chest when she saw its bank through the trees. She hurried into the water, deeper than she had ever ventured with her brothers, to where the current ran swift and her feet could not touch the bottom. Her father’s shouts were muffled by the rushing of the water in her ears as she tipped her head back to stay afloat. The cool water soothed the bruises still burning on her skin. She filled her lungs with air and let herself float on her back as the current carried her downriver, watching the sky pass by above her.

When she reached it, the lagoon tasted the same way it did in her dreams—sweet, like there was honeysuckle soaking in it. The current slowed and swirled her around. Shasa twisted to see the shore, and found the stone altar where people from the village left food and offerings for Simbi when they wanted favors. It looked far away, as if the lagoon was bigger than it seemed from land. She spun around to look the other way, and almost choked: there was Simbi, in the form of a great snake, gliding toward her on the surface just as she’d seen so many nights while she slept. His wet scales glistened as he moved, deep green and shining like the water.

When Shasa was eye to eye with him, Simbi shifted. His long body twisted and grew, and soon in its place soon stood a man, dark as the deepest parts of the lagoon, with thick ropes of hair that ran all the way down his back to his waist, where they disappeared into the water.

Simbi lifted Shasa in his hands as if she weighed nothing. Drops of water fell from her body and splashed softly back into the lagoon. He turned her left and right, held her up as if she were transparent and he could see what she was made of if he looked at her in the sun. When he was satisfied, he pulled her in against his chest and held her as if she were a baby, sweeping back her dirty curls from her face.

“You’ll do,” Simbi said, and Shasa’s life was saved.

Simbi’s home was not as Shasa would have imagined. It was on the other side of the lagoon, but also not in Shasa’s world at all, a strange in-between that shimmered in the corners of Shasa’s vision. It did not look so very unlike her own home, though everything was cleaner and bigger. There was one hut which she had all to herself, with a soft mat on the ground for sleeping. There was the hut where Simbi stayed, in which there was no mat but instead a beautiful altar, covered in painted snakes and surrounded by baskets whose contents changed as he received new offerings. Shasa was asked to clean the altar each day and make sure that enough food had appeared there for the both of them to eat.

Behind the altar there was another hut, bigger than both the others, in which Simbi kept objects used for conjuring. Lessons with Simbi would often start in that hut, among the pots and baskets of stones, bones, candles, plants, and strange things that Shasa had no name for when she first saw them. All was organized in patterns that it would take Shasa many months to understand.

“Learning to conjure is learning a language,” he said to her the first day. She stood in the center of the hut, turning around to look at everything she could see in the morning light coming in through the doorway. “Every object you use is a word. It has a spirit. It means something. You must know what everything means, so that you can say what you want to say in the language of power.” He stepped closer, plucked a white flower from a basket, and placed it in her hand. “Listen for the meaning of everything I show you.”

Simbi gave her flower after flower, leaf after bone after stone, and ask Shasa what she thought each meant. She would hold it in her palms, turn it over, smell it, shake it to see if it made a sound.

“Safety?” she would guess.

“Your eye is good,” he would say. “Look again.”

She held the flower closer to her face and breathed in deep. “Protection?”

“I knew I pulled you out of the water for a reason.”

Soon Shasa could recognize the meaning of something on her first try. “Energy,” she would say, no longer asking. “Headaches. Control. Unease. Plenty. Rain. Foresight.” Simbi would teach her how to use each item the way she used words, putting them together with others in certain ways, at certain times, with certain intentions, to make them say what she wanted to say.

Conjure was a language: it was saying things so well that the world grew quiet and obeyed. All her life, Shasa had been squabbling with her siblings and pleading with her father, but the things she said were ignored. When she learned to conjure, the world listened to her.

Shasa had never known a time when her father did not beat her. Mama told her that there had been one, before the other Duka had died. Shasa had never known the other Duka, either. He had been the first son, older than Tumo. Tumo said that father used to pick the other Duka up by his ribs and lift him up above his head, so he could see what it was like to be tall. Then that Duka had drowned in the river, up by the village where her father had used to catch fish, and her father had not been able to save him. Ever since Shasa could remember, her father had hated the river and drank more rum than water.

Sometimes, Shasa thought she could imagine how he had been before: when he was done eating in the evening and he leaned back on one elbow on the floor, patting his full stomach with the other, or on those rare times when he fell asleep clear-headed on the mat with Mama, and Shasa found them curled around each other in the morning. His big hands looked gentle those times, resting on her mother’s stomach or on his own. But they never touched her that way, had never rested on the top of her head with that kind of softness, had never lifted her into the air so she could know how it felt to be tall. They had only ever struck her. 

So Shasa did not trust Simbi’s big hands at first. They were bigger than her father’s, even darker and even more powerful. Even when they were showing her how to light the candles on his altar or which of the unfamiliar fruits in his jungle were good to eat, she imagined what they would feel like striking her arm or twisting her hair, and she would shrink back. But lesson after lesson, month after month, Shasa grew less afraid. Simbi was stern but patient, stubborn but understanding, demanding but never cruel. She watched his hands gather plants and stones and items and tuck them together in grigri bags so perfect that they looked like strange flowers when you opened them and peered inside. By the end of three years, she had no more fear of Simbi.

In those three years, Shasa became fluent in the language of conjure. She knew the spirits of all the things that grew, the things that came from the earth, and the things that men made. She made grigri for safety that she itched to give to her mother and brothers. She learned how to tell what was wrong with a sick person just by touching them and listening to them breathe. She could spin a curse around and send it back on the one who had cast it. She wove objects of protection into her hair so that no person could strike her, and carried objects of power in her pockets so she could break a person’s bones without even touching them. She learned words that would make a person obey her no matter what she told them.

In those three years, Shasa grew from a thin branch of a girl into a full tree of a young woman. She shot up from the ground like a sapling in the sun. Though there were no other mortals in the place where Simbi dwelled, other loa passed through, and Shasa learned to greet them by name, look into their faces, and to speak to them without watching for any threatening motions of their hands.

After those three years, she felt she was ready to be a priestess.

Shasa had been imagining the day she would return home since she began learning to conjure. By the time the day arrived, she knew just how she wanted it to be. Simbi would touch her forehead, bless her, and send her on her way. The house would look even smaller to her now that she was so tall. Her brothers would rush out to meet her, and they would be in awe of how grown up she looked. She would embrace them all the same, and they would laugh together until Mama came outside to see what the noise was. Mama would run to her and hold her in her arms, and Shasa would hold her back and promise never to leave again. Her father would stand in the doorway without approaching. He would be afraid of Shasa when he saw the amulets in her hair and the grigri bags tied around her hips. She would tell the others about Simbi and the things she learned and how she was going to take care of them all from now on, and her father would keep his distance.

She woke early on the day itself, dressed carefully, put on all her most powerful ornaments. She felt full to the brim with energy, and she was sure even the most difficult conjuring would be easy for her today. Her excitement spilled out like the river when it rained, overflowing into the air around her.

She found Simbi standing outside his altar. She smiled, but he did not smile in return. She was not worried by it until he said, “I must tell you something before you go. You will not find your home the way you left it.”

“Why not?”

“Soon after you came to me, your brother also came to my lagoon.”

A chill swept down Shasa’s back, despite the warm sun. She had not been prepared for this. “Tumo? Duka?”

“The elder one. He entered the water.”

“He offered himself to you?”

“Yes,” Simbi said. “But I could not keep him here.”

Shasa tried to understand. She felt as if Simbi was running ahead of her and she could not keep up. “Why not?”

“It disrupts the balance of things for me have many human apprentices.”

“What happened to him?”

Simbi simply looked at her. There was no warmth at all in the sun anymore.  

“You drowned him.”

“I took his spirit to the Dark Waters.” Simbi did not look happy or proud, but he did not look remorseful, either, and Shasa could not believe it.

“You killed my brother.”

“He gave himself to me. I could not take any more humans to my home.”

“But why did he have to die? Why was there no other way?”

“If you were a god, you would understand. We are bound by different laws than you.”

Shasa could say nothing in response to that, except, “You did not tell me for three years.”

Simbi nodded his head. “It was for the best.”

“For the best?” Shasa’s energy, so excited before, was boiling now.

“Trust me.”

Shasa felt that she should. But she remembered her first days with Simbi and wondered at what point it had happened, when he had left and drowned her brother and come back and continued teaching her, without saying a word. Had he been keeping this secret since the very beginning?

“I want to go home,” she said.

“Then go,” he said, and the world stopped shimmering around the edges. Shasa had forgotten what it was like to see what was in the corner of her vision. She was back in her own world, on the far side of the lagoon, a short walk from home. She had wanted this moment to be perfect. Instead, she walked home in a daze.

No one came out to meet her when she approached the house. She stood in front of the doorway, too unsure to step through it.  

Duka appeared from inside. He’d grown as tall as Shasa, but his knees looked too pointed on his thin legs, and his arms were covered with bruises. His mouth fell open when he saw her. Shasa stared: his front teeth were chipped down to two sharp stubs. Shasa imagined the blow that had broken them and flinched, the muscles in her body tightening even before her father stepped out behind Duka.

“Not dead?” he grunted. Shasa could smell the rum on him from where she stood, the familiar, bitter reek that made her prepare to taste the dirt of the floor.

“No, not dead,” she said. She waited for him to see the ornaments in her hair, the bags hanging on her hips—but he showed no fear.

“Not yet,” he said, and he pushed Duka to the ground behind him as he stepped up to her, his hand raised. Duka fell without a sound. Shasa caught sight of her mother, standing in shadow inside, unmoving.

She felt fire overtake her.

Her father’s blow slid past her. While he was unbalanced, Shasa reached up and yanked out a clump of matted, dirty hair from his head. He stumbled. Shasa squeezed the hair in her fist, reaching toward her hip with the other hand to pull power from her grigri, letting harsh words tumble in a fierce hiss from her lips. Her father stiffened, helpless in the grip of her curse.

Shasa turned away and walked towards the river. Her father followed, helpless, pulled. He crashed through the brush behind her, echoing the day Shasa had followed this path last. She felt no fear this time. She could feel nothing at all except hurt and anger.

She brought her father to the lagoon. His body obeyed her, but he was stiff, afraid. His mouth moved like he wanted to speak. Shasa did not want to hear. She squeezed the piece of hair in her hand, thrust it out in front of her, and pushed.

Her father flew off into the lagoon.

She was still herself enough to know that holding him long above the water would have been cruel. But the fire burned on in her, and she lowered her fist, sinking him down deep where she could no longer see him. She waited.

The piece of hair in her hand went cold.

She let it fall to the ground as Simbi appeared before her. He stood away from her, and his eyes burned.

“What have you done?”

“Nothing that was never done in your waters before.”

Simbi’s silent glare was more frightening than her father’s roars had ever been.

“I only turned his own curse back on him,” Shasa argued against the silence.

“How you treat others is not my business,” Simbi said quietly, “But you killed him with power I gave you, and used him to defile my lagoon. An offering is between me and the person who owns the thing being offered. You did not own your father’s life.”

Those words doused Shasa’s fire.

“You are still a child,” he continued. “If you are not ready for the power I taught you, I will take it back until you are.”

Everything went cold, even colder than her shock or her hurt, as cold as her rage had been hot. It felt as if a spring had been plugged within her: the flow of her energy was stopped. She opened her mouth but could not think of what words to say.

Simbi shifted into a snake and slipped away into the water.

When Shasa trudged back home, her mother and brother ran out to meet her, sweeping her into an embrace. It was the closest any moment had come to the way she had imagined this day would be. But Mama was crying.

“Is he dead?” she asked.

“Yes,” Shasa said, swallowing a sob.

“Why, Shasa? I know he was not good anymore, but he was my husband, and he was your father. Why did he have to die?”

Shasa heard her own voice echo in her mother’s words, and it felt like she had been struck again.

“He tried to kill me,” Shasa insisted.

“So you turn the killing around onto him? That is for gods to do, Shasa, not us.”

Tears came to her eyes. “I have been spending too long with a god.”

Mama pulled Shasa closer into her arms. Her cheek, resting on the top of Shasa’s head, was wet from crying. “But you are home now, Shasa.”

Shasa pulled away from her. “I can go,” she said. “I don’t belong anymore, I will go.”

“No,” Mama shushed, taking Shasa’s face between her worn hands. “You are my daughter, and I have been without you for too long. God or human or priestess, you will always belong with me.”

Shasa let out a long breath. “You forgive me?”

Mama stroked her wet cheek with her thumb. “Always.” The word swept over Shasa like a warm wind.

“If you can forgive me, perhaps Simbi can, too,” she said. “I will stay.”

She spent two days gathering the things she needed and putting them together just right. Though the plants and stones and candles she chose meant cleansing, purity, blessedness, and clarity, she tried her best to arrange them in the grigri so that they would say, “I am sorry.” She brought the finished offering to Simbi’s lagoon at sunrise, placed it in a basket, and let it float, the flames of the white candles reflecting like stars on the glassy water.

Simbi’s scaly head appeared from below the surface. He swam once around the basket, then approached the shore, twisting into a man as he stepped out of the water. Shasa held her breath.

“I am sorry, too,” he said. Shasa smiled. It was enough. Simbi graced her with a smile in return, showing all of his blindingly white teeth, and warm energy flowed again within her.

With Simbi to call upon, it did not take long for Shasa’s reputation as a priestess to spread. People came from far away to be healed and guided by her, and they brought food and treasures to fill her brand new hut, where she kept baskets and pots arranged in patterns her mother and brother soon learned to understand. They helped her prepare her grigri and entertained the children of the men and women as Shasa worked on them. When women came to her with bruises in the shape of a man’s hand, Shasa wove white flowers into their hair and sewed tiny grigri into their clothes, and those women never came to her with bruises again.