This story is by Cori Sims and was part of our 2023 Fall Writing Contest. You can find all the writing contest stories here.
Before the names Earth and Congo, when endless forests bloomed a blanket over the first ocean’s face, every God and demon alike hailed the paradise in their seasons of sorrow. Nowhere else offered them shelter from unrest across the bleak High Kingdom, bitter black lands scattered with glittery remnants of ruin and tried dreams. Countless worlds, home to capable creatures, arise under their forceful lieges for them to watch Nana, Mother of Time and owner of all existence, on her throne of gold, hunched over, empty-eyed and boneless, burn to dust which did not suit her taste. Still, her children persisted in winning Nana’s reward: the rightful eternal reign of a galaxy all their own, an ultimate power only their mother possessed.
At every centennial turn, gold gates to Nana’s fortress pierce into the darkness, drawing the spirits home like moths. Nothing in the last six thousand years has impressed Nana aside from her children and the emerald bubble coated with down feather canopies, boa vines, thick bush, mirror mist, and neck-breaking trees. Something there intrigued Nana, so it remained untouched. And when her descendants needed to replenish their courage, they descended into its algae, the insects, the flowers, the prowlers, and everything in between in search of an answer. But when they arrived all at once, space became scarce. Some, like LuLu, a minor fire spirit of Invention and Creativity, young and untested by fate, were forced to find a lowly position underground in the base of an Afrormosia tree.
LuLu had never been in such a position. He sought the river, but Mawu, the Moon Goddess, was already there. So he tried to be the Mo-kele, a beast with unstoppable horns and strength, but Xevi, a Mountain God, had occupied this, too. LuLu’s favorites – the birds, the rain, the rainbow, the sky, the hunters – were claimed, and under the Afrormosia tree, it was dull. Inside the dirt, worms and maggots slid slower than sap. There was no action, no surprise, and boredom quickly filled his mind. He needed to know what was underneath this lameness.
LuLu stretched the Afrormosia roots deeper, beyond the bottom layers of the soil. He arrived at red clay even more lifeless than the dirt he despised and kept moving. He continued deeper, past harder, colder sediment to find complete nothingness until, finally, a slight breeze crept through a crack, unveiling a ceiling above a roaring raging ocean. Alive and tumultuous, its waves peaked and crashed against one another, massive yet contained, like poured liquid inside a goblet. LuLu, still a tree root, stretched closer to the waves to feel their power. The pounding, thrashing waves groped him with a thousand hands and peaked pleasure in the tree. Like a song in a gullet, a vibration traveled and started to pulse like a heartbeat. LuLu birthed something between the elements.
LuLu remained in the same Afrormosia tree for several years and guarded his growing seed sac inside the tree basin. So many of his inventions miscarried, and he didn’t want to risk looking like a fool, but his brothers and sisters taunted him.
“Why is this tree so special, brother? There are thousands of these! Have you lost your head?”
One after another spat on LuLu, called him crazy, and left him alone in the forest. They slipped back into their skins and vessels and resumed surveying the High Kingdom for new potential prospects. Everyone left but Ballah, the Sky Father, submerged inside a black serpent who spied on LuLu from the heights of the forest. He nearly fell when he witnessed a long-haired, long-legged creature emerge from the gape of the Afrormosia tree. It stood still for a long while and allowed the snake to study.
Its lines and curves were tree-like, but its limbs sank low and split off without leaves. It had shiny rubber skin the color of cooled lava. Unlike the known animals, it stood upright like the birds on two instead of four. But its head was a sight incomparable to anything Ballah had ever seen. An absent snout and jowl left a flat, pinched face stitched with plump, poked-out lips, a knobby nose, and large black eyes, all balanced on its canvas between a long veil of hairs like an elegant crown. Tall and slender, appealing to the eye and mouth, Ballah couldn’t understand if he wanted to eat it, touch it, or bow to it, so he descended from his high perch for a closer look and was greeted by the largest of the cats, the lion, who was LuLu. Ballah implored his brother to tell him what he had been up to.
“LuLu, brother, you sneak! This is what you hide from everyone. What is this invention? How did you make something so impressive?”
“I do not hide, brother, but I know how to keep silent until the right time. And it’s still not the right time.”
Ballah, offended, asked once more, and LuLu denied him again. Fierce competition rose in Ballah, who declared that not only could he create a more worthy creature, but his invention would grant him keys to a galaxy, a first among the siblings. LuLu knew his brother, a hot-headed, moody air spirit, inconsistent and unpredictable, so he accepted Ballah’s challenge. They decided at the next commencement Nana would determine whose creature was most impressive, and the victor would be the first to reign their pocket of the Kingdom. The loser could never return to their paradise or else risk annihilation.
Fuelled with fiery motivation, Ballah slithered off and disappeared to a distant end of the forest with the utmost intent to defeat his brother. LuLu stood steadfastly beside his child, who stared into his eyes, fearless, and placed its warm hand on the lion’s cheek—a flash of the raging waves spread under his fur. Immeasurable pleasure flooded LuLu with the notion to make more, a thousand more, to bring the ocean’s power to the surface, and to find the heights of this ecstasy. His aim was not to be the champion or impress Nana but to absolve himself in power more excellent than his own.
In a hundred years’ time, LuLu birthed a thousand does inside the Afrormosia trees and called them the Tolia. No one Tolia appeared the same, bearing every umber shade – copper, smoke, scorched wood – that glowed without the sun. Each was a ripe, animate angel holding equations in the curves and creases of their frame. Everything they touched, the hairs, trumpet flowers, river stones, even the decayed leaves, became new as they blessed all in their path with their Father’s creativity and their Mother Ocean’s unfettered patience. From Sun up to sun down, they worked for LuLu and noted every subtle sound with the language LuLu taught them. His daughters, helpers to more possible creations, stocked proof of their worthiness to bring to trial against his brother Ballah, who was on the distant southern side of the forest.
Ballah didn’t know how LuLu approached his specimen and refused to concede. For ninety-nine years, uninterrupted, he draped himself on the highest arch of the canopy and thought. He meditated until his mind elevated above the tree line, and soon, he found his projected thoughts within the fields of stars. High, up there, an idea hit him between the eyes to cut his creature from the ebony fabric of High Kingdom, like himself, and solely hatch it in this nest. And so it was. Instantly, solely by his temporal command, Ballah pulled down deadly dormant astral rocks, those relics drenched in chaos, into the forest.
Hundreds of flaming asteroids bled the sky red and rained down around the Tolia. Fright arrived, a rip tide behind their eyes disturbed their peace, and they began to weep. Their tears streamed together as one and damped the fire to ambers before they ran deep into the forest. Without pause, the ground shook from the shaking ships, now weathered and breaking, relieved of their delivery duty. LuLu watched them flee and remained behind.
LuLu approached the hatchlings and caught their round bulging backs rising and revealing remarkable shapes. How marvelous they were! Their breath blew the trees back. LuLu sensed defeat in these impressive warriors and foresaw Nana, transforming his daughters to ash with a wave of her cane. He would not have it and yielded to Ballah, who hissed with victory. He nearly jumped out of his skin until Nana appeared ageless and withered on her floating gold throne.
“Mama, my Queen! What brings you…”
“Silence! You make a ruckus and ask me why I’m here?”
Ballah kept his silence next to his brother. They both knew better than to keep quiet.
“I’ve been watching you both. I know of your bet. Your children of the forest need time. Therefore, you both will wait with them. I shall return only after the star seeds have found the depth of the ocean’s beauty. If you abandon my wish, dust becomes you.”