Lai was hidden in the middle of forests when the Vai people found it. There was evidence of earlier townsmen there, as ends of stoneware and crushed diamonds were found scattered on hilltops in the unexpected company of domestic cats. But when the Vai people arrived from war-ravaged Arabia through the Mandingo inland, they found no inhabitants and decided to occupy the province with their spirits.
On a plot of land one mile long and one half mile wide, they used smelted iron to build their village—a vast circle of houses constructed of palm wood from nearby trees, zinc roofs, and mud bricks to keep them cool during the dry season.
During the day, the Ol’ Pas sat together and drew lines and symbols in the dirt that represented how many moons it had been since the last rainfall or the last eclipse, or other wonders of the sky. They waited for the spirits to reveal themselves in nuances and uncover secrets of the land and its animals.
Among many things—like which Poro warrior would best lead upcoming defenses against local tribes so that the Vai army would return with cattle, harvest, and captives to help tend the village rice farms—the spirits also told the Ol’ Pas to take care of the sensitive animals of the province, specifically cats. The Ol’ Pas then divulged to the villagers the news they gathered from the spirits.
Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo never listened.
Before Gbessa was born, Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo—bitter and widowed—was living only two houses down from Khati, Gbessa’s pregnant mother. Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo had a pudgy orange cat whom she beat to numb her loneliness. The village elders warned Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo of what the spirits had told them about cats, but she disregarded them—she was powerless to her pride, and she hoped she would make the spirits angry enough to reunite her with her deceased love.
When Kano, Cholly the fisherman’s slave, knocked on Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s door to deliver to her the fish that her nets had caught, the pudgy cat stared hoggishly at the tin bucket. He hid behind the fire pit as Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo closed the door in Kano’s face and inspected the bucket for any sign of pilfering. When the cat’s head peeked around the pit, she grabbed a fish from the bucket and waved it at him.
“You will not touch it!” she yelled, shaking the fish. Scales, salt water, and blood flew, and the cat dodged Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s warning. That night, when Kano finished his chore of cleaning fish for Cholly’s wife, he blew the light from the last lantern away. The whistle his compressed lips made married the pungent smell of fish and journeyed through the village circle to Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s house, awakening the cat. The cat arose from the corner where he had been lying and probed the room. In the dark, his cold nose led a desperate search for Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s bucket of fish.
Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s leg twitched, and she snored expletives into the night. Alarmed, the cat positioned himself to run in the event that she leaped from her sleep to beat him with the redwood handle of the porch broom. But she remained in abysmal slumber in the murky room. The cat proceeded toward Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s fish, disregarding the likely retribution on the following day, when she would discover that her fish were gone. When he finally reached the bucket, he lifted himself up to its rim, careful not to scrape the edge with his nails. His eyes were large, his mouth ready, when a hard blow threw him across the room.
“I told you, enneh-so?” Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo asked, lighting her lantern. The cat tried picking himself up, only to meet another hard slap to his head. He stretched his claws and hissed at the old woman. She struck his head once more and the cat shrieked, this time waking a neighbor, whose inquiring voice and lantern moved slowly toward the village circle.
The cat, determined to escape her fury, scurried over to the fire pit.
“Oh no!” Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo said. “You’n going nowhere.” She dragged him out from behind the fire pit by his tail. In the village circle, neighbors gathered outside of Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s door, baffled at what would make the old woman so angry that she would beat the poor cat in the middle of the night.
“I will teach you! You will feel it!” she said. The cat screeched, unable to escape the bitter widow. The neighbors’ tongues became sour, their ears warm, disgusted at the Ol’ Ma’s audacity in offending the spirits. Cholly knocked on Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s door, but she ignored him and continued beating the cat.
“She will kill the thing,” said Cholly’s son, Safua, an already handsome five-year-old boy with skin the color of a coconut shell and eyes that were always asking a serious question.
Inside, the cat lay in the corner as Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s stout figure and broom became blurry. Tired of seeing her, he let his eyes close and his heart stop and his mouth open.
A frozen Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo stared down at his body. She had killed the last living thing whom she could call hers and was now absolutely alone. She walked to her door, out of breath. When she opened it, her neighbors stood in the village circle holding lanterns that illuminated their overwrought faces. Cholly peeked into the house and noticed the dead cat lying against the wall.
“Ay-yah!” he said, astonished at Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s fearlessness. Upon seeing the dead animal, children scattered, returning to their houses.
“The spirits coming for you,” Safua said, the only remaining child in the circle.
“Bury it for me,” Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo said as Cholly looked inside of her house at the cat. He said nothing else to her and avoided looking her in the eye; he called Kano to retrieve the cat, and Kano minced out of the village and into the woods to bury the departed animal, while a curious Safua followed.
In the morning, Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s house fell down while she was still inside. She died immediately. When they dug up her remains from a pile of palm wood, straw, and debris, Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s fish were nowhere to be found. Ol’ Pa Bondo, who woke up every morning to pray before the rooster crowed, who had slept through the night before and knew nothing of Ol’ Ma Nyanpoo’s wicked deed, said he saw the orange cat jump to the top of her house before it fell down.
“But the cat dead,” Cholly said, refuting Bondo’s claim.
When the elders heard of it, they pronounced the day cursed, convinced that spirits had possessed the dead cat, brought it back to avenge itself and to steal the bucket of fish to quench his desire.
Because of the edict, on that day the drums outside of Khati’s window were amply pounded. Her husband was already fishing at the lake, and she lay moaning in pain on a rectangular pallet woven with large palm leaves and stuffed with straw. Khati would have her baby soon, so in recent weeks her husband had risen before the rooster’s song and spent his hours at Lake Piso in hopes of catching enough fish to eat and trade in the village market. Neither Khati’s father nor her father’s father nor her husband nor her husband’s father was a talented enough fisherman to afford his household any slaves, so Khati had inherited nothing.