Blackwater Children

by Moustapha Mbacké Diop in Issue Seven, November 2022

I didn’t believe there was anything extraordinary about me.

See those beige and brown clothes, wrapped in thick layers around my delicate build? Everyone aboard the dusk lizard was dressed in similar attire, wearing their bogolan in safari suits, sabadors, and wide robes above an inner layer of enhanced shiki cloth to keep in the heat. Identical helmets enclosed our heads, tied to small pockets of oxygen at our sides. We’d needed them ever since the Call had driven us up the blizzard-battered mountains, where no oxygen would grace our lungs. It had been either that or drown with those who could not be saved.

The other passengers couldn’t tear their eyes away from me. There was plenty of space inside the mutated beast that had become our main way of travel, and their gaze felt intrusive, even irritating. I would rather have stayed in my room, sparing them the sight of the strange child they could never accept. But curiosity and a sense of duty had brought me down to the Bush Quartier. For behind the safety of its walls, villagers had been found dead. Slaughtered.

And according to their chief—Ladji, a pathetic fool who detested me even when he begged for my assistance—I was the only one who could help.

Two little girls kept bumping into each other’s helmets a few steps away, giggling at the soft tap the reinforced glass would make above the ushering sound of the dusk lizard’s twenty feet as it climbed up the mountainside. Its toepads kissed the cold stone faster than any train back when they still existed, but inside its chest cavity, the air density allowed us to stay on our feet. The girls, with their missing teeth, cowrie bracelets, and sparkling brown eyes, could still play, even as their mother pushed them behind her when she noticed I was watching.

The woman’s eyes were fixed downward, her gloved hand gripping one of the dusk lizard’s inner bones. She and the other passengers all pretended not to be unsettled by my presence, and they all had greeted me as I boarded the dusk lizard an hour earlier from a dock made of sleek, gray stone, polished by mutated ants as big as these mountains and just as dead.

All these monsters had been rewired by one single person—Hakim, my predecessor. One of the Dellu.

The beast’s feet froze to a stop as we came to the Bush Quartier’s dock. Facing east, the wide dock’s high ceiling resonated with dozens of voices, as if these humans thought running their mouths would warm their frail bones. Most were from the lowest valleys—their skin darkened by the sun, smells of sheep fleece and newly-harvested sorghum leaking from their clothes—and now they were returning home.

When first they’d seen me, those strangers had hidden their gaping mouths behind their hands, and an old man had sucked his lips. My white curls, filling the back of my helmet and covering my shoulders, had shone under their frowning gaze, and my eyes … It was when they’d seen my eyes that fear had rippled over their flesh, like waves of the blackwater my siblings slept under.

They knew who I was. What I was.

“Ma,” one of the girls asked as they clumped onto the platform behind me now. “Why his eyes purple like that? He’s pretty, but he looks like a ghost.”

The woman gasped, already bowing her head. I took in the flowery scarf around her stiff neck, the silver elephants glimmering on the lobes of her ears. Bitter panic was washing the blood from her face as she tilted a wobbling chin toward me.

“My Lord, I am so desperately sorry. The girl . . . she doesn’t know what she’s saying. She’s just a child, and—”

“I am also a child,” I replied, as if we were simply discussing the anatomy of the beast that had carried us here. The reptile was a monster, but a useful one. One of the abnormalities that had surfaced when everything had ended and begun anew. Was I so different?

“I didn’t mean to...” she quaked, squeezing her hands together so tightly that the joints of her fingers popped. None of the others breathed, their conversations cut short and bodies rooted to the spot. They all stared at us as if the little family were facing a trial, and I was the evil executioner.

I smiled behind the glass of my helmet’s shell and waved the girl’s words off.

That smile, flashing teeth too big to be a child’s, must’ve terrified the mother even more because she huddled her girls closer, collapsing to her knees as cries for mercy poured out of her peach-painted lips. Her tangible terror, less for herself than for her daughters who’d started crying, stirred something in me. In another lifetime, my mother might have begged which such fervor as her baby, with crystalline skin through which purple vessels and organs pulsed, was being taken from her.

I set my jaw and turned from them, waiting for the mother to collect herself, to gather her daughters and scurry from the platform with the other passengers. The dock itself was a modest cave, sheltered by thin panels made of a translucent stone I could never identify, stalactites illuminating it with a violent emerald glow. Beyond them, snow was falling all around, chlorophyll-starved ivy creeping like lazy vipers.

Humans had managed to build a community up here, where no life was thought to be possible. It had been thirteen years since the Call, thirteen years since the oceans had swelled and a thousand species had ballooned overnight to titanic proportions, replacing humankind as the apex predator of the world.

Less than a million people had survived the floods, retreating to the Djallon mountain range and the creatures there, far away from the churning waters.

And it was all thanks to Hakim. He’d taken control of the mountains, of the animals, carving out pouches and plateaus where the humans could live. He had drained every ounce of power from his soul until nothing remained but a spark, which he passed to me, out of all our siblings, so that I could continue his work.

I followed the other passengers down to the snow-covered stone to where villagers crowded a small plateau, fathers welcoming their returning sons and daughters. A blizzard was sliding in, making some exposed alabaster curls bounce at the corners of my vision. My thoughts had already slipped back to the corpses of those villagers, the reason I had been summoned here. But there had been no sign that the Quartier’s barriers had been breached, which left only one possibility—these deaths were the result of murder.

Like goats, they moved in a boisterous flock toward the bland cement boxes they called homes, peppered across a valley where grass was scarce and filth was rife. I tore my helmet off, my silver hair flapping around my face, and felt it then: the syrupy scent of rot, laced with a metallic tang, emanated from within the blocks of habitations.

I discarded it for now, and headed toward the largest and ugliest of them, where two guards were holding large iron clubs in a confident grip. They exchanged a look before letting me through the reinforced gate.

Running down a set of stairs, Chief Ladji met me halfway, breathless. I waited with pursed lips for his voice to come back to him, my eyes scrolling over the minimalistic, lifeless decoration of the house’s veranda. Despite being no more than fifty years old, the man was already growing a potbelly from all that seng wine and bush meat. Another authority figure who ruled over his little clan, yet was too embarrassed to admit fearing a twelve-year-old boy. Not wasting another second there, I grunted in response to his half-hearted greetings and preceded him, following the scent of blood. It led us away from his house and into streets obscured by the falling night. Restrained, thick-furred dogs howled as we walked by—through half-drawn curtains, their owners stared and whispered among themselves. I sniffed, hastening my pace, to the displeasure of the chief who still heaved like a beast down my neck.

At last, we burst through the door of a house that was like all the others. Inside, gut matter and blood clots lined the gray walls. Thanks to the low temperatures, the smell was bearable. It had happened two, perhaps three days ago.

I wiped my gloved fingers on the sheets of the bed. The disfigured shape of an elderly man, his scalp half torn from his head, lay dead atop it.

“Well?” Chief Ladji asked, his cheeks puffing up with red impatience.

With my other hand, I tugged a wild strand of hair behind my ear and clutched the back of my neck. “I don’t know what did this. All I know is that it’ll come back and kill more of your people.”

“You don’t know? What good are you to me, then?” He spoke in the manner of those people who are used to being obeyed, forgetting who he was talking to.

I scoffed and bared my teeth at his flushed face, shoving past him and back out into the roaring blizzard. I knew what I had to do.

“Wait!” Chief Ladji shouted, veins popping on the side of his neck as he gripped my arm.

An icy blast engulfed his light brown skin from the point of contact and sent Chief Ladji crumpling to the ground.

For a split second, I hoped he was dead—that might save me the trouble of what needed to be done—but a groan evaded his thick lips.

I sighed. “When the hour grows late, have guards posted at all the huts of the Bush Quartier. And don’t you ever, ever touch me again.”

“Yes, my Lord,” the chief gasped, dusting his tunic with trembling fingers.

Hate erased his deference toward me. It was comforting when people like him showed their true colors—they hated people like me. Perhaps even more than they feared me. In their eyes, the Dellu were the ones who’d brought about the apocalypse. They overlooked the fact that it was thanks to a Dellu that they had survived at all. I had no desire to help the villagers of the Bush Quartier.

Especially if it meant I was going to die. Again.

I hurried away from him, from the cluster of cement houses and their occupants, speeding past the foul holes they’d dug to dump their waste in, and followed the eluding trail of familiar, tar-like magic away from the oldest houses—straw-roofed dwellings abandoned at the blizzard’s mercy. Red snow crunched under my sandals as I reached the center of the village, where seven colossal stones towered over me in a ring of black and crimson. They were warm to the touch, alive, pulsing with a fearsome energy that echoed the shadows of the world that was. It kept the villagers away, for it was a threshold—half here, half in another universe that could never obey their rules.

In reality, the ring was but a window to the past. For those who knew how to navigate its tumultuous currents, it was safe. Closing my eyes, I inhaled, and my breath slowed as the frigid air infiltrated my chest. It was like the nights of old, when I had slept under the blackwater. Before Hakim had died and named me his successor.

The remnants of his power were still flowing through these stones, through me, and that was all that kept the angry sea at bay.

But this was the place where Hakim died.

I shook my head—better to get done with it quick.

I sunk to the blanket of snow, battered by winds colder than death, and swallowed my own breath, my lungs screaming and fighting for air, my blood curdling inside my slowing, shuddering heart.

My siblings peeked from their slumber beneath the blackwater then, wondering if I was about to join them, praying that I would, that we would be reunited once again. A sea of fractured souls, who could only find unity with each other. We were the children who’d be born into the human world, time and time again, but would leave something behind: a limb or the spine’s normal curvatures. With those sacrifices would come great power, above anything humans could comprehend. We were gifted, yes. But those gifts carried unfathomable agony in their shadow. One that wouldn’t let go.

The pain was immense, creeping inside my chest and clawing at my throat as I drowned myself in the open air, as I buried myself in snow, in the pain and the promise that I would protect these humans who would not protect me.

As I died.

I floated from the mountaintop inch by inch, staring down at my own body, a lost boy’s crumpled form, pale as a ghost and thin under all those clothes, my dark skin cold. An ocean of gray-black clouds was roiling above me, and I ached to let them swallow me, to lose myself in those tides and be carried away to the wastelands like a molted feather, weightless and free.

Death didn’t scare me in that moment—it was over. I was free.

Within the clouds, Hakim’s red eyes arose, from the moment that he had died and I had lived. They glared at me with an intensity that shook me to the core. Vaporous tears rolled from my eyes, as sadness and disappointment radiated from his. It hurt me more than any physical wound ever could.

Hakim had chosen me, knowing that I despised the humans. Knowing that I was the only one of our siblings who loved him like a brother. He had made me promise to protect the humans even if I hated them, reminding me that I had once been one of them. Rude and passionate and selfish. Cruel. Broken. The memories were gone, apart from the occasional pang in the chest when I missed someone I didn’t remember I’d loved.

Am I worthy?

I threw myself from the clouds with all my strength, my empty lungs wheezing out a wrenching cry, my stilled heart crumbling with a shuddering ache. The blackwater stretched beneath me, layered over the mountains like a half-glimpsed ghost, and as I fell, I feared I might be lost anyway, that I might shatter against that endless tide where all my waiting siblings slept.

But I gathered the fabric of time to my chest, counting its thread backward as Muslims did their beads. Like he taught me, under the tide where we slept. I smiled as blue, violet, and white shapes flickered into existence around my corpse.

The Ancestors had arrived.

Griots and kings wound in from forgotten courtrooms, with their gold rings and starched boubous. A broad-smiled fisherman threw his glowing net over my body, protecting it from the demons of the wilds—blind, hideous beings that hunted human bodies to possess them, bringing mischief into the world of the living. A young woman, her gums and chin tattooed black, had plunged my fingers into a calabash of cow’s milk so that I could find those moments in time I didn’t know I was searching for, and another was singing my name and those of my foremothers, clapping her hennaed nails on the sides of the calabash to tether my soul to the present.

My lungs filled as her nasal voice raged across the snow.

My heart beat.

I saw:

A white man paraded through the gates of an African city, his skin sickly red from the sun. His slaves were carrying wooden chests and jars, and fans made of palm leaves to refresh him around the clock. Hatred bit at my insides, setting my soul in flames. I was too young—or too old—to remember the time of the European colonizers. Yet they were the ones I hated more than anything in this world.

He removed his washed-out hat, his bald head sprinkled with brown dots, his smile arrogant, and barked orders as he strolled around the city’s bustling marketplaces. Defying the locals to meet his emerald gaze, he took pleasure in the concerned whispers that followed him.

One of his slaves struggled to contain three hyenas, leashes tied to rusty iron collars around their necks. The beasts had been starved, and a madness burned in their eyes, foam dripping from their muzzles as they sniffed at the white man. They were so desperate to be fed—whether scraps from their master’s table or the flesh of the recalcitrant.

I took in their rough, patchy fur and the bones that peaked from underneath it. This is what they’d wanted the enslaved and the colonized to become: animals that revered the hand that fed them, that starved them.

But joy flooded my clattering heart. This man was dying.

I blinked and the city became a scene of slaughter, the man’s slaves like the limbs of a hunting spider, crawling through the man’s camp, silently slitting throats. A girl was leading them, fire glowing in her eyes, blood staining the tips of her dark locs. I recognized the exaggerated curve of her spine as she padded toward the white master.

She was a Dellu. Like me, she had stayed in the land of the living.

The master begged, tears and snot running down his face, until she dragged him across the dirt, toward the pole where his hyenas had been tied, and watched as they tore him apart, their hunger eased at last.

For the first couple of days, she looked over the feral hyenas as the former slaves helped the villagers rebuild. She kept and fed them, fearing that they wouldn’t survive in the wild. Old and fresh scars crisscrossed their dirty fur, but she dared not touch them. The girl approached them on the seventh morning, dried goat meat over her shoulder, to find two of them dead, half-eaten. The shortest, stubbiest of the bunch stood heaving, blood coating its muzzle as it looked back at the girl with scalding hunger in its red eyes.

After a life of starvation and physical abuse, it had been tainted by the hunger of its master. The Dellu girl tried to use her magic to reverse it. I understood her intention—she was already a savior to these people. So, she grabbed her knife—a milky-white, long blade with red and black strips covering the handle. Night after night, she carved spells under the hyena’s skin, subduing it. The villagers, far from worshipping her, began to grow suspicious of the girl’s doings: they could see the corruption growing in the hyena’s eyes even as the girl was blind to it. She couldn’t accept that her magic, as great as it might be, was not enough.

The girl had created a monster, and in the end the monster had slashed her throat.

I shut my eyes to the sounds of it howling to a moonless sky, cringed as the girl’s people slaughtered it, knowing what would come next. Her magic was embedded in the hyena’s essence—a spell that transcended time. No amount of killing would keep the monster from walking again.

The Ancestors stirred around me, their eyes wet as the fisherman loosened his net and together they lifted me back to life with song.


“Lord Brahim! I didn’t expect you back so soon,” Chief Ladji said, between two mouthfuls of millet porridge and palm oil. He’d just started dinner, surrounded by nosy wives and wailing children. They sat on a straw mat, spread over the stone floor of their living-room, with gray walls decorated with abstract paintings, worthless medals of honor, and pieces of weaponry.

I silenced him with a gesture, my ears ringing with my galloping heartbeat. The shoulder I had pressed against the aluminum doorframe, seemingly out of indifference, was the only thing keeping me from crumpling to the floor.

Taking a few breaths to gather my strength, I dragged my feet toward the sabers, guns, and knives that had become nothing but decorations. Chief Ladji reluctantly abandoned his meal and came to my side, torn between his ill feelings against me and the desire to show off his medals.

I ignored them all as my gaze fell on a blade I recognized at once. Scents of burnt laurel—and a hint of blood—emanated from it. I lifted it from its wooden mount and let its sharp edge kiss my fingers.

“You bought or were gifted this knife recently, yes?”

Chief Ladji’s eyebrows rose. “Yes, from my nephew. It’s a relic, he said, but still so sharp that it left me a scratch when I tested it. My nephew has no use for it so he gifted it to me. Old things for old people, he said.” The chief emitted a gloomy laugh while his family stared at us.

I pinched the bridge of my nose, cringing at the red spark blooming in the chief’s eyes.

He has no idea, I thought.

“Someone in this room has been drinking your wine and eating your food. Committing murder, while all of you slept.”

His entire family froze, hands full of millet suspended in midair as twenty eyes widened with fear.

Tufts of gray, dirty fur were already bursting from the chief’s arms, his muddy-brown eyes giving way to crimson, to the beast that had possessed his body and sent him howling into the night.

Sent him to its endless hunger through the flesh of Ladji’s people.

His family deserted the dinner bowl in a chorus of screams as the temperature plummeted inside the hut, a freezing bitterness that I knew better than anything else in this life. His bared teeth were red with palm oil. Underneath it, I could smell the foul breath of a maneater.

“You know what I am,” it growled. Chief Ladji was gone, his body taken over like from an insidious infection. The creature shook with an everlasting hunger, with joy at the thought of feasting upon my tender child’s flesh.

The hyena was awake.

I blinked, and the beast blew sticky oil right on my face. It stood on two legs, its swollen muscles covered in patchy, gray fur, its eyes acidic. The hyena cackled, opened its maw and dug its teeth into my offered arm.

My siblings laughed beneath the blackwater as I bit back the pain. I was smiling too; the beast thought that I would be a gourmet meal. Sweet and delicate. Like the chief before, it had forgotten who I was. It saw me as a defenseless little boy without a single spark of magic. Easy prey.

It faltered, its slavering mouth full of my flesh, but its eyes uncertain. It was my turn to gloat.

No one knew where my ability lay. Some Dellu would be wielders of the forces of nature, even though they could not move as freely as other humans. Some had power over sweet dreams and illusions; people would see a nightmare in their faces.

My blood was my power. Deep purple, it poured from the beast’s mouth, choking it. It was gasping for breath, face alight with shock and fury, its bowels empty with a wet thud beside the bowl of millet porridge. Strand by strand, my magic undid what the Dellu girl had done, separating the hyena from whatever had kept it alive. I turned my back on it as all the poisons known to this world destroyed the beast from within, leaving only Chief Ladji, dumbfounded, in a pool of his own excrement.

I collapsed weeping to the stark floor, taking a deep, icy breath to chase the filth from my nostrils. Then, I faced Chief Ladji. His tongue bubbled with questions that he was too drained to speak aloud and that I didn’t have time to answer.

“Your murder problem is solved,” I said, rising shakily to my feet and staggering to the door, the Dellu’s knife safely tucked beneath my clothes. Sleep was summoning me, my aching head heavy with the chatter of my slumbering siblings, anxious to pester me about the white man’s monster.

The naked blade exuded a chill that seeped through my dark skin. It was showing me… things. Images that I never knew I needed to see. All the souls that had survived the Call chanting my name, elevating me as their god. They screamed that I could wield the knife’s power and recreate the world.

My fingers slid down and squeezed its red and black-stripped handle, and I listened.

I would be their savior.

© 2022 Moustapha Mbacké Diop

Moustapha Mbacké Diop

Moustapha Mbacké Diop is a speculative fiction writer from Dakar, Senegal. He studies medicine and is obsessed with African mythology, animation and horror films. His work has appeared in Omenana, If There's Anyone Left: Volume 2, and the Africa Risen anthology.

Fiction by Moustapha Mbacké Diop
  • Blackwater Children