The Birth of Obánlá
You must login to vote
Orishanla speaks, “My story, if there is one worth telling, is one of pain, loneliness, treason, and despair. In the beginning of time there were only two of us in the mortal world: myself, and Obatalá. Obatalá walked the face of the earth, guiding creation, and I hid in the heights, mediating, as it were, between heaven and earth. At first I was pleased with this division. I felt like a great Queen, elevated beyond all things mortal and insignificant. But in time, the mountainside felt like a prison; there were no bars, but I could not leave its heights. Night after night I prayed that Olófin himself would show pity, that he would release me from this awful burden of loneliness. If he heard my prayers, I do not know; I do know they were never answered. For an eternity I lived there, on the mountain; for an eternity I suffered, alone. How much isolation can any being endure? It is no wonder, then, that my mind warped, and my heart became evil.”
It was early morning. The moon had set; the sun had yet to rise, and darkness gripped the world. Orishanla stood on her mountain as she had for thousands of years, staring into the night. Darkness was a comforting blanket, one she wrapped herself in willingly.
Miles below where flat earth grazed the mountain, there was only a black pit filled with textured shades of ink and ebony. She could gaze into it and pretend the world was empty. On nights like this, she did not mind being alone on the mountain.
Loneliness seemed bearable in a vacuum.
On nights like this, she would smile at the emptiness; then, she would turn her face towards the sky, gazing into heaven. There she stood for hours. Above her mountain, even without the moon’s light, the blackness seemed softer like her own skin; it was rich, chocolaty velvet, swathing spirals of stars in its folds. Pinpoints of white fire, like diamonds, circled the sky: A vast crown encircling her head, her mountain.
On nights like this, Orishanla felt supreme.
As much as the night comforted her, the day pained her and made her feel naked, exposed. In broad daylight, there was no way she could hide from the world around her; there was no way she could pretend it did not exist. For no longer was the earth below an empty pit; it was filled with vibrant colors and sounds. No longer was the sky soft and creamy like her skin; no longer was her starry crown in the heavens. She was isolated and removed from a world filled with life.
Her heart trembled in her chest with a mixture of sadness and anger as she edged towards the cliff. There a panoramic view of the expansive horizon displayed itself; such was the distance between Orishanla and the earth below that it seemed a surreal painting, a slowly moving portrait of colors, shadows, and lights. Just as the night made her feel supreme, so the day made her feel small and insignificant. Loneliness was no longer bearable, and centuries of isolation loomed upon her. In time, it warped her.
She called to the skies, and quickly a dusky-colored bird with shiny red tail feathers answered her call; it was the African grey, her only companion on the mountain. She whispered to it, and motioned over the cliff and down the mountain. The bird sailed away effortlessly.
As it disappeared from sight, Orishanla began to plan her escape.
“Although I wasn’t sure, I thought the reason I could not leave the mountain was because of Obatalá. God had put me here, to rule the heights, and God had put him there, to rule the earth. If earth’s great king were dethroned, I reasoned, I could step down and take his place; I would be a great Queen on the earth, and I could experience all that I had missed in these lonely centuries. So I sent my messenger, with a message, and I waited . . .”
Obatalá was a well-seasoned orisha: Age thinned his body, but years of extreme labor hardened it, made it strong. Stress folded wrinkles in his dark skin, while centuries of worry earned him a crown of wooly, white hair. But those days were behind him; the world was secure as evolution unfolded. Life was fruitful, multiplying at dizzying rates in a kaleidoscope of forms. Now, Obatalá preferred to rest, to wander through the world he helped make as an observer, not an architect. His days of hard labor were behind him.
Today, however, he was unusually troubled; deep inside, he knew something was coming; changes were stirring in the world. To soothe his agitation, he walked along the foothills of the mountain, praying silently to Olófin for guidance. Pensively, he meditated on the mountain itself; his eyes traced its enormous shape until he found the top hidden in soft, white clouds. Beautiful it was, but neither his prayers nor his meditation brought him peace. “Why?” he asked himself, “do I feel such a sense of doom?”
As if to embrace him, the wind stirred, gently; it lifted his white robes and rustled his wooly hair. Thoughtlessly, he looked at the clouds shifting around the mountain’s pinnacle, and frowned as a tiny dot broke through them. It sailed lazily, traveling a wide arc away from the slopes before plummeting downwards. Obatalá’s aged eyes squinted and focused on it, and as it came closer, he saw it was a bird. Closer: An African grey. Worry creased his brow. Such a bird was not native to the mountain’s heights, and there was only one reason this creature would be there: Orishanla. Perhaps she was in trouble . . . maybe she sent this bird, and that was the reason for his perpetual foreboding.
The parrot glided towards him; it sailed across his line of vision. Obatalá came out of his reverie. Holding his arm out and bent at the elbow, he beckoned. The bird landed.
For a moment, it was still save the rapid rising and falling of its chest. The flight had tired the bird; it needed to catch its breath. Obatalá stared into steel grey eyes, and finally the mimic opened its beak, the voice sounding exactly as he remembered Orishanla’s own rich voice:
“My Lord,” it said, “Centuries have passed with me on the mountain, and you on the earth and our paths have yet to cross. I am requesting your presence here, in my home, at your earliest convenience. I simply must speak with you on important matters, Obatalá.”
The feeling of impending doom Obatalá felt earlier welled up in his chest and tainted his voice as he told the parrot, “Tell Orishanla that I will come immediately.” He shook his arm gently, gesturing to the mountain, and the parrot sailed away, disappearing into the clouds.
Even though Obatalá was king of all the orishas, the lord of ashé on earth, it took days for his elderly body to climb the mountain. He arrived tired and weary, his white robes soiled from the journey. Orishanla played the perfect hostess, giving her guest food, drink, and clean, white robes with which to dress. When Obatalá was sufficiently refreshed, she invited him, “Let’s walk outside, my Lord, on my mountain. You have always lived in the world, taking your leave among men in the depths. It is time for you to see life from my heights.”
“Orishanla,” Obatalá began as they walked a winding path on the mountain, “When your bird mimicked your voice, it sounded distressed.” He watched her face as they walked, but Orishanla’s eyes were stoically focused ahead. “Your message seemed pained. Why did you need to see me?”
“Can I not request the company of old friends?” She looked at him sharply. “Surely, even in a world surrounded by life, you get lonely?”
Obatalá shivered. Orishanla’s voice, as always, was rich and husky, but it bit with sarcasm. “Here is what I wanted to share with you, Obatalá,” she said, putting both hands firmly on his shoulders as she stood behind him.
Absentmindedly, Obatalá had walked to the edge of a cliff with Orishanla; his feet came to rest perilously close to the edge. Rocks splintered off the edge, falling to earth. “This cliff is old, as are we both. It crumbles. Be careful you don’t fall.”
This time, Orishanla’s voice was sharp, cutting; it ripped into Obatalá and filled him with fear. “What are we doing here, Orishanla?” he asked, trying to keep his voice from shaking. “Is this a game?”
“No, Obatalá. Not a game,” she hissed. “It’s beautiful, isn’t it?” Orishanla forced him to look over the precipice. “The whole world is before us, a moving picture. You can see for miles.”
“It is beautiful,” he agreed, shaking.
“I’ve watched this pretty picture for centuries,” she seethed, turning the old orisha to face her, “while you go to paint that picture, to live in it. The world was your playground: This was my prison.” Obatalá struggled as he felt the cliff cracking beneath his feet. He was dangerously close to the edge.
“You were king of the world, and I was queen of this mountain. Once, I thought myself lucky because I could see it all. But the world forgot me, Obatalá, and adored you. You forgot about me. I’ve been alone here, unable to leave this mountain, this prison.”
Orishanla took a step forward, pushing Obatalá to the edge of the cliff. He was strong in spite of his advanced age, but Orishanla was stronger, her grasp unbreakable. “All that stands between me and the world is you!” Her eyes showed her vehemence. “And with you gone, the world will me mine!”
Obatalá felt the cliff crumble and slip away as Orishanla pushed him. For a moment, he felt frozen in mid-air, and then he plunged, head over heels until he was face first. The earth was rushing up at him; he screamed, but no sound escaped his lips. Ripping, blinding pain ate at his flesh. Then, Obatalá knew no more.
“I remember anger; I remember fear; I remember my stomach swelling up and trembling inside me as Obatalá knocked at my door. The rest of that day, until I pushed him off the cliff, is a blur.
As he hung in midair, it seemed that time stopped, and for that one frozen moment, I wanted to reach out to him, pull him back and clutch him to my chest, begging his forgiveness, but it was too late. It was all too fast.
Obatalá’s body fell; it fell so far so fast that I lost sight of it as it became a small dot plummeting to the earth. I closed my eyes and used my inner vision to see him: We were both orishas, he and I, and perhaps his ashé was enough to save him from death.
Not only was he dead, but also he was shattered into sixteen unrecognizable pieces. Even if another stumbled across the mess, no one would know it was him. It was all gore and blood.
I was in shock, and my senses left me. I crumbled against the cliff, no longer wanting freedom, no longer caring that I was trapped on this mountain. I sobbed into the rock, and that’s all I remember. Until she came . . .”
Obatalá’s shattered body laid still, the earth receiving his life’s blood like a sacrificial offering. It hungered for the great ashé it held; it reached up and lapped at it like a hungry dog. The sun in the noon sky bore down on the sixteen pieces, baking them, and the wind blew, drying them. That evening, as the sun set, it rained; the blood-stained earth around Obatalá’s fallen body became wet and muddy.
But Obatalá’s ashé was stronger than the fall; it was stronger than the elements, and even though the earth itself tried to feast on what was left on his flesh, it could not. Instead, each piece drew strength from the earth; from the very clay that Obatalá once molded the human form, each piece molded its own body. Each piece sucked at the earth, reclaiming the ashé that was its own, and when the sun finally broke over the mountain the next day, where there had been sixteen ripped pieces of flesh, there were now sixteen whole bodies: male and female, old and young, each clothed in whiteness stolen from the sun itself.
The first to stand knew only her name: Obánlá. She looked up at that mountain, filled with rage, although she knew not why. She remembered a great fall, a feeling of weightlessness; she remembered pain so great that the whole world seemed to burn with white fire. That rage grew and boiled in her blood until she realized that she had but one purpose: To avenge a great evil. And that great evil lived on top of the mountain.
Propelled by her anger, Obánlá flew up the mountain, her feet barely touching the slopes as she ran. Youth made her climb easy. Her white robes flared about her body as stiff winds stung her flesh; her long, course black hair flared about wildly. Something unknown to her nudged Obánlá towards the cliff, and when she saw the old, black woman crumpled on the rock, she screamed. All of Obatalá’s memories came flooding back to her, and she knew what she had to do.
“I awoke to a great screaming, a preternatural rage that pierced the silence and sanctity of my mountain; it broke me out of my shock, and I laid there, staring up and into the eyes of a woman so powerful and so full of ashé that I knew she was an orisha. Her skin was dark and reflective like onyx; smooth and firm, like the flesh of a newborn. She wore the whitest robes, fabric that seemed congealed from pure sunlight. And she bore a great resemblance to Obatalá. I knew she was there to avenge his death.
“Wretched old woman!” she hissed as she flew to my side, picking me up by the throat with one hand. She held me over the cliff’s edge, my feet dangling in the air; I was surprised by her youthful strength, and knew that fighting her would be futile. I struggled for breath, holding onto her powerful arm with both of my own. “You murdered . . . my father. And now you die the same way.”
“Her father?” was the only thought in my mind as her grip loosened; I tried to hold onto her arm, but she shook me off with a simple flick of her wrist. I was plummeting to the earth, the same earth that for centuries I coveted. “So this is how I gain my freedom,” I thought. Then, there was bone-shattering pain as I hit the ground. I didn’t die immediately as had Obatalá, although I wanted to. I felt my flesh torn, my bones crushed, and my blood seeping into the earth as I looked up and saw fifteen faces staring down at me. All resembled Obatalá, but each looked different. And this was the mystery I pondered in misery as the world went mercifully dark.
“Welcome home.” Those words were the most unexpected, and I opened my eyes to see myself back in heaven, surrounding with friends I had not seen in centuries.
“Home?” I repeated.
“Yes, home,” said a friendly, familiar voice. As my vision cleared I saw that Olófin himself was beside my bed, and he smiled down at me warmly.
“I have done a great evil, father,” I confessed, tears welling up in my eyes. I was afraid of the consequences I would face, but I had to admit to it. “I killed Obatalá.” Those words sapped any remaining strength I had, and I fell back against the pillows, too weak to speak.
“You didn’t kill me at all.” Fear burned my veins like fire. I struggled to open my eyes again, but Obatalá’s familiar voice told me, “Don’t try to open your eyes. Don’t try to speak. You suffered a great shock, hitting the earth like that, and now you must rest. I had to rest when you threw me off the mountain.”
“But how?” I was getting sleepy again; each word sapped my strength.
“The soul is immortal, Orishanla,” Olófin said. “And while the body you had on earth is dead, you are not. But that is a mystery to ponder later, as is the mystery of what just happened on earth between you and Obatalá.
“Suffice it to say that while you could have avoided that evil, something greater has come from your hands. You are both back in heaven, and sixteen new roads of Obatalá were born this day.”
“Great things are about to happen on the earth.” And with Olófin’s final words, I finally fell into a deep, but fitful sleep.”
My greed and madness, it seems, did have a divine purpose; for as I regained my strength, I resumed what came naturally to me – watching. I watched as the woman who murdered me, Obánlá, took over my own kingdom and came into her powers as an orisha. I watched as the remaining fifteen forms born of Obatalá’s shattered body gained their own minds and learned their own ashé, and set forth on the earth to create great changes. New civilizations rose: Old civilizations crumbled, and the human race, guided by these new wielders of wisdom and power, rose to great, new heights. I don’t think anyone on earth has ever forgiven me for my treason; perhaps not even Obatalá himself, who still looks at me with a cautious eye. But it is enough to know that in spite of my madness, I did not merely destroy a life, I helped to create more.
Perhaps that is the only redemption I have for the evil I wrought.”