By Tiara Imani Blain
Ashanti's honeymoon in Lagos becomes an opportunity to change the trajectory of her lineage when she meets Yemaya, the goddess of the sea.
“Will you ever get out of the water?” Toran asks. “We have the rest of Lagos to see.”
“Sorry,” Ashanti tells Toran in a playful tone. “I have a hard time leaving the water. I’m drawn to it.”
“Babe, you have ancestors who’ve once walked this land. You’ll be drawn to many places here, but we’ll never see them if you float in the water all day.”
“There’s something about being here in particular, connecting with our roots.”
“Yeah,” Toran agrees. “And your mom tried her best to talk us out of coming here for our honeymoon.”
“She did.” Ashanti mimics her mother in a mocking tone. “’Why do you want to go there for your honeymoon? Don’t be out too late at night.’ She’s constantly worrying. She means well, but she overwhelms me with her fear.”
Toran laughs. “That does sound like her.” He then nudges Ashanti again. “So, how long are you going to stay in the water?”
“Fine, fine,” Ashanti says. “Let's go.”
She glances back at the ocean. It is clear as crystal, revealing the gray and brown rocks of the sea floor. Ashanti wonders about the water—its history. What exactly did it experience? What did it see? As she moves her eyes toward the Atlantic, the water suddenly becomes a bright red, as if mixed with blood. Ashanti shakes her head as though to toss out the image.
“You okay?” Toran asks.
“I don’t think so,” Ashanti says, her eyes dancing in panic. “Red water—blood… I feel like I’m losing it.”
“It’s okay,” Toran attempts to calm her, “Breathe—breathe.”
Ashanti inhales deeply, then slowly until the panic disappears from her eyes.
“You feel so deeply, Shanti,” Toran comforts. “Are you imagining what has happened here—in these waters?”
Ashanti laughs to herself. Why does he know me so well? From the beginning of their relationship, Toran knew how to deal with her struggles, her anxiety disorder, her anxiety attacks, her fixating thoughts. Ashanti takes a deep breath. That’s why I married him.
“I will not let my anxiety ruin our honeymoon,” she says, as if trying to convince herself as well as her husband. “I know that sometimes I can get fixated on things, and worrisome like my mom—”
“It’s okay, babe,” Toran reassures her. “Trust me, this is going to be an experience of a lifetime.”
It had been a long day of sight-seeing. Ashanti and Toran end the day lying in the hammock outside of their vacation villa. Ashanti looks over to see Toran asleep and smiles. With a view like this, of course, he would be asleep.
The multitude of stars create diamond-like glimmers in the navy-blue water. Ashanti watches the diamonds sparkle like magic. This doesn’t compare to anything I have seen in Charlotte. She decides she will enjoy every bit of it before they return to their everyday lives in North Carolina.
Ashanti’s train of thought grows sour. She reflects on what she knows of the Atlantic Slave Trade. How could people take others from their home? She can’t even imagine what her ancestors faced. Her eyes grow weary, beginning to close right before she notices a dark blue figure surrounding a large wave. Ashanti’s eyes open wide before the figure disappears. She sits up in the hammock. What was that?
Ashanti looks over at Toran, who rests in a blissful slumber. She doesn’t want to wake him. It must have been a reflection in the water, she thinks. And soon after, Ashanti too falls into a deep sleep.
Ashanti awakes to find herself back at the beach at night. She stands in shallow water, where the sand meets the ocean. Something cold and hard brushes at her feet. She looks down to see broken shackles. She picks up and examines the rusted chains before dropping them in front of a blue figure, then clearly a brown face.
The woman wears large black braids that fall past her waist. She doesn’t resemble anyone Ashanti has ever seen. She radiates an indescribable beauty, glowing skin, and angelic brown eyes. When Ashanti looks down at the clear water, she sees the creature has an iridescent fin. It doesn’t frighten Ashanti as things usually do. She surprisingly feels comfort, as if she was one with the woman-like creature.
“Who are you?” Ashanti asks, staring into eyes that glimmered with the sea.
“I go by many names.”
The creature speaks in Yoruba, but Ashanti somehow understands, as if the communication is spirit to spirit.
A hand reaches for her, the palm and wrist covered in jewels. Ashanti drifts her hand towards it. As the hands join, she feels a powerful force generate throughout her body. Ashanti herself forms scales and a fin. Her hair, already in braids, grows as long as the woman’s.
The two suddenly sink into the ocean, zooming through water at lightning speed. They travel deeper and deeper into the depths of the sea, further than all who have tried and failed. Swiftly, they pass sea creatures Ashanti never knew existed. The two pierce through a protective layer, resembling diamond glass into what seems to be an underwater island. The sphere-like shape reflects hues of blue, purple, and pink, complementing the exotic fruits on the island trees. The air smells like shea, pine, and honey. The two women land on a seafloor. The sand feels stiff, yet soft as shea butter. Once they hit dry land, their fins transform into feet.
Both women walk among an island of merpeople. Men and women dressed in extravagant tribal attire. Their skin, as smooth as silk in multiple shades of brown, tan, and beige. They appear to have scales similar to hers.
Overwhelmed with emotion, Ashanti asks the woman, “Who are they?”
The woman looks at Ashanti, then back at the others. “They’re the ones who took to the sea.”
Ashanti suddenly awakens in the hammock.
Toran is up and about. He walks in from the bathroom. “I found an area nearby I think we’ll like. Come, let’s go.”
“Wait a moment,” Ashanti groans, still taken aback by last night’s dream and unable to hide her crankiness at Toran’s push to get her out of bed. “Fine. I will get ready soon.”
As the couple walk hand in hand down the street, Ashanti notices a book in the window of a bookstore. An image of an African mermaid sits on the cover, one like the woman in her dream. The title reads “Yemaya, The Sea Goddess.”
Ashanti wastes no time. She rushes into the store, grabs the book, and asks the guy behind the counter, “Do you have other books about this sea goddess?”
“Only this one,” he replies.
Excitedly, Ashanti takes the book to the sitting area and shares with Toran about the night before.
“I dreamt about this mermaid last night!” she says, flipping through the pages, gobbling as much info as she can in a short time. “So, what I am getting from this book is that Yemaya is a mermaid in Yorubian folklore. She is considered a goddess and mother of the ocean.”
“That’s dope,” says Toran.
“The book has the history of the folktale, but none of this helps with what the dream meant.”
Ashanti turns to her phone to research more. “Ugh. Google gives the same information.” She slouches, cupping her face in hands, her elbows propped on her knees.
A local woman passes by, noticing the cover of the book. “Oh, you’re reading about the African mermaid, Yemaya!”
Ashanti lifts her eyes to see a woman with a stack of books about planting. She has black and dark blonde cornrowed hair, beads at the end of each braid.
“My grand-aunt would always mention the story of Yemaya when I was a kid.”
“Really?” Ashanti replies. “Are you able to tell me more about her?”
“Well, I don’t remember much,” the woman says.
Ashanti's head lowers in visible disappointment.
The woman shows pity. “You know what, if you are not busy right now, and you want to know more, my aunt only lives a couple of blocks away. I will call her now to see if she is up to meeting with you.”
“I would love that!” Ashanti brightens. “Thank you. I’m Ashanti, by the way, and this is my husband, Toran.”
“It’s nice to meet you both,” the woman says. “My name is Yara.”
Yara calls her aunt, while Toran takes Ashanti to the side.
“Babe, we can’t go to a stranger's house in another country. I would think you, of all people, wouldn’t be comfortable with this.”
“But Toran, I have to figure this out,” Ashanti replies. “Something is telling me I need to know more. This is happening for a reason.”
“I don’t know, this is crazy,” Toran says.
Overhearing some of their conversation, Yara interjects, “You don’t have to worry. It’s a busy street. We can talk on the patio outside the house.”
Ashanti looks at Toran with a pleading, pouted face.
“Okay, okay,” he says, “We can check it out. But if I feel any concerns, we’re out of there.”
Ashanti gives him a big smile and a peck on the lips. “Thank you, babe!”
They all walk to Yara’s aunt’s house, not too far from the bookstore. As they arrive, they see the older woman sitting on the front yard porch, dressed in a traditional wrap with matching headdress, patterned with a red, yellow, blue, and black. She is short and stout in stature, yet gives off a bold presence.
The elderly aunt rises and greets everyone with a welcoming smile.
Yara bows, touches her foot, and says, “e kaaro, Aunty Adola. Good morning.”
Her aunt gestures for her to stand. “Good morning, child,” she says. “Are these the friends you’ve told me about?”
“Yes, this is Ashanti and Toran,” Yara replies. They are traveling from America and wanted to learn more about Yemaya.”
Toran and Ashanti greet Aunty Andola with a slight bow.
“Thank you so much for having us,” Ashanti says. “You don’t know how grateful I am to meet with you.”
“No worries, child. An old woman like me is happy to have the company.”
Ashanti, Toran, and Yara sit on the porch stoop around Miss Adola who returns to her seat in a woven rocking chair. The woman closes her eyes for a moment, rocking back and forth. Then she slowly opens her eyes.
“Yemaya is the goddess and mother of the ocean,” Adola says. “She is also the mother of fertility and healing. She guides the women and protects the people. She’s the eldest daughter of Olodumare.”
“Olodumare?” Ashanti asks.
“Yes,” Adola explains, “the one who spreads virtue and morality. Just one of the three manifestations of God, the creator of heaven and earth. Olorun is the ruler of the heavens, and Olofi is the link between Heaven and Earth. Yemaya—she watches over the ocean and all that lives therein.
“As the goddess of the ocean, Yemaya bore witness to the fate of the enslaved who were taken to the New World. She comforted and protected them during the Atlantic Slave Trade. Her story traveled with the people throughout America, the Caribbean islands, and other Afro-Latino cultures.
“People say she helped those who jumped in the water, taking them to land, sometimes returning them to the boat. My grandmother would tell me about her grandfather, who fell from a boat during the transatlantic trade. A 50-foot wave surrounding a blue figure carried him back to the land. The nearby villages heard the story. Some spoke of similar experiences. Others thought the story was a fable, but most needed the hope Yemaya brought.
“She was a symbol of our hope. A few even believed there were still Africans alive down there. These souls are the ones that took to the sea.”
Ashanti remembered the underwater island in her dreams. “Like merpeople?”
Adola nodded. “It is but a rumor that some have been visited by Yemaya and taken to this place. So, we have those looking after us from beneath the seas and above the heavens.”
Before Yara could ask another question, an alert pings on Yara’s phone. “Oh, I’m so sorry. I totally forgot I have to take Aunty to her doctor's appointment.”
“Oh, no worries.”
“It was a pleasure meeting you both,” Yara says. “Please take my number. Let me know if you want to get together before you travel back home.”
“We will. Thank you.”
Miss Adola rises once again to bid the couple farewell, “O Dabo Miss Adola says, “Goodbye.”
“O Dabo,” says Ashanti and Toran. Ashanti also hugs Yara in gratitude.
The honeymooners take a taxi to the beach. They sit, watching the waves roll in, listening to the water’s soft groan.
“I still don’t really understand why I am having these dreams,” Ashanti says, resting her head on Toran's thigh.
Toran gently plays with her curls. “Maybe your ancestors are trying to tell you something.”
Ashanti scoffs, “Me, the anxious one?”
“Well, it doesn’t seem coincidental,” Toran says. “Something is connecting you to all of this. Of all places, we chose Nigeria to celebrate our union. And you heard what Miss Adola said. People claim to have seen this underwater city. You are not the only one.”
Ashanti sighs, “Maybe you’re right.”
Weary from the day, Ashanti and Toran lie down on the blanket and hold one another. She listens to the sea’s comforting roar and dozes off.
Ashanti suddenly rises with the mermaid in the exact spot she had been the night before. What is going on? She says to herself.
Ashanti turns to the goddess. “Yemaya? You're Yemaya, aren’t you?”
Yemaya nods, then turns around, walking towards a sunken pit in the seafloor. Ashanti follows behind.
“I was there when it all happened,” says Yemaya. “The slave trade. I heard the noise of it, the whips, the cries, the screams. I heard it all. What I saw was horrific. How people could be so cruel.”
Yemaya's voice cracks as she holds back tears. “Centuries later, I still feel every plea, every desperate expression. None of us should forget what happened.”
Ashanti tears up, witnessing Yemaya’s pain.
Yemaya leans over the hole, gesturing for Ashanti to do the same.
“What is this?” Ashanti asks.
“This is all that’s left,” Yemaya says.
They look to see the debris of old spears, whips, and tarnished strips of cloth. There are rusted shackles and chains, just like the shackles Ashanti had found in the water the night before. Suddenly the items vanish, and the hole fills with water.
“When I heard the screams of those plowing into the water, I did what I could to help, but the bodies plummeted so quickly. Those I couldn’t rescue, I brought to a life below the sea on this island. Ogo ni fun Olorun, baba mi. Glory be to God, my father.
“I could protect them and keep them alive. These have been with me ever since and will be until the world's end. They don’t age. They don’t die, but they can never return to the surface.
“Few get to see this island or know we exist, Yemaya explains. Only those who need to know. This island is just for us.”
“This is so amazing,” Ashanti says, looking at the paradise. “But I still don’t understand. Why show all of this to me?”
“I brought you here because there are some things you must know,” says Yemaya.
Yemaya takes a deep breath. “There is a curse in your family’s bloodline.”
“A curse?” Ashanti grows alarmed. “What do you mean by a curse? Like a trans-generational curse?”
“That’s exactly what I mean,” Yemaya replies. “Your great-great-great grandmother’s parents were of those who leapt from the boat.” Yemaya points across the island to a man and woman. “Do you see them?”
Ashanti notices the young couple from afar. “I see them!”
“Well, when I came to the surface, seeing their ship in the distance, I found Ayoola—floating in the ocean. A toddler, about 3 years old. She was breathing.”
“Yes. I knew she had a purpose, a reason she had to be alive,” Yemaya says. “She was destined to be on that boat, not in the sea.”
Yemaya chuckles as though she remembers fondly. “I swam her back to the boat—to sneak her back on. I knew someone would take care of her in the New World. She was to live a life on land.”
“When Ayoola was 16 years of age, I came to her as I’ve to you. I told her I would help her lead an assembly of the enslaved to freedom. But Ayoola just couldn’t do it, because of—fear.”
Yemaya continues, “Ayoola feared that if she led the assembly, everyone would be killed. But it was her fear that led to the demise of everyone on the plantation, including herself. That fear has followed her generations until now.”
Ashanti thinks about her own struggles with general anxiety disorder, her anxiety attacks, her fixating thoughts, her fears of crowds and social conflicts. She considers her mother’s overprotectiveness borne of her own childhood secrets.
“Trauma immerses us in fear,” Yemaya says, as though she reads Ashanti’s mind. “After these years, someone must break this curse. That person is you.”
Ashanti’s lips part further and further until her jaw eventually drops. “Huh.. how… what…” Gasping still, she eventually mutters a few words, “So…. that was a lot.”
Yemaya simply smiles and nods.
Ashanti continues, “I don’t know. I can barely manage my anxiety, and I’m really supposed to end this curse for others?”
“A curse is often a person’s greatest strength, only tested.” Yemaya wags an instructing finger. “Trusting your intuition to visit Miss Adola; having the courage to take my hand and come here. Now, that is bravery. Allowing yourself to feel what your ancestors felt and what others feel—that’s your superpower. This will help you as you nurture the next leader.”
“The next leader?”
“Your daughter will lead a community of people to freedom.”
“My what?” Ashanti interrupts. “Wait, I just got married. What’s this talk about a daughter?”
“Listen,” Yemaya tells her. “Your great-great-great grandmother wasn’t up to the task, but your daughter will be because of you. You will break the curse of fear, the curse of holding onto pain and trauma. This will release your lineage from anxiety. You’ll teach your daughter to speak up for herself, to be transparent, to be courageous.
“There was a reason I found Ayoola floating in the water, just like I found you floating the other day. There is power in your bloodline.”
Ashanti stands in a daze and whispers, “My daughter.” This time—it is not as a question, but a statement.
Yemaya continues, “Your daughter will help lead many of African descent to freedom. So many are still emotionally and mentally enslaved. Some are even physically enslaved in our own homeland. It’s time we heal. Our people have been drowning.
“The lost ones are not lost. It is the others who are suffocating in a world played against them, but it’s time to breathe.”
Yemaya fades from sight.
“Wait? But when?” Ashanti panics. “Can you tell me when my daughter is coming?”
As Yemaya fades, she smiles one last time. “O ti wa ni bi ni sin.”
A light beams on Ashanti’s face.
Disoriented, Ashanti rises to the sound of Toran’s voice. She rushes to her phone to open the Google Translation app. She looks up Yemaya's last words, which, unlike the other times, she does not understand. "O ti wa ni bi ni sin.” When the app translates, she drops the phone.
Staring at the body of water before her, Ashanti repeats the translation as though in a trance, “She’s already here.”
Tiara Imani Blain, MA, is a multifaceted creator who writes various forms of scientific/technical content related to physical and mental health, lifestyle, and health equity. Since age 11, she has indulged in writing short stories, poetry, and children’s books. Her other artistic endeavors include cinematography and digital illustration. Blain is passionate about producing technical and creative content for communities with less access to pertinent information. As a Black woman with a life-time of struggles with chronic conditions, she hopes to educate and connect with underrepresented communities who need to feel acknowledged and heard.