“Iya-Iya” by Jonathan Edelstein

“Iya-Iya” by Jonathan Edelstein

Iya-iya, they called her. Grandmother. They called her other things too: weaver, storyteller, memory-keeper, sometimes demon and witch, but to iya-iya they always returned. She’d lived on this world a hundred and eighty years—three lifetimes and more for its people, seven of its generations—and she was rumored to be older still. She was an orisha, some said; a child of one, said others; a witch, said others still. There were a dozen different stories of the manner of her coming, and some were sure that she had always been there.

Even she might not have been certain, had she not carried her memory with her.

* * *

She sat by her fire-pit with closed eyes, the day’s work ended, when a child’s voice wakened her. Toyin, it was, seven years old and her descendant in the fifth, or was it sixth, generation.

She looked at him, uncertain; from within, a machine stirred and a vision appeared before her. Oh yes: Ayo and Dele’s boy.

“Iya-iya,” he began.

Mbuya,” she murmured, still half-asleep.


She realized what she’d said and shook her head with the embarrassment of age. “The same word, in my birth-speech.”

She said nothing more, and he looked at her, unsure of what to say. “I’m sorry to disturb your rest, but Aunt Layo died, and we need the new pattern you were making.”

“Come in then,” she said. She knew Layo. Toyin’s aunt was old, not nearly as old as she was, but one of the few who still called her friend.

She stood slowly, slowly, and led him inside. Her house was a single room: bedroll in one corner; loom standing across from it; rods holding drying cloth; and all around them, pots of dye and the stamps and stones and strings with which she made her patterns.

She took down a sheet of cloth with concentric diamonds in black, orange, and brown and let Toyin touch it.

“I meant to give it to you at the new yam festival, but it’s ready now. The patterns are drum-sound moving through the air—they’re for the drums your aunt used to play.”

“It’s memory-cloth,” he said.

For a moment, the words startled her as much as waking had. She’d never called the cloth that, but thus it was. Had her other words, her own memories, kept her from saying so?

“Something has to keep her memory after I’m gone.”

“You?” If she’d been startled, he was shocked. “You’ve been here forever. You will be here forever.”

“No. Do you see this?” She brought his hand to the hair that fringed her forehead: once dark as her face, now it was white, and deep lines formed a map below it. “Even where I was born, few people live two hundred years, and I’ve lived longer than that.”

“But you’re an orisha,” Toyin said, and she said nothing more. How could he understand, when she’d lived thirty years for each of his? She pressed the pattern into his hand and dismissed him to his family, and he ran off gratefully. But the question didn’t leave her: what would keep the city’s memory after she was gone?

* * *

“Tell us stories,” they’d demanded when she first came, when she first learned the language so different from her own. She was their first visitor in thousands of years, and her ship had come shrieking down to crash in flames outside the city. Of course she must have stories.

And she did, but which stories to tell? She could tell them of Mutanda, and of the glories of the Union that spanned a thousand worlds, but that story ended with fire and blood, with long ships melting the High Gardens and flames coursing among the towers, with plague ravaging the machines people carried inside them and sending them screaming and maddened into death.

Maybe she could tell them teaching-stories instead. The machine inside her held all the Union’s recorded learning. But the things the Union made required tools that this world couldn’t make or substances it didn’t have, and the knowledge of how to make the things in between had been lost. Humanity no longer knew how to live the way people did on this lost colony. Maybe they were learning again, on the many shattered worlds, but if so she would never know.

So she gave them other stories, stories of imagination rather than memory: poetry, folk-tales, the epics of Mutanda’s greatest batatwishi. Her machine had them too, and as years and then decades passed, she no longer needed it to bring them to her.

* * *

Her mind troubled, she walked through the city to the fishing-harbor. The streets were narrow and lined with brightly painted mud-brick houses. The sounds of work still came from a few, but the city’s life was already moving outside, the buzz of conversation growing as people ceased their labor and children returned from the wells.

Women sat by the fire-pits outside, the flames illuminating faces and clothing, casting flickering light over herb-gardens and guinea-fowl. Many of them had iya-iya’s blood in them: many men had married her, hoping she would give long life to their children. She hadn’t. Her years were given by the machines that Mutanda’s chilolo, its craftsmen, had made. She had none to give her descendants. It was after this that people called her a witch, and for a century she’d been barren.

Her cloth had lived longer. She’d designed clothing on Mutanda, in a shop on the High Streets, and here she’d learned the weaver’s trade. After so many years perfecting her craft, she was the city’s unquestioned master; some even called the orisha of weaving by her name. She’d made leather stamps in a thousand patterns, used stones and seeds and string to make adire; she’d designed the aso-ebi, the family pattern, for each clan of the city and many in the countryside. The women by the fire-pits wore her cloth, and so did the fishermen at the harbor, bringing their pirogues in full of nsipi and red-glories.

Some of them were grilling their catch with onions and groundnut oil, and she stood in the smell of cooking fish and salt water, watching children play in the surf and imagining another city. She closed her eyes and called to memory, and there was Chambishi Port on Mutanda, with its cream and glass towers of two and three and four kilometers, the High Streets and High Gardens strung like spiderwebs between them, the twenty-thousand-year-old alleys where shabby stores sold cargoes beyond belief, the traffic of streets and water and air.

She didn’t really need her memory: her machine could show Mutanda to her as it had been, and often, in the early days, she’d asked it to. But she hadn’t for many years, for those scenes led inexorably to the other scenes of war and plague and death, the stories she still didn’t tell. Those were the last things she’d seen when she fled on a ship never meant to make the journey, and they were memories that could justly die with her. But the others…

* * *

In the fiftieth year of her residence, the alakoso-ilu—the lord mayor—and the secret society had made her the memory-keeper. She’d known their ancestors and her machine had recorded them: she could summon their faces and repeat their teachings. She had accepted, but she’d known that the memories in the machine wouldn’t live forever.

Writing could keep those memories. She’d thought of teaching it to them—that, at least, required no machines—but then she’d found out that they already knew. She’d written her birth-name in the sand one day, and the fisherman who saw became excited and showed her a brass plaque at a shrine. The letters etched on it and the words they formed were archaic, but it was writing in two languages: one she recognized as an older version of the one spoken here, and the other much like her own. That, too, told a story, of refugees who’d fled war and collapse as she had done, of distant memories best forgotten.

She’d offered to teach them what the letters meant, but they’d refused: to them, the markings on the bronze were symbols of the gods and were unfit for other use. Counting-sticks were one thing, but letters were another. Over the centuries, they’d changed from one symbol to a different one, and after so much time, their place in memory wouldn’t change again.

* * *

Back home, no one else disturbed iya-iya’s rest—orishas are left alone and so are witches—so she ate her crushed melon-seeds with fish and herbs and listened to the sounds that would become memory.
After, she went to make her bed. There was a sheet of white cloth on the loom beside it, waiting to be taken off, innocent of patterns.

“Memory-cloth,” she said. She remembered Layo’s pattern, looked over at her stamps and dye-stones, and said the words again. She, too, had taken long to realize that one symbol might be made into another.

Maybe someone yet unburdened by his memories could do so sooner.

She pushed the bedroll aside, found a block of leather, lit an oil lamp and carved late into the night. When she was finished, it made two thick vertical lines with three horizontal ones connecting them: two towers with High Streets between, two columns joined by the High Gardens. The blessings of Mutanda, the blessings of memory.

In the morning when Toyin saw her, she wore the pattern on a cloth tied around her hair. “That’s the first word of my story,” she said. “It means blessing. Daliso, my birth-name.”

The child seemed unperturbed. It was reasonable to him that an orisha or an orisha’s daughter—or even a witch—might make a pattern mean something.

“Is there one for my name? Are there any for other words?”

“There will be,” she said. “Come, and we can make them together.”

Jonathan Edelstein was born in 1971, is married with cat, and lives in Queens. His work has appeared in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Daily Science Fiction, and elsewhere, and he counts Bernard Cornwell and Ursula Le Guin among his literary inspirations. When he isn’t writing, he practices law and hopes someday to get it right.

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