“How dare you?” Bubbles frothed into the sea with her every word, and the object of her rage trembled. “You thought you could come into my dominion with your band of villains, murder and steal from my people, rape my women — and I would not notice?!”
From her throne of shark bones suspended within stone walls on the ocean floor, Yemoja pinned the merman with a ferocious stare. In ranks along either side of her throne, and behind the prisoner, her royal guard stood at ready, their tails swirling the waters. Above them was clear sea, continuing for miles around, higher up tinted by the outflow of the great river. Beyond Yemoja’s court, merpeople fanned out in all directions, waiting to hear what justice she would mete out.
“Please, Oh Great One! It will never happen again.” The merman’s tail twitched in fear, the beautiful grey of it slashed and trailing blood.
“No, it will never happen again. Look! These are some of your victims. They will decide your fate.” She gestured for three rainbow-colored merwomen to swim forward. Their eyes were red from weeping.
Yemoja turned to them. “Here is the leader of those responsible for your pain. I cannot undo what they did, but I can give you justice. Whatever fate you decide upon will be theirs.”
The oldest, grey-haired at her temples, spoke. “I would want them put to death, but I will follow Omiyale’s wish. She carries the greatest pain.”
Omiyale swam forward, hands wrapped around her shivering body, tears still merging with the sea. She did not look at the merman, but lowered her eyes before the goddess. “I want their blood to redden the water. I want the ocean to bear witness as it did when they forced me and killed my child.”
“So it shall be.” Yemoja surged forward and grabbed the trembling merman by his throat. “Here is the fate that awaits your band!”
Quivering, wild-eyed, he shook his head.
“I will give you all to my daughters for target practice and feed your remains to my sharks. None of you will live past this day.” The goddess pushed him back screaming and squirming into the grip of her guards. She raised her claws to slash him…
“Oh Great One!” One of her handmaidens called out and darted forward. “I beg you for his life. This is my brother. We lost each other during the great war when our parents left for the battlefront. I beg for mercy, great Yemoja. I swear to keep him in line.”
The goddess looked down at her handmaiden, and her brows deepened. “Omidun, I understand the bonds of kinship, but then where is the justice for his victims? And what would such mercy tell those who would prey upon us?”
Yemoja turned away, and Omidun’s face hardened and twisted as she watched Yemoja slash his neck. His blood flowed into the water, fading as it curled away with the current.
“Take them to the archery fields. When my daughters are done, stake them at the gates,” Yemoja said, “as warning to all who think to cause trouble here.”
She gestured for the guards to go and sat silently, cooling her boiling blood. She turned then to acknowledge a small, pink-tailed, messenger mermaid. The little mermaid bowed, and the slim strands of her dreadlocks danced gracefully behind her. The sight soothed Yenoja.
“Great One, the water has brought another foolish swimmer in from the river.”
“The water brings many such. Why tell me of one more?”
“This one is a marvel. She is not drowning.”
Yemoja straightened. “Take me to this marvel.”
The Goddess had never felt sorrow for drowned and drowning humans. But as this girl tried to beg for her life, Yemoja saw something familiar in the lines of her lips and the flatness of her nose. Skin the color of polished wood and teeth gleaming white, stocky legs kicked beneath her long, wispy hair floating in a cloud around her face.
Yemoja swam close and raised the girl up by her neck. She could feel a skittering pulse beneath her fingertips. She noted thin, closed gill lines on her neck and looked closely at her face. She leaned in, breathed into the girl’s mouth, and dropped her.
The girl gasped as she left the goddess’s grip. Water was still in her nose, mouth, and ears, but she didn’t feel the choking, burning that had enveloped her since she had swum much farther than she ought to.
Touching the sides of her neck, feeling gills working, she looked up into the goddess’s large, shining eyes that seemed to take in the entirety of her body and mind at once. Her lips were full, sitting below a narrow nose and the bushiest eyebrows she had ever seen. Her skin shone like gleaming bronze and her tail was large and golden. Straight-backed, eight feet long, she had dark dreadlocks down to her tail.
“Your name, little one?”
“Yimika, Great One.”
“Come,” Yemoja said and turned.
Yimika watched the goddess swim away, her lunate tail sending her gliding through the water with easy, powerful strokes. bending the water to her will.
Yemoja turned back and her face tightened. “Will you wait for the sharks to eat you?”
Yimika moved then, tingling with fear, following after the mermaid to the bottom of the sea. As they went, Yimika stared about her: bursts of color from fish and coral, oysters opening to catch a glimpse of Yemoja as she passed, electric eels, large seahorses bowing to the goddess from a distance. She saw huge crayfish, sharks, and dolphins that dipped their heads in greeting as they passed.
The city of the merpeople was colorful and bright. As they got closer Yimika’s eyes widened. The brightness was the merpeople, glowing fish, plants, and jewels — gold, diamonds, pearls, rubies, gems people on the surface had never even seen.
The legions of merpeople gliding and diving about made way for the goddess, noting the human girl kicking along behind her. Whispers went round that Yemoja had brought a child to the palace, a child who looked like Moremi. Omidun listened closely, eyes lit like angry lightning.
Yemoja entered the palace, a festival of colors and sizes of merpeople flashing pink, blue, orange, black, red, rainbow-colored tails. Yemoja acknowledged them with a nod and entered her private quarters. Yimika followed meekly.
Yemoja’s room was large but sparsely furnished. Through a farther doorway Yimika glimpsed what was perhaps the goddess’s sleeping chamber. On the walls scatterings of gold, silver, diamonds, and rubies glittered.
Yemoja gazed at Yimika. “You look like my sister, long lost to the land of the humans. Sit.” She stretched out a hand to a corner of the room and a slab of stone rose up.
Yimika sank down onto the stone.
“My sister…” Yemoja began.
Yimika leaned forward attentively.
“…was the most beautiful merwoman I have ever seen. She had gorgeous black skin, glowing like the sea at night, and her tail! Her tail also was black and shining. Of the two of us, she was the kind and merciful one. She was deeply loved.” Her eyes, vacant pools, stared through the wall behind Yimika. “We fought side by side during the great war and afterwards divided the ocean between us. She ruled to the east of the river, and I to the west. Now I have the whole wide ocean. But no sister.”
The goddess looked down at her own beautiful golden tail and Yimika noticed the tiniest fall of her proud shoulders. “We sometimes swam up to gaze at the ocean’s surface or the mountains of the land. One night we went to admire the beauty of the moon. Her eyes were caught by a human bathing by the river bank. She was going to spend a few days with him, to satisfy her curiosity, but I never saw her again… There was heartbreak throughout the realm.” Yemoja sighed softly. “Yimika, what is your mother’s name?”
“Moremi. I was told she died giving birth to me.”
Yemoja crumpled. “That is her name. My sister is dead then.” She turned her face to the floor. A low keening traveled through the water, carrying grief so heavy Yimika almost collapsed beneath its weight.
But then from outside came a call. “Great One, your devotees are on the river bank calling for you.”
The goddess raised her head, and composed her face. “I will be there.”
Yemoja turned to the girl. “Would you like to inherit your mother’s legacy? Grow your own tail?”
Yimika’s mind flickered through images of the possibilities. One thing stood out: “Can I change back if I wished?”
“Yes, my child, I would never keep you against your wish.”
Slowly, Yimika nodded. “Many times I thought of just this.”
Yemoja smiled, turned her round, and touched the base of her spine.
Tingling ran down Yimika’s legs, and they began to sway, shift. and slowly move together. She gasped.
“It’s all right, child. Look”
Yimika watched her legs slowly blurring, joining, becoming a beautiful, dazzling bronze tail. Her hair too changed. The fine cloud around her face curled into the long dreadlocks of the merpeople. When the transformation was complete, the tingling stopped and Yemoja let go.
Yimika swished her tail as she had seen the merpeople do, and smiled up at Yemoja.
But Yemoja was gazing at the tiny gems in the girl’s tail, her eyes misty “You are my sister’s daughter, truly. She was born with the rarest gems in her tail, some that do not exist even outside the ocean.
“And she could make the water do as she pleased. Once, she made tiny cubes and crystals of ice and sent them to the riverbank. The humans were excited for days — singing, dancing, offering sacrifices. Try as I might, I cannot do that. We will see if you have your mother’s power.” The goddess gently hugged Yimika. “But for now!…”
Yemoja closed her eyes, emitted visible sound waves that curved their way out the entrance.
Her handmaiden, Daminu, with a pink and brown tail, entered and bowed. “Great One?”
“Teach my niece how to use her tail.”
The mermaid bowed gracefully as Yemoja left.
Yemoja broke the water’s surface where the brown river met the ocean. Thick bushes with brilliant green leaves lined the river. On the bank, at the end of the lone path that led to the village, five servants of the goddess waited.
While the young initiates trembled, Opeifa stood with reverent calm before the goddess he was born to serve. He had known her since he was a young boy and his fear had disappeared with the years. He lowered himself to kneel in the water, where he did not ache and his body knew home.
“Great Yemoja, we have come to ask for our daughter, Yimika. She drowned in this river but her body has not returned to us. Please, goddess, let us have her so we can give her a proper burial.”
“She is mine for now, Opeifa. But prepare to receive her in seven days. And she will be living.” Then she disappeared below the surface, her sinuous tail slapping the water with a resounding boom.
Opeifa bowed with reverent acceptance then groaned as his initiate Ibitoye helped him up from the soothing water.
Ibitoye, still trembling, and in awe, asked “She can bring the girl back!?”
“Yes, child. Now we go home, call the drummers and singers, and wait.”
Yemoja returned to her rooms.
Daminu bowed. “Great One. Your niece learns quickly.” The handmaiden raised her head with a smile that matched Yemoja’s pleased one.
“Thank you, Daminu.”
The handmaiden left quietly and with a pleased swish of her tail.
“Your people came to ask for you. They think you drowned.”
“But didn’t I?”
“You did not drown, Moremi’s daughter. You are a child of the sea. The water will never harm you. I breathed into you, to open the gills on your neck. You will stay here for seven days, and return alive to your village.”
Yimika smiled. “Seven days with you in your beautiful kingdom!”
Yemoja’s chin lifted, “Time to show you just a little of it. And we will get to know one another.”
Late that night, the young initiate Ibitoye awoke to a soft hand on his face. He looked up to see Omidun. She had often brought news and made requests of him, all, she told him, from the goddess. She stood beside him now, in human form. He had always wished to join with her but never dared to speak of it.
“Sit up and do not stare,” she snapped.
He drew his clothes around him, and sat up.
“What message do you bring? Why do you never go to Opeifa?” He hated how breathless he sounded, how his heart thudded against his ribs.
“I have told you, Yemoja sends me specially to you.”
“But she has never commanded my presence, and at the river, she did not seem to notice me.”
Omidun bit her lip and hesitated. “Ibitoye! There is a job for you. If you do it, perhaps you will have special favor in Yemoja’s eyes.”
Ibitoye sat up straight, his body taut. “I am listening.”
“Bring me a basketful of kànrìnkàn-ayaba, ewe, and ibepe.”
The young man stared at her. “Those are poisons! I think you have been lying to me, Omidun, your messages are not from Yemoja.”
“Has not Yemoja sent you sea treasures so your family could have this fine house?”
Ibitoye did not answer immediately, afraid of the wrath of the goddess. “Why do you wish this, Omidun? That much could kill all the merpeople. And the fish as well – what would our village eat?”
Omidun leaned in and caressed his face. She smiled as he leaned into her palm. She breathed on his face, and leaned in closer, whispering in his ear. “But it’s just for… a special project of mine, no harm to anyone, just a small handful of each herb then? And I will pay richly. A bag of the most precious gems. And perhaps we will be together as I know in your heart you have been wishing.” She raised Ibitoye’s face to hers. “So. Will you do this for me?”
Ibitoye smiled drunkenly. “Of course.”
Yimika spent her days enjoying the treasures of the sea. Yemoja gave most of her time to her niece, showing her Moremi’s empire and her own. Yimika saw animals she had never even heard of and merpeople of different shapes and sizes. Some of them came out to greet her and others were too timid, watching shyly from within their caves. They noticed the jewels in her tail and recognized her kinship with their much-loved former queen. Soon, everyone knew Moremi’s daughter had indeed returned.
Yimika met with people from both sides of the sea and saw the merpeoples’ many shades of skin and tail. She met a special little mermaid with blue patches on her green skin, a merman with orange hair and a green tail, and a woman who had a stumped tail and was unable to swim. She had been attacked by a shark, long before Yemoja’s reign began. She watched as women came to Yemoja for help with their fertility. The goddess would lay her hands on their bellies, and bless them.
She told Yimika with a small smile: “My sister could make the water do as she wished, but this is my own gift. I help women, human and Mer, with everything that concerns fertility and childbirth.”
On Yimika’s sixth day, she woke to a tightening in her throat, and a frantic fluttering of her gills. She couldn’t take a breath into her lungs. Her mouth was filled with bitterness, like when she first drank beer and promised herself she would never try it again. She looked out into the courtyard and tried to call for help, but could barely whisper. Her tail felt heavy, and she was sinking. She had no grip.
Omidun came in slowly and hovered over her. Her eyes flashed angry sparks. “How unfortunate for you that you chose this time to visit.”
“Why… ?” Yimika gasped but could say no more. She managed to make silent, visible-form sounds, as Yemoja had. They snaked out of the room, seeking the goddess, but she did not appear. Yimika felt herself dying.
Omidun’s eyes were round and red-rimmed as she glared at Yimika’s sinking form. “Justice! Yemoja killed my brother. My only family! I begged for mercy. But she refused. Now she will suffer. That poison cannot kill her, she is too strong. But it will easily kill you.” She watched with a fierce smile as Yimika crumpled to the ground. “She will see your lifeless body, visit your grave, and remember my brother. She will remember me.”
“Omidun.” A chilling voice came from the doorway.
Through hazy eyes, Yimika saw Omidun jerk as if a spear had been thrown into her back, then spin to face the goddess.
Yemoja rushed to where Yimika lay in a heap, raised her up, and sucked the poisoned water from her lungs and gills. Her skin turned the pallid gray of a week-old corpse.
Taut with rage, back straight, fists clenched at her sides, she turned slowly. “I know of your secret visits to the land. Your treachery against your own people. You have poisoned the daughter of Moremi. I banish you. Go, live on the dry land, and think of your sins into your old age. Go! Before I change my mind and kill you as I had your brother.”
Omidun stared red-eyed at the goddess. “I will never stop until I have my revenge.”
“Then you have sealed your own fate.”
Omidun hissed, but dove off at high speed.
Heavy with the poison, tail transformed to legs, Yemoja slowly made her way to the village. Her first stop was the crumbling brown house where Opeifa lived. She recoiled at the cracking paint, the rats running around even in daylight. But she knocked and waited, so as not to shock the old man.
When he saw his goddess, Opeifa began shakily lowering himself to the ground. But she held him up and massaged his pain away. “Opeifa,” she said, “one of your people is harboring a banished mermaid. Do not ask for him. I may not return him, not even his body.”
He nodded slowly, his eyes lowering to the sand at Yemoja’s feet. “Which of them, great Yemoja?”
“The one they call Ibitoye. Take care, Opeifa.”
He bowed in deference. This time, his body moved easily. He watched Yemoja go and shook his head in pity for young children who went in search of crocodiles when they could not even handle lizards. Then he went back into his home.
Yemoja made her way to Ibitoye’s large, blue home. She smelled humans of different ages and a hint of the sea. She wondered why the unwise child would enjoy so much privilege while Opeifa lived in penury. On the road, people looked at her from the sides of their eyes but knew the stranger was someone not to approach.
She walked straight into the house, following the sea scent to Ibitoye’s room. She found him sleeping. Her mouth twisted at the thought of this boy at peace while her niece almost died due to his ignorance. Beside him, Omidun slept.
Yemoja took a deep breath and let out a high-pitched, ear-splitting keening.
They started awake. Omidun began to shout but froze when she saw Yemoja, her eyes widening like round shells.
“You will die, and die together.” Grasping them both with scaly hands, she dragged them back to the ocean with her.
When she had recovered, she ordered them brought to her court. Merpeople surrounded them, hissing their anger.
“Why did you do it? Ibitoye, you are an initiate!” Her voice deepened. “Omidun, you tried to kill one of your own people!”
Omidun did not beg nor cry. She pinned Yemoja with a hard look. “My brother was one of our own, was he not? And you tore him to pieces like a mere fish. Before my eyes. Without remorse. He disappeared after the great war when we lost our parents, our whole family. When I found out he was close, I hoped …” her face hardened and she swallowed. “He was merely lost. I sought to guide him back to light, but you killed him. I only took my revenge.”
Yemoja rose and her eyes tightened, her hands clenching as if she wanted them around Omidun’s neck. “You wanted pardon for a man who terrorized your own people, his own people, stole from them, killed, killed even Omiyale’s child!”
“He was my kin!” Omidun shrieked. She shook and her face twisted.
“You see nothing past yourself,” Yemoja said in a whisper. She turned to Yimika, who still held a hand to her throat, and said: “I failed to protect you. I apologize, and offer you the perpetrators. I will do with them as you wish.”
Before Yimika could answer, Omidun surged forward with a scream, reaching for Yemoja’s neck. The goddess swatted her down with just a little of her power, but that was enough to kill her. With a sad smile, she gently gave Omidun to her guards and instructed that she be buried with her brother.
There was a long silence in the court. Ibitoye still floated, quivering, in the water. A bubble of air from Yemoja alllowing him to breathe.
“What shall I do with you?” Yemoja wondered. The court was as quiet as a still ocean night.
Yimika swam forward and said softly, “He did not mean to cause harm. Perhaps he will serve you faithfully for the rest of his life in exchange for your mercy.”
“Perhaps,” Yemoja said, and looked thoughtfully at Ibitoye, who nodded frantically. “You will leave your fancy home and take up residence with Opeifa. You will take care of his home and humbly obey him. If you offend me again, I will not be so merciful.” She snapped her fingers, “Take him to the riverbank.”
And he was left on the riverbank, a shivering, babbling slightly wiser initiate.
When Yimika was to return to the land she asked, “Must I go?”
“Yes.” Yemoja clasped the girl’s shoulders. “Things must return to the way they were. There must be balance. It is the way the world is kept sane. When you die on land, you will return. I will hold your territory for you until then. For now, be strong, and live a good human life.”
Yemoja hugged her tight. Yimika did not see the tears that fell but she could feel Yemoja’s soft, transparent scales against her.
Yimika wiped away tears. “ Can I visit?”
“Whenever you like.”
A handmaiden swam forward, bowed, and said, “Yemoja. Preparations are ready to begin.”
“Go,” Yemoja told Yimika. Her eyes shone as she looked at the niece she never knew she had. “Deck yourself in finery fit for Moremi’s daughter, for a daughter of the sea.”
White wrappers were tied around Yimika’s breasts and waist. Around her neck were placed heavy strings of blood-red beads. Her earrings were replaced with small diamonds. Her body was rubbed with oil so that her skin shone.
When preparations were finished, Yemoja touched the base of Yimika’s spine. Her legs separated and her tail disappeared. A bubble of air formed around her head and Yemoja smiled, declaring her ready.
A host of dancers and singers were assembled on the riverbank. Clothed in colorful Aso Oke and white beads, the villagers began a loud celebration to welcome the daughter of the water who was returning to the land of the humans.
Yimika saw that the entire village stood along the riverbank. There was dancing, and they started singing her praises. It was so different – all her life she had merely blended into the shadows and watched the world pass her by. As she rose out of the water she noticed her clothes did not drip. Yemoja must have done something, she thought and started to cry, missing the new life she had just found and was already leaving behind.
As her tears flowed, the waves grew violent, and the once peaceful river started to surge, rushing around the feet of the people on the riverbank. The music and dancing grew faltered.
She raised her hands and turned her palms to the water, then curved them in and drew them to her chest. Her body tingled from the tips of her toes to the top of her head and there was a tightening in her chest. The water swayed like a child at her mother’s feet. It fought but answered Yimika’s call. She drew the water to her and it answered her call. The waves calmed and the water began to retreat. The villagers cheered and began to dance again.
Yimika looked beneath the waves and saw Yemoja nodding proudly up at her. Her destiny was sure now; she knew without a doubt she was Moremi’s daughter, that she would always have a home in the sea. Her tears dried and she bowed her chest with pride and continued to walk toward land, away from her family. She knew, though, that she would be back.
“Yemoja” © Simbiat Haroun, First published here in Cosmic Roots & Eldritch Shores, November 27, 2021
Simbiat Haroun is a writer from Lagos, Nigeria. Her work has been published or forthcoming in Omenana, Kalahari Review, and Brittle Paper. She was longlisted for the 2020 Awele Creative Trust Award. Simbiat is an alumna of the 2018 Purple Hibiscus Creative Trust Writing Workshop.”
illustration by Fran Eisemann
You can comment on this story and artwork at The Forums, on our Twitter page, and on our facebook page.
You can Subscribe to one of our sliding scale subscriptions to receive notifications of future publications, and to help us bring you more stories, artwork, podcasts, and articles.