By Nnedi Okorafor
Ulu lay on her chubby belly playing with her new chemistry set. The living room was her favorite place in the house with its cool wooden floor and many ebony lions, masks and warriors her father liked to collect. It always smelled so sweet around this time because the tree outside liked to bloom in the afternoon. She grinned as she considered the next concoction she would mix. She picked up a clean test tube from her rack. The large screen TV in front of her was off and so was the computer in the corner.
Ulu wanted to be a chemist when she grew up. Just like her uncle Andrew who lived in Calabar where he tested the chemical balance of the Cross River. A month ago, he’d sat her down and told her about how he’d sprinkle bitter smelling chemicals into test tubes filled with red liquid and how some would fizz and change color and some wouldn’t.
“Why?” Ulu had asked, her eyes sparkling with curiosity.
“It’s complicated,” her uncle replied, plopping his feet on the coffee table. At that moment, Ulu’s mother walked by and gave him a dirty look. He put his feet back on the floor. “Some places along the river were polluted and some were not.”
“So you’re helping to keep the river clean?” she asked. Her uncle nodded.
From that point on, Ulu had bragged to everyone about how she’d be the greatest chemist ever. She loved the idea of keeping the water clean and sweet for the fish, crocodiles, insects, hippos, sea cows and all the other creatures living in it. And from what her uncle told her, there was a definite order to chemicals. Everything always made sense, like math. Ulu loved for things to be organized.
“You should buy her a chemistry set,” her uncle had told her parents before he left. Her mother didn’t like the idea but her father had said, “Maybe.”
Ulu nearly fainted with excitement when her father had come home yesterday with the chemistry set.
“I thought about it for a while and discussed it extensively with your mother,” he had said, with a grand smile. “And we decided that chemicals might do you some good.”
And so here Ulu sat looking at her brand new chemistry set and thinking about science. She got up to check the dictionary. The entry for the word, “chemical” said: “a substance obtained by a chemical process or used for producing a chemical effect.”
Then everything is a chemical, she thought, for isn’t everything going through a “chemical” process? They can’t even define the word without using the word twice! She sat back down and smiled, pleased with herself. She felt like a true chemist, doing what chemists did.
She wiped her brow. She was hot, even in her light green dress. The windows were open, letting in fresh air and humidity along with the scent of the honeysuckle tree. Next to her was a plate of fried juicy plantain. She popped one into her mouth and savored its yummy tanginess, regardless of the bitter taste from the chemicals on her fingers. Outside, to her relief, thunder rumbled on the horizon.
She put the test tubes in their holder and lined up the tiny white chemical bottles, tapping on each of their red caps. The labels read strange silly things she couldn’t pronounce like sodium silicate, ferric ammonium sulfate, cupric sulfate, logwood indicator, and phenolphthalene, so she didn’t bother alphabetizing them. Instead she arranged them by the length of their names—longest to shortest.
This was just how Ulu was. She neatly made her bed every morning. She ate breakfast at ten o’clock every Saturday morning. During school, on weekdays, she ate breakfast at six a.m. sharp. After she’d fried her eggs and plantain, she’d always click on the television to watch whatever cartoon she could find for exactly a half-hour. Her father understood this love of order his daughter had.
“When I saw it in Ugorgi’s store,” her father had said grinning when he brought the set home to Ulu. “I knew you’d like it.”
“Well, I hope you paid that shady man in cash,” her mother said. “You never know where he gets the merchandise for that store of his.”
“Of course I paid in cash,” her father said, taking the cup of tea her mother handed him. “But you must admit, his merchandise is awfully interesting.”
Her mother humphed. Ulu knew why. Though Ugorgi’s wares fascinated Ulu’s father, they annoyed her mother. Ulu had been holding her mother’s hand as they’d walked past the shop one day and a dog with six legs came running out. It tripped over its legs and then got up and waddled up to Ulu and her mother. Ulu squealed with delight and let the dog slobber on her hand.
“He’s so cute!” Ulu had said. “Nothing like that annoying dog next door.”
The dog next door was constantly barking at nothing and he liked to do it at night. Her mother said there was probably a wood sprite living in the yard that enjoyed harassing it. Ulu thought the dog was just poorly behaved. The dog she was currently petting didn’t bark once and nothing but love to give.
It looked up at her with big brown eyes, its light blue tongue hanging out the side of its wide mouth as it happily panted. Its shaggy brown fur smelled like hay and lilacs. It shook its behind rigorously as if to compensate for the tail it didn’t have.
“Such a sweet puppy,” her mother had said, kneeling down to pat the pooch on the head. “But it was probably born in someone’s lab in Lagos.”
Ugorgi had come running out. He stopped when he saw them with the dog. He smiled sheepishly, linking a finger around the dog’s collar. “Sorry, sister,” he said to Ulu’s mother. “He gets very excited when pretty ladies walk by.”
“You should keep him caged,” she said, looking him in the eye. “What if a car had been driving by?”
“Don’t worry,” Ugorgi said. “He’s smarter than that. He even knows how to unlock the door to his cage, as you can see.”
Ugorgi sold all sorts of strange things at his shop but Ulu didn’t care where her father got the chemistry set. Though she did wonder about the name: The Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set. Chaos magician was another name for juju man or witchdoctor, people who worked true magic by mastering the art of confusion. She’d heard her father joke about the chaos magicians in Calabar, often jokingly calling her uncle one.
“Why should I not suspect you,” her father laughed one night as he and her uncle drank palm wine. “With all those substances you work with, you could be bending the universe instead of studying its order.”
Her uncle chuckled, shook his head and said, “Chaos magicians have far more fun than chemists.”
The name of the chemistry set didn’t make sense. Chemistry was about order. Maybe they just wanted an exciting name, she thought.
On the front of the box it showed a boy who Ulu thought looked like her little cousin. The boy wore plastic work glasses and thick gloves. He was holding up a test tube and grinning. Inside the box were a scale, glass tubes, bottles filled with chemicals, tiny spoons, and stoppers.
Ulu held the test tube of chemicals she’d just mixed and felt annoyed. All the mix had done was turn from blue to a light yellow. Just as the booklet said it would. “Big deal,” she grumbled. The booklet didn’t offer the recipe for anything really appealing. She looked at the tubes of chemicals and then did something very unlike herself. She randomly grabbed one, opened it and spooned some of it into the test tube.
She grinned, despite the discomfort she felt at her rare bout of spontaneity. Something interesting was finally happening. The mix turned from blue, to yellow, to grey, to red, orange and now to green and the test tube was growing hot. She quickly put it in the holder and watched. The concoction began to fizz.
“Hee hee!” she snickered like a mad scientist. She put a cork stopper in the tube so that it wouldn’t overflow. The color suddenly changed to black and then “Plick!” The test tube exploded, spattering Ulu’s face with chemicals. She frantically wiped at her cheeks, spitting, as the smell of farts permeated the room. There were bits of glass and drops of black ooze all over the newspaper she’d spread and on the floor. Nostrils flared, Ulu ran to the bathroom to get some paper towels. When she returned to the room, her parents were standing over the mess looking perplexed.
“Phew, what is that?” her father said coming in, fanning his nose.
“I was just… mixing some stuff and…”
“It smells horrible!” her mother said. “It’s all over the house!”
Ulu scrambled to the floor and started wiping with the paper towel. The smell was growing stronger but it still bore the semblance of farts.
“I don’t know what happened,” Ulu said, holding her nose. Outside the storm that had been approaching had arrived, it thundered wildly and shattered the sky with lightening. Ulu heard barking and looked out the window. She frowned. The neighbor’s loud grey-black German shepherd was at it again, throwing its head back and barking at nothing.. No, she thought, this time it’s at the sky. Usually it was looking at the bushes or up at a tree when it barked. This time it was looking up. It stopped barking, gnawed at the fence and then dug in the neighbor’s garden. Ulu’s grandmother would have said the dog was infected with an angry spirit.
“What’s that dog’s problem,” her mother asked. She sucked her teeth said. “They should take him to be checked.”
The three of them stood listening to the dog until the rain started and Mrs. Offor came out and ushered the distraught animal inside. Ulu imagined it was probably barking and knocking things over in the house now.
Ulu stopped wiping up the mess and went to the window. Outside the palm trees were bending in the wind, sheets of rain falling from the sky. It looked fairly normal, like any other storm. So why don’t things feel normal, she wondered? She glanced back at the chemistry set and then at her parents. They were still standing where they were, frowning and listening.
“Something’s wrong,” her mother whispered.
“Ulu, come away from the window,” her father suddenly said. Ulu quickly moved into her mother’s arms. The three of them huddled together on the couch listening to the storm outside. The room still reeked of farts. Ulu imagined one of the creatures from her Moomin novels, a huge mangy hattifattener perhaps, hiding under the house, his butt in the air as he farted nonstop. But Ulu was no longer that concerned with it so much. Outside had started to sound like a battle was going on.
Those who have watched a thunderstorm closely know when they are finishing; the rain tapers, the thunder shrinks to a grumble and the lightening retreats. The wind moves on, too, Ulu thought groggily. She’d fallen asleep on the couch. Her mother and father were still sitting up, with stiff backs, their faces tense as they listened to every sound from outside. The rain had stopped and the thunder and lightning had gone away and the wind had settled but… Ulu sat up.
“I don’t know,” her mother was saying to her father. “I’m afraid to get up.”
Her father was staring at the window, his dark face glistening with perspiration, his lips pressed together. Then he walked to the window and opened it. He stuck his hand outside and frowned more deeply. Outside, Ulu could see the leaves and branches of the mahogany and palm trees were swaying angrily like grieving women.
“The air is still,” he said. “But the trees are still beating themselves up.”
Then it dawned on Ulu what was going on. But her fear remained because she had no idea how to make it right.
Her father looked at her mother, who shrugged and shook her head.
“I don’t know,” her mother blankly said again.
But Ulu knew. She should never have added that spontaneous scoop of whatever it was. It wasn’t like her to do such a thing. From where she stood, she could look out the window and see the damage she had caused. In the sky the clouds circled, moderately fast, as if they were pacing the skies. Waiting for something to happen. Ulu had no idea what would happen. She wasn’t a chaos magician. She wasn’t even a chemist!
“What’s going on?” Ulu asked, overwhelmed with guilt. She remembered three years ago when she’d accidentally broken a window when she tried to swat a fly with a pan. She’d felt nauseated with responsibility. Now she felt the same way, except it was a thousand times worse. I’ve broken the world, she thought.
Her mother was about to say something when a wet gurgling sound came from the kitchen. Then there were four thumps, each growing progressively louder, angrier. The three of them linked hands and crept slowly forward until the kitchen was in sight. There was thick black fluid oozing from the faucet, filling the sink. Ulu could smell it, farts hundreds of times more lethal than her exploding test tube. Curls of white smoke crept out of the sink. It was dissolving the metal.
Then several things happened at once. Explosions from upstairs. A ripping sound from outside. And tiny white puffball mushrooms spouted from the floor. Ulu had no idea how long she had been standing there, but her mouth was still hanging open when her father snatched her up and ran outside, her mother leading the way.
Outside, the air smelled like a thousand roses and even as her father carried her, Ulu sneezed. The air was so muggy that Ulu felt as if she’d been doused with a bucket of water. They ran from the house toward the street where the car was parked.
“Get in!” her father screamed over all the clamor, his low voice cracking. The noise was a jumble of cracking, bonding, exploding, dragging, spurting, tearing and burning. They piled into the silver Mercedes, Ulu in the backseat. But her father didn’t have the keys, so they simply ducked down inside as low as they could go.
“Look out there!” her father shrieked. “It’s… chaos! Did you see that chicken just walk by! It was something right out of someone’s oven! I can still smell the curry and pepper it was cooked with!”
Ulu pressed her cheek to the car seat, her eyes shut tightly as she tried to make sense of things.
She remembered a story that her mother always read to her about the hen. Was it called “The Sky is Falling?” She thought so. She could always identify with the pain the hen must have felt. How horrible for the sky to start falling. Things as the hen knew it, would never be the same. She shivered as she realized she had become that hen and in this story, the sky wasn’t falling, the world was ending. And it was all her fault for not following the directions with that stupid chemistry set.
But after a while, when nothing blew up, ate, or fell on the car, Ulu’s heart began to slow down, her legs started to cramp, the shock wore off and, like any eight-year-old, she got curious. She rose up a bit and peeked out the window with wide eyes. Her eyes grew wider when she saw just how crazy things had gotten.
A yam that had sprouted hairy brown legs walked by whistling to itself. Some of the palm trees had uprooted and re-rooted themselves in different places, but many still lurched about leaving a trail of soil, raffia and oily red palm kernels. A few people were running about, their clothes drenched. One man fell to the ground, only to get up minutes later and stumble into his house.
The neighbors’ dog was sitting in front of its house panting, its pink tongue dripping with saliva. The dog whined three times and then backed away as if it had seen something standing before it. Then it curled its tail and sat down hard on the grass, pulling its legs in close and pressing its head against its paws.
It took Ulu a few moments to realize that the dog was actually shrinking. His legs and muzzle grew shorter, his fur softer. Then it got up, now an awkward puppy and began to walk backwards across the driveway and behind the house. The air kept making a popping sound, as if some invisible beast were cracking its knuckles.
Then Ulu had an idea. She didn’t have time to be afraid. Everything depended on her. She had to act fast. A high-pitched sound made her ears itch and she ducked back down. Slowly she rose up again. It sounded like concentrated voices.
Ulu quietly cracked the car door open a bit. She stopped. The itchy high-pitched sound was louder. She could hear it more clearly. Voices. From right below her. She looked down in the dirt and saw a colony of ants moving across the street.
She gasped. “They’re talking!” She strained to hear them through all the noise. They were arguing. It seemed there was an upheaval and the colony was in pandemonium. “But what is an ant colony if its queen has… exploded!” one of them was shouting. She couldn’t tell which ant was speaking, they were too small.
“She was assassinated!” another ant screamed. “She couldn’t have exploded! Nobody knows how to do that! It’s impossible!”
“I was there!” another ant said. “She was resting after laying the last batch of eggs, then she suddenly looked surprised and… blew up!”
After a while every ant began to yell and Ulu could no longer make anything out. She leaned out of the car some more, lowering her ear closer to the ground so she could hear more clearly. A gust of wind from out of nowhere suddenly pushed the car door wide open and she tumbled out.
“Oh, no,” she whimpered, raising her hand. She wiped the smashed ants that stuck to her hand on her shorts and didn’t look at the ones mashed into the driveway. She cautiously got up, her legs shaky.
“Ulu! Get back in here!” her father yelled from behind her. She looked toward the garage door. The air might as well have been tinted a rose color, the smell was so strong. She’d always loved the smell of roses. Her grandmother used to rub rose oil on her neck when she was having a bad day.
“It purifies the senses,” she said.
Her nose tickled, threatening a sneeze. A tree trudged by only yards away from her. One long root slithered forward, like a side-winding snake, then another and then another. They latched to the ground and pulled it forward. Then more roots came around from the other side to do the same thing. They left grooves in the dirt road. But once the tree had passed, sprouts poked up in the grooves and soon budded into tiny red flowers.
Ulu’d only taken two steps when something large flew past her head, nicking her left ear. She heard her mother scream. She gasped, tripped over her feet and fell down. She could hear whatever it was caw twice. Ulu screeched and dropped to the ground just in time to avoid the small blue flying lizard’s second attack. It flew back high into the air. Then it must have spotted easier prey for it didn’t try to attack again.
The lizard bite on her ear stung like the hottest fire. She could feel it bleeding.
“I-I-I’m okay,” Ulu said to herself, her voice shaky, her chest hitching. Her head stung and she felt overwhelmed, scared and confused. She tried to hold back the tears and didn’t succeed.
“Move,” she grumbled, ignoring the shouts from her parents to get back into the car. Her father was scrambling over the front seat to the back. Soon he would grab her and then she wouldn’t be able to do what she knew she had to do. And so she ran. She ran over the lawn toward the house, past a group of battling orange and green lizards and green tree frogs and through a cloud of floating wingless ants.
When she got to the front door, she looked back to see her parents coming after her. Behind them, she saw a group of trees trudging across the street. Black sludge oozed from between the bushes, like rotten puss from a burst pimple. Ulu was willing to bet that it smelled very, very bad. The wild grass grew feet high and then blew into the streets as dry straw.
“I’m going inside!” she shouted.
Inside was even crazier than outside. The walls were shaking and the chairs were trying to hide. There was black ooze running from the kitchen and mushrooms growing on the floor. The very air seemed to be exploding and one of their houseplants gave a great roar. And in the middle of the living room was a big white hole that sank to who knew where. She could see the chemistry set against the wall. She made a run for it, staying close to the wall, and as far from the white hole as possible.
She didn’t notice the houseplant. It had been a plant that her mother had nurtured for years. A creeping plant with waxy green leaves. Up until today, it had been harmless and lovely. Now it behaved like an angry leafy octopus intent on not letting Ulu pass. It whipped one of its vines as Ulu tried to go by, slashing a cut in her forehead. She jumped back, shocked, warm blood dribbling down her face.
She stood there, distraught, overcome with complete and total fear. The plant had become a monster and if she didn’t move away from it quickly, it would attack again. It attacked; this time whipping a cut on her arm. She whimpered, stumbling backward on shaky legs.
“Ulu!” she heard her mother shout.
“Shit! Get her!” she heard her father shout.
They would be on her any moment, to drag her back and away. They didn’t know what she had to do. That this was the only way. But she was frozen with fear. She could hear them coming, slowly, as they probably stared at the white hole. And she could see the plant preparing to attack again, pulling in its vines. Her arm stung and her forehead felt itchy; her ear was still hot. But if she didn’t act, all this would continue and she knew it would only get worse. On top of this, it would be all her fault.
Stinging and terrified, she fell to her knees, blood from the cut in her forehead dribbling into one of her eyes. Nevertheless, the moment she felt her father’s hand on her shoulder, she sprang forward. The plant was confused by the presence of her parents and instead threw its vines at them. Ulu dodged past the plant and was out of reach before it could recover and launch an attack.
“What are you trying to do?” her mother shouted. The snapping and whipping plant kept both of them back.
“I’m not sure,” she shouted above all the noise. She looked nervously at the gaping white hole in the middle of the living room. “B-but I think it might work.”
The hole in the living room looked like something she was sure one would die in if she fell in. Like one’s lungs would explode, one’s skin would dissolve from the acid inside it, like it was full of disorder, she thought. She could smell the rotten stench of the black ooze from the kitchen.
Ulu quickly got to her knees. And with shaking hands, she placed the bottles in alphabetical order. Then one by one, she took a scoop of measured chemicals and dumped them into a test tube. When she added the last chemical, she mixed it carefully. The brew gave off a small puff of black smoke but that was all. She carefully put the tube into the tube holder and then stood back.
“There,” she said.
She stood up and turned around. The houseplant seemed to have calmed down and slowly, she stepped around it. It turned as she slowly moved past. It still seemed to breathe heavily with anger but it did not attack.
“Oh thank God!” her mother said, immediately grabbing Ulu’s hand. She hugged Ulu tightly and used her shirt to dab some of the blood from Ulu’s brow. “Are you alright!”
Ulu could only frown, trying to hold back her tears of pain and shock. She felt tired.
“Come,” her father said, taking her other hand, his eyes looking dark and exhausted. “Let’s go back outside. It’s safer there.”
When they got back into the car, they waited. Ulu didn’t know what they were waiting for but she already noticed a slight change. A coolness in the previously hot and humid air.
Then it happened. A tiny purple egg appeared on the horizon above the swaying trees. It slowly grew larger and larger, engulfing the sky as it expanded. By the time it got to be a few houses away Ulu was sure that she and her mother and father were about to be swallowed by a giant beast, either that or simply annihilated. She was too stunned to move, as were her parents. It was beautiful.
The blue purple haze passed over them with an enormous whoosh. Blowing even her mother’s thick Afro back. The treetops were whipped forward, houses lost their roofs, garden fences were blown horizontal. Then it all stopped and everything fell back into place like blocks into their respective holes. Almost. The breeze was normal, the temperature was significantly cooler, and the air smelled fresh and clean and new, like just after a thunderstorm.
“I told you about that man!” Ulu’s mother said in the hospital lobby.
“Yes, my wife, you were right. I won’t buy from him again,” her father said, looking miserably at the stitches that Ulu had had to get in her forehead. There had been a long, long line at the emergency room, and they were all tired.
“He should be closed down,” her mother grumbled. But Ulu knew she didn’t mean it. Her mother probably felt it was more their fault. They should have looked more closely at the chemistry set directions and cautions before giving it to Ulu. Ulu knew her own part in it. Ugorgi was just a salesman specializing in eccentric goods.
That very day, there was a lot of cleaning up to do and the kitchen sink simply had to be replaced. Ulu took her Chaos Magician’s Mega Chemistry Set and threw it all in its box. On the way to the garbage, she stopped and looked at it. For the first time, she noticed some very small writing in red on the bottom right hand corner of the box. She brought it close to her face so she could read it. It said:
Warning: This set contains chemicals that may be harmful if misused and has the potential to greatly disrupt the local atmosphere and time fabrics. Use at your own risk. Not to be used by children except under adult supervision. If chemicals are improperly mixed, immediately arrange and mix chemicals in order and wait for results. Then take cover because most of the time this does not work!
It went on to say the same thing again in Yoruba, German, Igbo, English, Efik, Arabic, Urdu, and Spanish.
Ulu quietly but quickly threw out the chemistry set.
She no longer wanted to be a chemist. It was too close to being a chaos magician, especially if you didn’t know what you were doing. Maybe I’ll be an emergency room doctor instead, she thought.
The day after it all happened, Ulu’s father, who was a psychological counselor, was swamped with patients seeking help in coping with what had happened. One woman who came to him had been trapped in her bathroom with large spiders that had hatched from the garden eggs she grew behind her house.
“I hate spiders and these ones were covered with white hair, had twice as many legs and were very aggressive!” she whispered.
Another man came to his office still crying, saying that the ghost of his mother had plagued him for hours.
“I know I have not done as well as I could but I’m trying!” he cried. “She refused to understand that.”
Another man said he couldn’t forget the image of two of his yams sprouting tiny root legs and arms, and then slicing up his third yam and cooking it.
“It was the best fried yam and palm oil I had ever eaten,” he sobbed guiltily. “But it seemed like murder!”
Ulu’s mother stopped by Ugorgi’s shop to give him a few words. Of course, his shop was closed for the day. She humphed, “It figures.”
There was minor damage to homes, including several blown off roofs and one front door that had been eaten by a giant bush rat. There were more than a few trees that had moved themselves to places that were more opportune for growth, and the ants that year were especially persistent and vicious. The Offor’s dog remained a puppy but it still liked to bark at the wood sprites in the backyard.
Originally published in Space and Time Magazine issue #101
Nnedi Okorafor is a novelist of Nigerian descent known for weaving African culture into creative evocative settings and memorable characters. In a profile of Nnedi’s work titled, “Weapons of Mass Creation”, The New York Times called Nnedi’s imagination “stunning”. Her novels include Who Fears Death (winner of the 2011 World Fantasy Award for Best Novel), Akata Witch (a 2011 Amazon.com Best Book of the Year), Zahrah the Windseeker (winner of the Wole Soyinka Prize for African Literature), and The Shadow Speaker (winner of the CBS Parallax Award). Her children’s book Long Juju Man is the winner of the Macmillan Writer’s Prize for Africa. Her first comic “The Elgort” was released in the Mystery in Space anthology (DC Comics/Vertigo) in May and her chapter book Iridessa and the Secret of the Never Mine (Disney Press) is scheduled for release in late 2012. Nnedi holds a PhD in Literature and is a professor of creative writing at Chicago State University. Visit Nnedi at nnedi.com.