We’re excited to publish an excerpt from Okezie Nwọka’s debut novel, God of Mercy. The novel begins in an uncolonized Igbo village, where a young girl’s sudden ability to fly ignites a war between gods and divides a community. The protagonist, Ijeọma, is eventually exiled and imprisoned in a neighboring village by Christians who believe her gift to be a sign of witchcraft. With its unique rhythm and magical rendering of Igbo cosmology, God of Mercy is an immersive meditation on the beauty of tradition and the dangers of dogma.
There is the final truth; and Ijeọma knew it resided within her, tinier than a speck, when the blowing wind became like wings and her feet shook the branches of the leaning orange tree, knocking Ichulu’s dust to the ground. It drew her upward, raising her like smoke from a burning fire, raising her to the nests of nza birds and the first scatterings of light from Anyanwụ, the divine sun. She rested there, suspended like fruit too precious to pluck or a thought too erratic to name. She rose to the sky, and nobody was there to see it.
The reasoning lay in her wind-blown wings. The pleasure lay there, too. And they joined with her spirit, to beat steadily, steadily, deep like the udu, deepening that which was lifted, that which her thoughts and body followed.
Her fingers stretched before curling inward toward her palms; her chest now rose upward, then fell to greet her heart—while the prickly dots, like a million rose thorns, flashed across her left cheek, then her lips, then her right earlobe; before passing into the air—returning to its abode—as she let out a sigh and magnified the wonder.
Tears were trembling in her eyes, and through them Ijeọma saw a single vision, printed past Igwe, the divine sky, with her lips moving: counting then recounting the faces of ancestors, and the faces of those unknown, celebrating their names, with promises guided by much hope. A promise of many prayers to those little ones, those whom she had not yet seen, those looking through her with truth and kindness, as she prayed and promised and felt more stilled than death itself, and in that stillness found the greatest of life—and in that life praised the Most Supreme for making any thing or one possible.
She closed her eyes. The sky closed, too: full clouds colliding within a moment. And Ijeọma found her feet touching the earth, and clutched her hands, now warm from the evening light; and she did not understand it all, not the faint vibrations in her bones, or the smell of sky-bound dust, or the rupture of what was thought to be known and understood as she heard Ọfọdile’s footsteps, and ran through the compound to hide and find understanding in Nnenna’s red-clay home.
“Ijeọma, where are you running?” Nnenna said, sitting airily by the house where food was stored. There was no response from the one called her daughter, and Nnenna turned her head, too tired to inquire after one child when another was latched to her breast suckling milk; she was nursing Chelụchi while resting in pleasant thoughts, while humming songs of peace, peace which would leave her body and enter that of the infant child to pursue and expel every kind of evil. And she stopped humming when she saw Ọfọdile mouthing words of shame, when she greeted the one called her husband, and he responded with offense in his glance—she knew that his efforts to save Ụzọdị had failed and she wanted to speak with him, to ease his frustrations, but his spirit felt cold when he passed her. So she stilled her lips, detached Chelụchi from her nipple, and dismissed those rising thoughts revealing her as the one telling Ezinne, the mother of Ụzọdị, that the one once called her son would not be returning to their home.
“Mama of mine, hunger is hungering me,” said Nnamdị, the one called Nnenna’s only son, while rubbing his belly with his right and left hands, looking at the one called his mother, who sighed a sigh, knowing she had little time to prepare a meal.
“My father, I have heard you,” she said to the one called her son. “Go and get Ijeọma.”
Nnamdị ran forward into Nnenna’s red-clay home and returned with the one called his sister in his hands, pulling her toward a standing Nnenna, who was wrapping Chelụchi around her back.
“Ijeọma,” Nnenna began, “go to the forest by the stream, and collect the firewood that I will use to make yam porridge . . . Have you heard me?”
Ijeọma nodded three times to Nnenna, with her eyes still and facing the earth, with her gaze focusing upon its dust as she nodded three times again, nodding yes to Nnenna, then quickly leaving for the firewood. She hurried along, thinking of what had happened above the orange tree, losing breaths to the awe of what she had seen, holding its joy, wanting to spread it across Ichulu and past the mighty banks of Idemili. The feeling she held: it was so piercingly simple she deemed it greater than any tickle or touch, greater than the little rocks pressing beneath her feet, as she thought of how to sign for it, and wondered whether it could be signed for at all.
And her thoughts of wonder continued, following her along the narrow path that led to the stream, but dropping like dust once she saw the one called her kin, walking to the Place of Osu. He cannot see me! she said within herself, trembling at the thought of being blamed for his exile, believing he had lost any pity for her. So she ran; she ran as quickly as she could, hurrying her legs through the bush, letting the PAT-PAT-PAT of her feet raise the tempo of her frame, feeling her heart leaping in her chest, touching the ground under her feet, AH where is the ground where is the ground—
“Chei! What am I seeing?” Ụzọdị whispered, his voice pointing Nwabụeze to the sky. They stood bewildered, mouths peeling open; they could not speak. And they saw her. Under the parting clouds and beneath the rays of Anyanwụ, they saw Ijeọma accept the sun’s libations with her eyes—watched her reach toward the haze of Igwe and strike calm and ecstasy—witnessed her relish her welcome like a newborn dragonfly; watched her smile, watched the birds flap their wings in celebration of the wild image cast upon their eyes; heard the humble wind whistle and sing, then whistle and sing over and again.
“Who has given this girl the power to fly?” asked Nwabụeze as they gathered around Ijeọma’s dappled shadow. She was levitating: her body was dangling above the ground, near the fruits of a slender palm tree. The question was not answered; and the two very young men looked on, transfixed; and the two very young men beneath the slender shadow soon grew to a crowd swelling with awe, as many people were now looking upon Ijeọma, and asking how her flying could be; knowing that their rising curiosity was not the result of unprecedented history, since the tradition of Ichulu was built upon those who had accomplished the extraordinary: some who had spoken the language of the sacred python and others who had spat flames from their mouths. There was one, even, whom the village would sing of, one who had flown from beyond the banks of Idemili to return to the village of Ichulu. His name was Solomtochukwu, but Ichulu called him Solomto for short, and he was an ancestor who had died many harvests ago; he was an ancestor both honored and remembered.
Suddenly—Ijeọma returned to the earth, descending as gently as a leaf. And once her feet touched the ground, her eyes lost their transfixion to the sun, and she saw the people around her, then signed to them, pointing to her eyes.
“Who has made it so that the mute can fly!” they said among themselves. “Is it that Solomto has returned?”
“We do not know,” Nwabụeze said. “But what is she doing? Why is she showing us her eyes?”
“I do not know,” said Ụzọdị. “I do not know. Ijeọma. . . .” He held her arm, then quickly releasing his hand since it was becoming warm. “Ijeọma, who has made it so that you can fly,” he whispered, “And why are you showing us your eye?”
Ijeọma tried with much difficulty to answer, signing signs with her arms and hands and fingers, searching around herself, looking for translation as she held Ụzọdị’s arms, then held the arms of those around them. How can they know it, she thought while signing signs, tapping her chest, You do not understand, all of this, you are being told, understand my jumping, look at it, look, look. Touching their faces, all of their faces, the girls and the men, all of those gathered, she touched their faces, holding them, wiping them, letting her fingers lift, surprise, and ease them, watching their faces almost surrender to the words she so desperately wanted to give, watching some lull as if in a dream. She moved again, signing signs over and again. Still, she could neither communicate what she saw in the sky nor the fact that she did not fully know the power behind her levitations.
“I will take her home and show her to her father,” said Ụzọdị.
“That is wise,” said Nwabụeze, “Let me follow you.”
“That is beautiful,” Ụzọdị said.
And the crowd dispersed with questions and with wonder: two ingredients for crafting accolade and gossip. And they had forgotten—through new concerns—that their outcasts were reentering the village, as their little ones were running and jumping with glee, singing the song of Solomto:
Solomto, Solomto has found his home.
Solomto, Solomto has given us a path.
Solomto flew above the ocean and through the air,
Solomto, Solomto will emerge from his grave.