“When We Call a Place Home” by Chinelo Onwualu

Fabric resist and dye piece depicting the moon over the ocean.

When We Call a Place Home

by Chinelo Onwualu

Art by Nina Miller

The vampire Nesiret stood at the cliff’s furthest edge and looked out over the water. She’d been woken by a dream: a vision of three ships with neither sails nor motors, cutting silently through the dark seas. Nesiret had never seen their like. Alarmed, she’d gone up to the lookout to confirm her fears.

Yes, they were coming: She couldn’t see them yet, but she could sense them—as sure as a storm.

A shy sliver of moon provided little light to guide her back home, but Nesiret didn’t need any. More than 500 years old, she still moved like a youngling, slipping lightly down the treacherous path towards the homestead her people had carved deep into the soft volcanic rock of the cliff.

The sky was lightening by the time she reached the stone steps to the settlement’s first watchtower. Before the collapse, this was the hour Nesiret would seek a cool dark space to sleep, but in the two centuries since the Lost World’s end, her kind had learned new rhythms. New ways of being.

“Great-grandmother, you are worried,” said a voice from the shadows of the watchtower’s keep. It was Nya and their twin Wokum, the latest of her adoptees, waiting for her as they always did when she disappeared on a midnight jaunt. Nya draped a warm wool shawl over her shoulders and Wokum pressed a cup of hot cordial into her hands. Though Nesiret’s nature required neither, she welcomed these acts of care.

“I am worried, yes,” Nesiret admitted. She used her free hand to sign her words for Wokum’s benefit as she talked. “I had a vision. I need your help to understand its meaning.”

The dream of the ships, yes? Wokum signed. I had it too. They sailed upon a sea of blood and left fire and terror in their wake.

The new details rattled Nesiret, reminding her of another time when mysterious ships had landed on the shores of her homeland in ancient West Africa.

“We must know more,” she said. “Will you come with me to the library? I fear its classification systems these days confound me.”

“Of course, Great-grandmother,” said Nya. The two fell into step on either side of her as they entered the thrumming heart of the homestead.

***

Centuries before, the human and vampire survivors of the Lost World had created this homestead—and all the others like it across the planet—as a last resort to keep themselves alive. The chaos that followed the old world’s end had shown that its violent hierarchies were unsustainable. Domination always depleted those at the bottom, gnawing away at a society’s foundations until its inevitable collapse. A new way was needed. It fell to the vampires, who had living memories of the horrors of the world before, to help guide humanity as it rebuilt itself into benign anarchies free of hierarchies or formal governance. But the vampires were dying out. In this homestead, Nesiret was the last of her kind. What would happen once she was gone?

Though it was early, the homestead was alive with activity. Caregivers carried infants on morning walks, and the crew whose turn it was to clean the streets was already hard at work. Every resident—including children, the elderly, and the disabled, according to their interest and capacity—was expected to help keep the homestead running. Nesiret herself would be due for farm duty in a few hours. She and the twins called out friendly greetings to those they passed and received cheerful responses in turn. But underneath the liveliness, the old vampire could sense a quiet unease.

As the three of them crossed the open marketplace, they saw that those with goods to barter had already laid out wares on mats and tables, while those who wished to entertain tuned instruments and adjusted costumes. But it was far too early for crowds—as if the whole homestead had woken from a nightmare and was keeping busy to quiet its mind.

The library, too, was unusually occupied. Tutors were already setting up their classes, even though most of their students wouldn’t be due for hours. And a judicial committee prepared to meet, those on duty as justices for the day whispering encouragement and comfort to a crying transgressor. Even here, Nesiret could feel the disquiet; it rustled across her skin like an ill wind.

They chose a terminal and began their search. Nya navigated, pulling up videos, still images, and archival entries on nautical technologies from around the world. It didn’t take long to find what they were looking for—and it chilled Nesiret’s heart. With the death of their vampire, a homestead in the northern wastelands had lost sight of their own history and fallen back into the destructive ways of the Lost World. First, they’d allowed rigid hierarchies and gendered roles to calcify their society. Soon, charismatic men were able to consolidate power and develop powerful versions of Lost World weapons. Now, they were sending out “exploratory” vessels to contact other homesteads. Despite their stated aims, Nesiret had no doubt these men from the north intended to use their adapted technology to subjugate others for their own benefit.

“Those ships are merely the beginning,” she said. “There will be others, and all of our visions of death and destruction will come to pass. We must convene a gathering immediately.”

She caught the look that passed between the two siblings. There hadn’t been a need to hold a meeting involving the entire homestead in all their 25 years.

“Great-grandmother, are you sure?” asked Nya. “If they are human like us, perhaps we can speak to them? Surely they can be reasoned with?”

Nesiret wondered how to convey the brutality of the minds that had once conceived of sexism, colonialism, and slavery. “Greed and ambition rarely coexist with reason, child.”

Perhaps we judge them too harshly, signed Wokum. If we share our knowledge with them, they may decide to trade instead?

“I have known the likes of these men. For them, all the riches of the world would not be enough.”

***

The amphitheater filled quickly. First, the innermost rings reserved for those whose physical needs meant they had to be closest, then upwards until the healthiest sat in the furthest stands. Nesiret and the twins found a comfortable spot in a middle row and waited for the meeting to begin. There were only a few hundred residents, as only those who wished to procreate did so. Every child conceived was then nurtured to adulthood by the whole of the homestead.

The gathering’s mood was strained, an undercurrent of worry belying the ordered calm. News of the ships had spread, as other sensitives like Wokum had endured similar visions. And with empathic skill a core teaching among the homestead, even those who hadn’t could sense the tension.

When everyone who could attend was seated, the storytellers went first. They were sensitives and they spoke of their visions, creating a tapestry of the death, destruction, and bondage. Next came the librarians, with whom Nesiret had shared her findings. When the speakers were finished, the fear was palpable. Residents splintered into a cacophony of noise. Until, finally, it was Nesiret’s turn to talk.

Standing at the center of the amphitheater, she thought of so many things to say: Speeches to rouse her people to defense, or stories of her own homeland’s resistance against their colonizers. Instead, she took a deep breath and asked her people to do the same.

In and out, they breathed. Hands clasped, one into another, they breathed until they were each part of a single organism. Part of the homestead itself.

Into this calm Nesiret spoke, signing as well:

“My children, we face a force the likes of which you have never known. You are right to fear it, for once it ravaged the world, leaving it nothing but an empty husk. For you, the perils of the Lost World must seem like a story. That humanity could walk such a destructive path seems unthinkable. But we did. I was witness to it. And it too began with three ships.

“Now, we must choose: Do we make the same mistakes as our ancestors, or is there another way? I ask each of you to look into yourselves and speak from what you find there.”

For the next few hours, every resident asked questions and offered opinions—particularly the youth and the children. And in this manner, they decided.

***

Nearly a moon later, Nesiret stood with her people upon the shores of their home. Behind them, carved like honeycombs into the cliffside, rose the homestead. She was the first to see the ships crest the horizon—her eyesight still far sharper than any human’s—but she waited for the lookout to raise the clarion call.

The homestead had decided, and Nesiret’s heart was finally at rest. She and her kind had spent centuries teaching humanity new ways to live with the world, and with each other. Now, when it most mattered, she was satisfied that they had learned the lesson.

 


Chinelo Onwualu is a Nigerian writer and editor living in Toronto, Canada. Her writing has been featured in Slate, Uncanny, Strange Horizons, The Kalahari Review, and Brittle Paper. Follow her on Twitter @chineloonwualu or find her at chineloonwualu.com.

Watch Chinelo Onwualu and journalist and Robert Evans in a virtual conversation about “When We Call a Place Home”

Us in Flux is a series of short stories and virtual gatherings that explore themes of community, collaboration, and collective imagination in response to transformative events.

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