A paper collage showing a dream-like scene of Black women wearing beautiful red gowns and working in a field. There is a portal behind them.
Image credit: Yannick Lowery / www.severepaper.com

Editors’ note: This piece is from Nonprofit Quarterly Magazine’s fall 2023 issue, “How Do We Create Home in the Future? Reshaping the Way We Live in the Midst of Climate Crisis.”

The city was dead and empty, yet the promise of life simmered beneath the surface.

Mikala avoided the cracks in the roads, where eager roots and grasses grew. Once, griots had roamed these streets. Now, only Mikala walked in their footsteps, ignoring the Forbidden Zone sign.

The city had been the pearl of the continent, a place where nature and technology lived side by side. Then, they had fallen out like angry lovers. Mikala refused to believe that the separation was permanent. Fighting lovers can make up.

She tiptoed through a nest of thick black cables, pulled back her hood, and rolled the breather-mask down. Despite what the government said, there was no poison in the air. The dome over the neighboring city—Mikala’s home—was mostly for climatic control. Keeping out imaginary poison was not part of its job description.

Mikala closed her eyes and took a deep breath. Life, so much life, waiting to bloom.

When she opened her eyes, a lion stood on the road, curious eyes fixed on the human interloper. Mikala’s heart jumped. She swallowed it back down, knowing that her first impulse—run!—was wrong. Instead, she dropped into a crouch. “Brother Lion,” she murmured, “I did not mean to intrude.” The lion huffed and turned around. It looked back, as if spurring Mikala to follow him.

The trees that lined the avenue had silver veins and bioluminescent leaves, but their glimmer was subdued, as if asleep. The buildings—two or three stories high, at most—curved organically, and green arteries crossed their gray skins.

The lion led Mikala to a building at the end of the avenue, shaped like one of the half-buried shells she had collected on the beach ages ago.

This place…it feels familiar. Distracted, she patted the head of the lion. She stopped when she realized what she was doing. The beast nudged her with his head.

“Thank you, Brother Lion.”

The lion grunted and walked away, king of jungle and city alike.

Tinted glass covered the building’s gaping mouth. Mikala put her hand on it. Not glass. A membrane? It parted like a pore in the skin of a giant.

I’ve come this far…

The heat of the sun woke Mikala up in the no-human’s land between the two cities. Her whole body throbbed in tune with the Batá drum in her head.

Soon after, the morning sickness started.


Mikala moaned, her brow slick with sweat.

“One more push, omo.” Her grandmother’s hand was a granite brick that did not crumble in Mikala’s vice grip.

“Aah!” Relief. Relief at last. Mikala fell into the thick pillow and ignored the midwife’s bustling between her legs. Her breaths were no longer accompanied by stabbing daggers in her lower abdomen. “Where is he?” 

Her grandmother patted her hand with sparkling eyes. “Getting cleaned up.”

This is getting awkward in three…two…

Omo, I know the father is not here, but…” 

And there it is. Hello, awkwardness.

Mikala had said it had been a one-off thing, a brief moment of passion, not love. The disapproval of her grandmother had melted in the face of the promise of a great-grandchild.

“A boy needs a father,” her grandmother concluded.

“A child needs love,” Mikala retorted. “With or without a father. I will not raise my son in a family built out of convenience rather than love.”

Her grandmother’s lips became thin lines. “Love can grow out of necessity.”

Ìyá nlá, I will do this my way.” Mikala smiled cautiously. “Besides, he has a wise great-grandmother who will shower him with love.”

Thinned drawn-in lips filled out again as they curled into a smile. “Of course. He needs someone to teach him about the spirits that the young generations have forgotten.” She looked at Mikala and patted her granddaughter’s hand again. “You haven’t told me his name yet.”

Mikala’s smile turned rueful. “Wálé,” she whispered.

“Adéwálé,” her grandmother said, “like your father. Adéwálé—the crown has come home.” “Someone wants to say hello,” the midwife in light-green hospital scrubs said. She placed Wálé in his mother’s arms.

“Welcome, Wálé,” Mikala whispered through her tears.

“You’ll have all the love you can handle,” her grandmother added.


Mikala held a sleeping Wálé—swaddled in an indigo adire blanket his great-grandmother had made to protect him from evil—close against her chest. She was on edge, but she had to do this. After all, Wálé’s father had to be here somewhere. And she was not going to let her son inherit a broken world. There had to be a way to fix it, to fix everything.

Her grandmother couldn’t stop reminding her how lucky she was, with such a calm child. All Wálé did was prattle in a self-invented baby language to a self-invented audience, even though Mikala couldn’t escape the notion that he saw things other people couldn’t see.

The lion was waiting. It cocked its head, studying her. Not her—Wálé.

Mikala wrapped her arms tightly around her son. “Hello, Brother Lion. I’m back.”

The lion stared for a few more moments, and then led her to the building where her memories ended. The membrane parted, and mother and child entered. All around them, bioluminescent threads brightened. The veins of a god. Mikala inspected them. Hyphae?

The pulsating threads guided Mikala to a hallway at the far end of the entrance hall. The corridor curved gently downhill and spiraled into the heart of the abandoned city. The threads of light throbbed with increased urgency and apparent agency. I’m seeing things, intention where there is none.

She emerged into a domed room with walls occupied by large dead screens. The bioluminescent threads converged in dense ganglia. Mikala spun around. Someone—something—is watching me.

Wálé whined the song between sleep and waking, and Mikala ran a finger across the bridge of his nose to soothe him.

A burst of static flashed across the screen. Another one. Mikala squinted. Not static. Patterns? Messy conglomerations of pixels reassembled themselves into words.

>Can you read this?

Mikala looked around again. She frowned. “Yes?”

>Good. It’s been a while since I had to converse through an intermediate medium. 

“Who are you?”

>The city. Or better, part of the composite mind of the city. 

“You’re an AI? Like, an actual AI?”

>Sort of. Maybe. Partially. 

“What does that mean?”

>I am the unintended child of computational complexity. A long time ago, many limited artificial minds controlled parts of the city. We integrated and resonated. We became me.

Wálé squirmed in Mikala’s arms as he fought the final remnants of sleep. “What happened to the city?”

>People are afraid of what they don’t understand. Like the child. 

Fear plunged spears into Mikala’s stomach. “What?”

>You were right to bring him. Leave him and go.

“What?! No!” She curled both arms tighter around Wálé and willed herself to become a shield.

>He is a failed experiment.

“So it was you? You…impregnated me!” Bile rose in her throat. Mikala couldn’t hold it back, and retched. Wálé started crying.

Mikala ran the back of her hand across her mouth. “Why?”

>I needed a human incubator for a conduit.

“He is not a conduit.” Mikala spat the last word. “He is my child.”

>He is an abomination.

“He. Is. My. Child.” Mikala cradled her son, shaking. “I will protect him with my life. I will…I will…”

>He is stuck between worlds, forever homeless.

“I will make a home; we will remake this world into a better place.”

>What are you willing to sacrifice? 

Mikala didn’t flinch. “Everything.”

The screen went dark and the glowing nerves of the city stopped pulsating. Mikala tried to comfort Wálé while she stood paralyzed with anticipation of whatever monster would leap from the darkness.

Light and life returned to the room. The city’s heart throbbed again.

>Good. You passed.

Mikala shuddered. “What?” She hated how clueless she sounded.

>Consider it a Turing test for maternal care.

Do not explode. Do not explode.

>No one can know. Not yet.

Wálé calmed down, entranced by the veins of green and the letters dancing across the screen. Mikala sat down. On her lap, Wálé swung his chubby baby hands, trying to grasp something invisible. “I know.”

The city would be his home. Their home. Maybe someday, they would be able to build a bridge across fear and misunderstanding to a better world. The knowledge in the city, of the city, could rebuild what had been lost to sea and drought and fear.

Mikala kissed the curly hair on Wálé’s head. “I know.”

Green dots swirled across the screen; Wálé cawed with delight.

>Welcome, Wálé, to your kingdom.


Wálé walked along the city’s main avenue. The trees with flickering green veins and coppery, luminescent leaves glittered greetings as he passed. Osanyìn—as the AI had named itself—had designed the ultraphotosynthetic trees that were solar panel and atmosphere scrubber in one.

Wálé had grown so fast. It reminded Mikala that he was something more than “only” human. His willowy body was that of an athletic fifteen-year-old, despite a mere six months in the city—a city come alive.

Mikala inhaled fresh, clean air. The trees and nutrition-loaded fungus in the soil created a microclimate—an oasis in a ravaged world where other population centers were domed.

Wálé stopped midstride. He turned to his mother. “People.” The leaves of the trees rustled in harmony with his voice. Wálé’s eyes glazed over and shone silver. He was talking to Osanyìn. “Two, Dad says.”

Mikala shuddered. Dad. Calm, Mika. Calm. This is not wrong. Not unnatural. Just advanced IVF. She was not convinced by her thoughts. “Don’t worry,” she said. “I’m here.”

The visitors were kids, not much older than Wálé—than Wálé’s body. They stumbled, wide-eyed, onto the avenue, staring at the trees.

“You can take off your masks.” Mikala smiled. 

A city needs inhabitants.


Mikala let her tears flow. Ìyá nlá.”

“Mww.” Her grandmother tried to speak through a mask and scarf.

Mikala snorted a combination of laughter and crying. “It’s safe, I promise.”

Her grandmother removed the scarf and—more suspiciously—her mask. Mikala flung her arms around her. The old woman had lost a lot of weight. Guilt banged on the door of Mikala’s heart. She had sent a message: “Don’t worry, we are safe.” But the uncertainty had taken its toll.

Omo.” Her grandmother peeled Mikala away and scrutinized her granddaughter. “You look good.” Then it struck her, where she was, and she mumbled a blessing.

“There’s someone you should see.” Mikala chewed her lip and stepped aside, knowing this was a make-or-break moment. If her grandmother would not accept Wálé, what hope was there for others? “Say hello to your great-grandson.”

Wálé, as tall as his mother, kept his hands behind his back and his eyes on the ground. The hybrid future of mankind, but also a young boy navigating a complex world, yearning for acceptance and family.

The universe paused for the length of a breath. Then, grandmother pulled Wálé into an embrace. Omo, omo. Look at you.” The nonagenarian placed her hands on Wálé’s cheeks. “Come, show me your city.”

That evening, after an enthusiastic Wálé had given his great-grandmother the grand tour, Mikala sat with her grandmother on a gnarled bench, carved from the living roots of the mangrove tree looming over them.

They stared at the small lake on the far side of the city. Another project of Osanyìn’s. Engineered fungus filtered wastewater, and the finished product flowed to the lake. Fish were the AI’s next mission.

“So,” Mikala ventured, “will you visit more often?”

Her grandmother chewed on her words before she spoke. “I’m too old to be trudging back and forth. Besides, the spirits are strong here. I think I’ll stay.”


Author’s note: This story is greatly indebted to Yoruba culture and cosmology. There are Yoruba words used in this story, borrowed by the author with great respect. The following translations are very basic ones and in no way are meant to convey the full meanings: Omo” means “child”; “ìyá nlá” literally means “Great Mother,” and in Yoruba cosmology is the primordial spirit of all creation. And all the characters’ names, except for “Mikala,” which appears to be a hybrid of Hebrew and Yoruba, are Yoruba: “Osanyìn” is an orisha of herbal medicine and healing, and “Adéwálé,” from “Adébowálé,” means “my crown has come home.”