“A Place Within” by Vivian Uchechi Ogbonna


The wahala started the day Alexandra was buried. First, the key to the hearse went missing after the funeral mass at St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. Astonished, the driver said,

“I haven’t even stepped out of this vehicle since I drove in with the coffin.”

The key was found under a hedge of flowers behind the church, but the hearse wouldn’t start. When its engine finally wheezed to life, the pall bearers carried the polished mahogany casket into the back of the Volvo Station Wagon, signaling to the driver to proceed to the burial site.

All four tyres went flat at the same time, emitting a sinister, hissing sound as the vehicle lowered to the ground in slow motion.  Perplexed, Alexander turned towards Uncle Amanze, the head of the family, who was speaking in animated whispers with Madam Beatrice, his aunt.

Nda Philo, his father’s cousin, had a smirk on her face because she and some women had challenged the decision to bury Alexandra outside the family compound.

“Now, you can carry her corpse and eat it,” she taunted. Other relatives and friends exchanged puzzled looks. Finally, somebody went to town and hired another hearse, and Alexandra was taken to a family plot in another part of the village.

•••

Alexander boarded the Heathrow Express. In the empty coach, his composure crumbled and gave way to the emotions he had struggled to rein in during Alexandra’s funeral. She had been his twin sister and best friend.

Their parents had met abroad and, even though their father was already married with two children back home, their mother had fallen pregnant. This had caused a strain in their relationship with their step mother, Adaoha, and step siblings, David and Claire.

As his mind strolled through the events of the past few weeks, he recalled the heated arguments concerning where she’d be interred. His objections didn’t dent the resolve of his family. Tradition was supreme.

“Listen, Alexander. It is omen’ala. Unmarried women are never buried inside the family compound.”

“Why?” Alexander had asked, incredulous.

In a hushed voice, Uncle Amanze had said, “It will spread death within the family. A few years ago, one family in the next village buried their daughter beside her father and brother. They thought they were being civilized, but in less than one year she had taken two more people with her.”

“Come on, Uncle. They may all have died from an inherited ailment. Dad would never allow this.”

“Your dad would never have gone against our traditions, in spite of his oyibo ways.”

Adaoha, who had been quiet all along, had said, “It’s your dad I blame. He should never have become involved with a strange woman.”

“Perhaps,” Alexander had said, glaring at her. “But you need to stop blaming us for his actions.”

“Your sister will never be buried in this compound,” Adaoha had said with finality.

Madam Beatrice had nodded. Since Alexandra died, she hadn’t stopped pontificating about the need for women to find husbands so that when they eventually died, they’d be buried respectably in their husbands’ homes.

“Mama, this thing you keep saying makes my eyes fill with tears,” Nda Philo had said. Some female relatives nodded in agreement but Madame Beatrice had pointed her walking stick at her, saying, “Philo, haven’t you heard that a woman has no place in her father’s house whether she’s dead or alive?”

“I have heard it all my life,” Nda Philo had retorted. “But I want to stop hearing it from today.”

“Yes!” The female relatives chorused, sitting up and adjusting the end of their wrappers.

“Chei! How can you challenge tradition?”

“Why shouldn’t we? If criminals and those men who oppress widows and orphans are buried inside their family compounds, why should it be an abomination for unmarried women? Does it make any sense?”

“Ngwa nu, go and ask our fore-fathers if it makes sense. All these women who think they are men!” Madam Beatrice had turned away, hissing.

Other relatives stepped in and prevented what would have turned into an ugly situation. Shortly after, the Women-Who-Think-They-Are-Men left, disappointed.

Soon, Alexander was dozing.

At Marble Arch station, the train stopped and a woman took the seat beside his. Irritated that she’d chosen to sit right next to him when all the other seats were empty, he turned to look at her. It was Alexandra. His body went weak, his heart started to thump, and his skin broke out in goose bumps.

He opened his mouth to scream but a groan was all that came out. He tried to stand up but something pulled him down. It was a metal clamp and it held his wrist to the handle of the seat.

“Please don’t hurt me,” he said in a hoarse whimper.

“I miss you so much, Alex. I just want to be near you.”

“Oh God! I miss you too.”

They inspected each other before he stretched his hands to her. “It’s futile,” she said. “What you see is my spirit.”

He drew back his hands.

“I’m in torment roaming about. Please bring me home.”

“I’m so sorry,” he said in a voice filled with remorse. “I did all I could.”

“I want you to do more. Ensure they return me to our father’s compound. There should be a place within for me and others like me.”

“I will. I promise.”

“I love you, Alex.”

“I love you more.”

The handcuffs melted away and he reached for her again. But she was gone. He covered his face with his hands and wept heart wrenching sobs that shook his body and filled the coach with its noise.

•••

It was Monday morning and David Chimaobi was in his office at Trans-Nation International Bank. He had just come off the phone with Dami Bucknor, the bank’s Head of Business Development. The screen of his computer went blank, came on and went blank again.

He checked the connection and everything seemed to be okay. The screen flashed to life again and Alexandra’s face filled the square. With a terrified shriek he bolted to the door and pulled furiously at the handle. It wouldn’t open.

“Brother David.” The voice was faint, as though from a distant place.

“What are…Why…?” David stammered.

“You don’t seem to care that I’m dead.”

“Please…” He stretched out his hands as though to fend her off.

“If you had lent your voice to Alex’s, they would not have buried me in that lonely place.”

“I tried to. I really…”

“No, you didn’t. All you care about is your fancy life.” As she spoke, curiosity propelled him back to the desk. He touched the screen and it went blank. Screaming, he ran to the door again.

A few minutes later, Dami Bucknor came upstairs and saw David’s secretary tugging at the handle of his door, her brows creased in a frown.

“Morning, madam,” Dami Bucknor said. “I have a meeting with David.”

When the secretary stared at her without responding, she asked, “Is there a problem?”

“I heard Mr. David screaming and…” The secretary’s voice trailed off.

“What do you mean?” Dami Bucknor’s eyes narrowed. She tapped on the door.

“David, are you in there?” There was no answer. She tapped again, grabbed the handle and leaned hard. The door didn’t budge. Staring hard at David’s secretary, she said, “Call the Head of Security. Now.”

•••

The only sound in the dimly-lit room was the grinding of Uncle Amanze’s teeth. He was huddled on a sofa, flanked by Madam Beatrice and Adaoha. Ijeoma, Madam Beatrice’s fifteen-year-old house help, stood in the middle of the room, crying and wringing her hands.

She had just told them how Alexandra had appeared to her in a dream the previous night, saying she had taken David to be with her. The adults gaped at each other until Madam Beatrice found her voice.

“She took him to where?”

“Ma, I don’t know. I’m only telling you what she told me.”

“Rie nshi – Eat shit!” Madam Beatrice shrieked. “You wretched girl. Your cup is full today.”

As she kept on screaming and accusing Ijeoma of working with the people who kidnapped David, Adaoha kept on wailing and saying she wanted her son back. Uncle Amanze sat unspeaking, his jaws pulsating, as he ground his teeth together.

•••

One week later, a group of black-clad women marched towards the National Assembly Complex in Abuja, their arms linked at the elbows. Claire Tijani and Amina Abdullahi were in the front row, holding up opposite ends of a banner.

It was a monthly demonstration organized by Women Against Violence and Extremism (WAVE) to protest the abduction of 17 female students from a secondary school in Benue State.

They were also using the same medium to call the attention of the public to the unprofessional manner in which the police was investigating the disappearance of David Chimaobi, the older brother of their Executive Director, Claire Tijani.

In spite of the hot weather, Claire shivered. When she felt a cold, clammy arm circle her elbow, she turned and looked into a face she’d been dreading to see. Her heart started to race and she said something, but the sound was lost in the surrounding noise. She struggled to free her arm but couldn’t.

“Why are you doing this?” she asked in desperation.

“You’d rather march for the rights of people you do not know than condemn a senseless traditional practice?”

“What could I have done? They say it’s the law, that it cannot be changed.”

“People make the rules. They can also break them.”

“Please, leave me out of this.”

“No. You must come with me.”

Amina Abdulahi felt the other end of the banner go slack. She looked to the side but Claire wasn’t there. Somebody bent down and picked up the banner from the ground. And the march continued.

•••

The next day, newspaper headlines and social media went wild with speculations about the disappearances. One Facebook status said it was the handiwork of a marine cult whose devotees were mandated to donate 12 victims every year to their underwater coven. Comments started to pour in:

Just negodu. These occult people sef!

I hear their sister died a few weeks ago.

Now you’re talking. Some dead people don’t like to travel alone.

If she’s travelling first class, I’d gladly go with her.

Laf wan tear my belle o!

GBAGAAAM! Vibrators for sale! All sizes available. Buy one, get one free.

•••

The spokesperson for the Nigeria Police Force was grouchy because he hadn’t been sleeping well. Since the high-profile disappearances took place, he and other top-ranking Police officers had had several late-night meetings with the state governor. Early that morning, the Inspector General of Police had summoned him to his office.

“This is between me and you,” the I.G. had said in a lowered voice. “Trans-Nation is owned by the president and David is his proxy. He’s on top of this case but his name must not, under any circumstances, be linked to the story. Do you understand?”

The spokesperson had nodded.

“Sir, I understand there’s a young lady who claims to know the whereabouts of Mr. David Chimaobi,” a reporter at the press conference later asked, scribbling furiously.

“That is not exactly true,” the spokesperson snapped. The microphone screeched. “She said Mr. Chimaobi’s late sister appeared to her in a dream, claiming responsibility for his disappearance.”

“But how can the dead abduct the living?”

“We’re as mystified as you are, but I assure you our best men are on this matter and we will find out the truth in no distant time.”

“David’s other sister has also gone missing. Has anybody come forth with any information?”

“Do you think the young lady is part of a kidnapping ring?”

“Have the kidnappers demanded any ransom?”

“Have any bodies been found?”

The barrage of questions were making his head spin. He shut his eyes.

“We’re not sure about anything yet. But the girl is in our custody and is cooperating with us.”

“Sir,” a voice called out from the back of the room. “What has been the president’s reaction to this case?”

The spokesperson stiffened and shot a dirty look at the offending reporter.

“Why do you ask?” he said.

“I have information that he owns Trans-Nation.”

There was a long silence. The spokesperson remembered the I.G.’s warning but he didn’t care. His head was throbbing and he wanted to sleep. Dropping the microphone on the table, he wished everybody a good day and walked out of the room. Half-spoken questions trailed him.

•••

Madam Beatrice spent the morning with some members of the Happily Married Women’s Association of St. Augustine’s Catholic Church. She was their life patron and they’d come to commiserate with her on the tragedies that had fallen like rain on her family.

“Thank you, my daughters. This matter is still boiling like a pot of food over fire,” she told them how Alexander had returned home a second time, demanding to re-bury his sister in their father’s compound. The foolish boy was even suggesting the disappearances of David and Claire may not be unconnected to his demands.

As she spoke, the women’s jaws dropped in shock.

“Mama, gbu pu asu – spit out saliva,” one of them said, snapping her fingers. “Don’t speak of such things again.”

“I will speak, so the words don’t choke me. First, it was Ijeoma. Now, Alexander. The wind has exposed the anus of the fowl.”

She further threatened to deal with Nda Philo, for daring to take sides with Alexander. The women agreed that, indeed, something sinister was brewing. They didn’t know what it was but they assured her that nobody would listen to Alexander’s insane ramblings. Their assurances didn’t placate Madame Beatrice who kept on insisting that Alexander was gradually swaying members of their family to his side.

After the women left, she decided to take a nap before going for the meeting in the town hall. When she woke up, the room was dark and she wondered if it was night already. But it wasn’t just the darkness that bothered her.

The stench of rotting plants filled the room and she pinched her nostrils together.  When her eyes grew accustomed to the dark, she saw heaps of dead flowers piled all over her bed and on the floor.

“Obara Jesus!” she shouted, making the sign of the cross. “What is this one again?” She picked up one of the rotting flowers but its petals drooped on a soggy, sticky stem.

She flung it away and, while reaching for her walking stick, slipped and went crashing into a clothes rack. It toppled over, shrouding her with fabrics. She tried to crawl out from under the mound but couldn’t. She started screaming and when her voice went hoarse, she closed her eyes and started mouthing prayers.

It was in this dark, smelly place that Ijeoma discovered her, several hours later.

•••

The mood in the town hall was somber. People snapped their fingers, tucked their hands under their arm pits and shook their heads. Uncle Amanze’s face was grim, his shoulders hunched. Alexander sat beside him, tapping a foot on the floor. Adaoha cried and blew her nose while Francis Tijani, Claire’s husband, did his best to console her.

When they saw that Madam Beatrice was absent, Nda Philo and the Women-Who-Think-They-Are-Men started hissing and making caustic remarks.

“I told you some threats are as worthless as tobacco-stained phlegm, didn’t I?” one of the women said. She was bleached and green veins stood out on her reddened, dry skin.

“Don’t mind the old woman,” Nda Philo said, strutting about. “Do I look like somebody who can be intimidated?”

The women said she didn’t.

The eze of the town came in, flanked by paramount rulers and clan heads, local government chairmen, the Commissioner for Cultural Affairs and the Special Adviser to the State Governor on Social Change and Cultural Re-Engineering.

Large numbers of youth, restless and noisy, milled about. Women’s groups were represented by their leaders—aging, over made-up, matriarchs and their younger, more educated counterparts. Reverend Fr. Mary-Joseph sat beside his Anglican counterpart, fiddling with his rosary.

Pastor Daniel O. Godspower aka Spiritual Bulldozer, Demon Destroyer and General Overseer of The Lord’s End Time Earthquake Pentecostal Church was accompanied by several prayer warriors who prayed with a lot of finger-snapping and head-jerking.

After the salutations and breaking of cola nuts by the eze, Uncle Amanze cleared his throat and said, “I thank you all for answering my summons. Our people say that a frog does not run about in the daytime if it has no reason to do so. The things we have experienced since we buried my niece are bigger than us.”

After he had spoken, Alexander stood up and narrated his encounter with Alexandra.

“She said she doesn’t want to be alone, and my family has decided to honour her wishes.”

“But why is your aunt not here?” the eze asked. Alexander didn’t reply. Heated arguments broke out. Insults and threats flew back and forth.

“Aru – Abomination! We can never give up the practices our ancestors handed down to us,” one of the paramount rulers shouted.

“Mazi, why not?” one of the youth leaders asked. “Times have changed.”

“Indeed, they have. Why else would your trouser waist be under your buttocks.”

Somebody reminded the Chimaobis about the consequences of what they wanted to do, and even Reverend Father Mary-Joseph pleaded with them to consider their position in the church. When another person suggested Alexander was drunk the night he had an encounter with his sister, Nda Philo’s eyes blazed with anger.

“We know who the drunks in this town are,” she said. Banging a fist on a table, the Eze cautioned the warring factions to sheath their swords or pay a fine.

It was the turn of the Special Adviser to the State Government on Social Change and Cultural Re-engineering to speak. He was young and his disdain for cultural institutions usually pitted him against members of the public. Everybody waited with bated breath to hear what salvos he’d throw.

“My mothers and fathers, I’m happy this conversation is finally taking place. I do understand your reluctance to give up customs that shaped you, but we should not allow evil to continue among us.”

The mood became rancorous again. One of the clan heads called him a stooge.

“Did I hear you say evil? How much have they paid you to insult us?”

“My people,” the eze said, “the decisions we take must satisfy all parties. The night is far gone. We shall continue tomorrow.”

•••

It took the combined spiritual powers of Reverend Father Mary-Joseph, his Anglican counterpart and Pastor Daniel O. Godspower to set Madam Beatrice free. She emerged from her house, covered in rotten flowers and talking gibberish. She was taken to the hospital where she was admitted for shock.

•••

After several weeks of deliberation, representatives of the different groups held a meeting with the eze and members of his council who, in turn, met with representatives of the state government.

Two days later, Eze Linus Obidinma announced that they had arrived at a compromise—families could bury their unmarried, female children wherever they wished. He turned to Alexander and said, “You can exhume your sister and re-bury her in your father’s compound.”

•••

It was Monday morning at Trans-Nation International Bank. David Chimaobi was seated at his desk, typing. Intermittently, he’d take sips from a hot cup of coffee on his table.

Word had spread through the building that he was in his office, so Dami Bucknor and the Head of Security rushed upstairs to see for themselves. His secretary was riffling through some files when they arrived. They looked at her without speaking but their eyes mirrored their bewilderment.

At the same time, members of WAVE set off from their usual take-off point and headed towards the Central Business District of Abuja. This time, they were on a solidarity protest with a human rights organization in Pakistan, to condemn the gruesome assassination of one of Pakistan’s most vocal gender rights activists.

They sang. They chanted. They punched clenched fists in the air. Amina Abdullahi noticed Claire Tijani holding up a placard. Their eyes locked together for a few seconds before Claire turned away.

•••

David embraced Alexander. “This has been the most nerve-wracking period of my life, and I’m glad it’s over.”

“It took her death to break the ice between us,” Alexander said ruefully. He pulled away and went to sit beside David’s secretary.

There was a knock and David hurried to the door. “See who’s here!” he exclaimed, pulling Femi into the room. “Alex, come and meet Femi.”

“Thanks for everything, mate,” Alexander said, pumping Femi’s hand. “The way you synced the voice recording to Alexandra’s image on that computer was absolutely brilliant.”

With a small dip of his waist, Femi said he was glad to have been of help, even though the slight error he had made while installing the close circuit television would have given them away.

“Let me show you,” he said, opening his laptop. “One more second and the camera would have caught David leaving the room.” David and Alexander held their breath as they peered over his shoulder.

“Can you see the tip of your coat, just before the camera panned in that direction?”

The door burst opened and Nda Philo bounded into the room. Alexander hugged her and lifted her off her feet.

“Taa! Put me down,” she chided in mock annoyance.

“I really must thank you for challenging the whole town in spite of the vilification you faced. As our late dad would say, you’re seven persons in one.”

Pushing him away gently, Nda Philo said she had been worried that Ijeoma would not carry out her instructions properly, but the girl had done well. She grabbed a bottle of beer and opened it with her teeth. When she noticed David eyeing her, she guffawed and said she was celebrating life after living with the stench of rotten flowers for many days.

Everybody laughed. “Before I forget, the driver said he can’t join us. He has many corpses to move today.” She took a gulp from the bottle. “Ah! Chilled. Just the way I like it.”

There was another knock on the door and David let Claire, Francis and Maureen in. Clutching Maureen’s hands, he thanked her for badgering Claire and Francis into agreeing with the idea.

Later, Claire sought Alexander out. “You must see a doctor once you get back,” she said, placing her hand on his. “Medication should control the hallucinations.”

“Like I really want them to stop?” Alexander said, laughing nervously. “She was so real, Claire. I wanted to hug her but she said she was…you know…a mirage. Blimey!”

Room service brought in more food and drinks. Afterwards, Alexander stood in the middle of the room, a glass of wine in his hands.

“I’m glad we pulled it off. And I hope this stays between us.”

They raised their glasses and drank to life.


Vivian Uchechi Ogbonna Vivian has a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Language from the University of Nigeria. She was a Goldman Sachs Scholar at the Enterprises Development Center of the Pan Atlantic University, Lagos, Nigeria. She is also an alumni of the Cherie Blair Mentoring Women in Business Program. Vivian is an Interior Decorator by profession, but in February 2014 the Muse found her and she hasn’t stopped writing since. She participated in the 2015 Writivism Creative Writing Workshop in Lagos, Nigeria. Her short story, A Ball of Thread was long-listed for the Writivism Short Story Competition and published in Roses for Betty, the 2015 Writivism Anthology. She also participated in the 2016 Writivism creative non-fiction workshop in Accra, Ghana. Her non-fiction piece, A Long Way From Home, was shortlisted for the 2017 Koffi Addo Prize for Non-Fiction and published in Enkare Review. Other short stories and articles by her have been published in The New Black Magazine, Sahara Reporters, Premium Times Blogs and My Mind Snaps/Blog.