“The Spider Queen” by Temitayo Olofinlua

(1)

You find yourself alone at the doorsteps of a church but you cannot say how you moved past the church’s elaborate gate and up its short steps. You are standing by a thick wooden door, massive and aged, opened inwards. The deep red carpeting leading through the nave calls to you to walk on it, to head for the altar. You step inside and look around, noticing that on the wall to the left of you is a huge cross with a small effigy of a crucified Christ impaled on it.

The church hall is quiet and you think of the silence of a graveyard, of Lagos streets on Sanitation Saturday before mayhem unleashes itself. You know the mayhem well, of the cars swarming the streets, each accosted by boys trying to wipe windscreens or by sellers of Gala and other street food. A sudden cold radiates in your insides and goosebumps appear on your arms. How strange! How cold can it be here when it was so hot outside a few minutes ago? You find a spider spinning a web at the nook of the great door and the wall of the church.

“Is this chill the beginning of a fever?”

It does not answer. Which is weird because you always get a response. A slow movement to the right, a yes. A slow movement to the left, a no. No movement this time. It must mean the spider is unsure, which rarely happens. Spiders always speak to you.

 A priest comes in, wearing a black surplice.

“Good afternoon, sir,” you greet, stooping a little.

He moves past you down the nave, not replying or even stopping.

You watch him reach the altar area, take out stainless steel or silver cups and a jug from a hidden drawer, placing them on a table before covering each with small pieces of white cloth. He places a black piece of cloth with a red cross inscribed in the middle on the lectern. He places a big Bible last. You are still standing at the doorway, entranced and shocked.

The priest leaves the altar and walks towards you. He walks past you and through the door behind you. You remain there, for how long you cannot tell. At some point you take up saying hellos intermittently, to check if you still have a voice, and if that voice is still yours.

“Hello,” you say again. Your voice bounces right back into your ears. Eventually, the echo ebbs into some noise from outside. The sounds of lament drown out the echo.  

Where are the wails coming from?

You turn through the door and take the steps down. Your legs feel heavy to carry. Yet, you lift. Each lift, a pain in your head. Yet, you lift.

Outside, there seems to be a dark cloak on everything. There are dark clouds in the sky and there is a rumble as if there is a war about to begin upstairs, in the sky. The breeze is blowing everything in its way. Nylon bags fly around like intoxicated bats. You now feel hot, sweat drenches through your armpit. You touch your face with your palms and it seems that the heat from your face has merged with that from your palms. Your face feels like some combustible material. As if it would ignite soon.

A number of cars have drawn up just outside the church gate, you notice that most are double parked in a cul de sac. Women and men dressed in black, several with eyes covered by sunshades, step out and make their way into the churchyard and you can reach out and touch their sorrow.  

Why are these people dressed in black? Why are they forming a circle around the woman in the middle? Why are they holding her?

Questions take turns in your mind, confusing you. You crane your neck. They move so slowly you wonder if they will ever get to you. Maybe the weight in the air makes their legs too heavy to lift? Your legs too were heavy minutes ago. The closer they come, the louder their voices.

“Why God? Why have you allowed this to happen?”

“Why have you taken her from us so fast?”

“Death, where is your sting?”

You know some of the faces. There’s your aunt, Aunty Rita, after whom you were named. She had watched over you as you grew up. She was the one you called when you needed to clean your butt. She taught you to wash “down there.” She told you stories of Anansi, the spider. After you both watched horror movies and you were scared, Aunty Rita would calm your nerves with her stories. That was the period you started dreaming of spiders, started playing with them in your dreams, started loving them, and started collecting them in bottles.

“Ha, you will kill them that way,” she’d told you.

“They are precious and I want them to spin a web in this bottle.”

“No spider will spin any web there. If you love them, you set them free. It is only then that they can be themselves.”

Aunty Rita first called you Spider Queen, before it became your nickname.

Aunty Rita is beside the woman in the centre, consoling her. You cannot hear what she is saying. You only see that she draws the woman closer to her bosom, like a little girl. The same way she did to you when you reported a neighbour who had injured you. Being held close to her chest, squashed between her breasts, her heart beating in unison with yours, was your definition of calm. She would then wipe away your tears with the edge of a wrapper that smelled of whatever delicacy she was cooking. The other women are also telling the woman Aunt Rita is holding that God gives and God takes.

“God did not take my daughter. I know who did!”

It is your mother’s voice.

You move closer for a better view.

They are now at the church entrance.

“Excuse me.”

You say this to the woman in front of you. She does not hear you as she just continues shaking her head, to the right and to the left. You keep moving, pressing your body through the melee of flesh. The stench of their sweat and perfumes hit you.    

You see your mother clearly now. She is an older version of your mother. Her wrinkles, bolder. She is angry and sad at once. Her hollow eyes look as if they are on a trip to a far-off place, to see a long lost friend. They are red and swollen, as if from begging said long-lost friend for forgiveness. You touch her by the waist. In that instant, her wrapper makes as if to fall off. A woman behind her grabs and re-ties it, securing it more firmly.

You do not want anything bad to happen to Mama. She raised you as her only child. She suffered for you. Since Papa walked out on her five years after your birth, after your sickness refused to stop. You promised her that you would take care of her even after you got married.

All the women are inside the church now.

Your father walks in. You have not seen him since your wedding five years ago. Even then, he was just there to mark his presence as your father. If not for your pleas with your mother, she would never have allowed him a seat. Now he walks with a limp, supported by a walking stick. Beside him is your husband, Uche. He is wearing a black suit.

Mama, Papa, Uche sit on the first pew. There are spaces between them, like commas.

A siren starts, from a distance at first. Clearly from outside the church compound. You hurry out to go and see. You do not notice how free your legs are now. You see five men in black suits, donning black sunshades, carrying a wooden casket with fresh flowers atop it. They take measured steps; the right leg after left leg after right leg. You walk behind them. They place the casket on a table in front, before the small stairs that lead to the altar. The men file back out of the church.

In the now open casket is a woman. Her light skin looks too pale to be normal. Her face looks cherubic. There is wool in her nostrils. She has a gash in her head. She is wearing your wedding dress, the heavily sequinned white ball gown you held at the knee as you walked to the altar. She looks like a princess, peaceful in her sleep, a sleeping beauty. She looks nothing like you.

A bell rings three times. The jarring noise from it opens something in your ears. You hold your ears at first, covering them with your palms, right palm for right ear, left palm for left ear. It aches, as if you are growing deaf of a cacophony of sounds. Voices. Screams. Hooting cars. Cat calls. Shouts. Swear words. Singing. Sole tapping. Drumming. Slaps. Then, more voices. All at once.

(2)

“Sweet Mother.”

Your phone rang, sang. It was your Mama calling. You do not know whether to pick her call or not. The ringing stops. You are still clearing your voice, cleaning your face when the phone starts to ring again.

“Good evening, Mama.”

Silence.

“Rita, you don’t sound well. Everything fine?”

“Mama, I am fine. It’s just this cold.”

Sniff. “It has refused to leave.”

It was the same thing you told her last week, after you’d had a shouting match with your husband, Uche.

“Ok dear. Sorry o! Have you used something?” Mama always wants to know: had you taken your medicine? How was the exam? How come you are not pregnant yet? How come this? How come that?

“Yes, Mama.”

Later that evening, while you were waiting, praying that Uche would return that night after two days of being out of the house, Mama called again. She wanted to know if you were feeling better. By then, you had run out of your stash of lies. You’d cried the whole day.

“Mama, it is Uche o!”

“What is wrong with him? Is he fine? Is his work fine? Has he been taking care of you?”

You wait for her to run through her list of questions.  

Some time, seconds or milliseconds, pass between you.  

“Ehen, are you there? Talk to me, Rita.”

“He is fine. Work is fine. He is taking care of me. At least he drops food money.”

“So, what is it?”

“Mama, Uche drinks. When he is drunk, he beats me.”

There is another pause. This one is longer than the first one. You wonder what is running through her mind.  She cleared her throat, as if she had finally selected her words.

“My dear, what did you do to him? You must have done something to that kind husband of yours for him to do such a thing.”

“Nothing o, Mama. It’s small things like too much pepper in food. Small things like the small spiders in the house. Small things like asking him for food money. Small things like who pressed the toothpaste from what end. Mama, they are small things.”

Silence. Then, a sigh.

“Rita, a wife does not do what her husband does not want. Whatever he says you should do, biko, my dear, just do. A good wife submits to her husband.”

“Yes, Mama. Yes, Mama. Yes, Mama.”

You said it three times, one for each of her sentences, punctuated by sniffs.

That was the last time you told Mama anything about your marriage. You did not tell her when the beatings got worse. You did not tell her when you got pregnant, or when Uche used his leg to kick the baby out. You did not tell her about the many girls he brought into your home. You did not tell her about the meals that he demanded you cook for them.

You did not tell her of how you spoke louder to the spiders in the guest room to distract yourself. You did not tell her of how you pressed pillows to your ears as he and his girls fucked on your matrimonial bed. From that day, everything between you and your husband was fine as far as your mother knew. She would say ‘Thank God’ before cutting each call. You would sigh.

(3)

“The poor girl would have been thirty today,” Aunty Rita says to one of the women sitting beside her. The woman shakes her head.

“The poor girl was supposed to be thirty today,” the woman repeats to the woman beside her.

“What a handsome man rendered wifeless at such an early age.”

A light-complexioned girl sitting behind Uche whispers to a dark-skinned girl beside her. The priest announces. “Today our sister, our daughter, our friend, Mrs. Rita Odeh, joins the angels.”   

You move closer.  

He repeats himself. “We are here today to lay our sister, Mrs. Rita Odeh, to eternal rest.”

The bell rang again this time, only it did not stop. Nor did the rush of events of the past days in sequence in your mind.

(4)

How To Kill A Spider: Blog Post by Rita Odeh

(I)

“Baby, wake up. Come back to me,” Uche’s eyes pleaded as his hands tried to shake me awake.

 It is our wedding anniversary. Five years. I had planned that every imperfect thing in the past years would be made perfect on this night.  I had cooked Uche’s best dish—pounded yam and egusi soup. The pounded yam, smooth and light, the way he liked it; the egusi with enough pepper, but just peppery on the tongue, not on the throat. I baked a cake myself, making the cake mix with the turning stick instead of the mixer. I made him fresh orange juice, squeezing the fruits and then sorting the seeds from the juice.

“Happy Anniversary, the love of my life” I wrote, my hand writing in scrawny strokes on a white card I had made myself.

I could have sent someone for the juice. I could have ordered the cake. I could have bought one of those cheap cards at the shop down the road. But Uche liked everything natural, that was the one reason. I also wanted to do it myself. Doing it myself was pleasurable, gave me some form of happiness, that I was doing all this for my man, for Uche.

“A certain kind of joy that comes with doing something with your hands,” I thought as I smoothened the pounded yam with the pestle, wiping beads of sweat with the end of my wrapper. I wrapped the food in one of the new Ankara wrappers I bought from Yaba market.

I had another idea. I would wear my wedding gown, to relive our wedding day. I wanted to see that smile on Uche’s lips as we exchanged vows “For better, for worse…”

8 p.m. was a perfect time to light the candles on the dining table.

Then, I called Uche. He did not pick. Then, I sent him a text: “Baby, I have a surprise for you. Come home soon.”

“What surprise can you have? Cleared out the spider webs in the house? LOL!”  

The spiders have been an issue since we got married. Uche knew of my love for spiders before he married me. He even joked that he was marrying a Spider Queen.

All that changed after we wedded.

“They do you no harm,” I said.

“I don’t care.”

“They only hang around and build their webs that trap insects.”

“It feels like they are staring down at me.”  

I did not want to spoil the anniversary evening so I took out a long broom and cleared the cobwebs. Tears in my eyes, I killed every spider that tried to escape. As I raised my broom, they raced on their thin legs. As they ran, I hit them with the broom. In the corner of the sitting room, right at the top of the burglary, there was a web, the spider obviously heavy with eggs. It begged me with its eyes. I let it be.

*

As I waited, I went to my laptop and continued what I called Operation Thirty. Since the first year, after he started beating me, I’d planned my exit from the marriage on my birthday. I’ve written several notes to share but before I posted it, I would delete it. My birthday was a week away, I was typing again, weaving a story for the world wide web, placing thread after thread of my story, showing scar after scar.  There was a knock on the door. I scheduled all my posts, shut the laptop and went to open the door.

*

(II)

“Oh yeah, this has to be the surprise you have for me?” Uche said, entering, a bottle of Jack Daniels in his hands.

“Rest your leg. You’ve been drinking.” I tried to collect the bottle from him.

“Are you trying to say that I am drunk? You are the drunk one, drunk…”

He went on a rant about drunken mad women.

I have learnt to deal with my husband when he is like this. I had begun to think of him as a shape-shifter. Whenever he drinks too much, he comes back home saying I and my spiders are the source of his troubles. That someone somewhere told him that I had trapped all his good luck in spider webs. At that point, his face would change, as if he was wearing a mask. A frown would form ridges on top of his forehead. His eyes would flash. The muscles on his arms would bulge like angry snakes. His Adam’s apple would move up and down like a hungry frog hopping after an insect. He’d yank out his belt. He would lunge at me. He would beat me. I did not budge many times, because I knew that he was only just shifting shapes.

Soon, whatever possessed him would leave him, clear off his face. Then, he would beg me. His eyes would become small, as they really should be. Then, he would buy me flowers and an “I am sorry” card.

The last thing I remember was a talk about the spider web on top of the burglary proof.

“So why did you leave this one, ehn? To commune with your ancestors, right?”

He smashed the bottle.  

“You think I am joking?”

He charged towards me.

He pounced on me, arched the jagged bottle at me. Blood started flowing. I felt it drip down, from my head, to my nose, down my neck, to the floor.

“I will force words out of your mouth now,” he said, holding my throat, banging my head on the wall repeatedly, his eyes, headlamps of a car on full beam. My legs failed me.

“Get up! Get up! Can’t you hear me?” Uche said, his face blurry.

I was tired of this rising and falling in love. Tired of flashing knifes and smiles. Tired of kisses and slaps. My heart was tired of going in rounds, of not moving, of returning to the same spot.

“Baby, wake up. Come back to me,” Uche’s eyes pleaded as his hands tried to shake me awake. I ignored him.

(5)

The priest is still preaching. He looks like any other priest, like the one to whom you had told your story one Sunday after church service. He had told you that a woman needed patience in a marriage. He had reminded you of your marital vows, “till death do us part…”

“We sympathise with her husband on such a great loss.”

It is raining outside, but not so much.

“When we cry, we do not cry for the dead. We weep for ourselves.”

A man walks into the church and everybody is shocked when he makes his way to the front of the church and then speaks into the priest’s ears.

The priest frowns.

“Excuse me,” he says into the microphone. The priest and the man then leave the church, walking along the side where the crucified Christ is. As they pass you, you are a step behind. You can feel the eyes of the entire congregation on your backs.

Three other men are waiting there, lean and hard looking. They show their IDs. They are from the Criminal Investigation Unit at Panti. They show sheets of computer printout to the priest and quickly explain things to him. He seems shocked. One of the men ask him a question.

“Go ahead,” he says.

All four now walk through the nave to the front of the church where Uche is sitting.

“You are under arrest in suspicion for the murder of Rita Odeh..,” one of them says.

They place handcuffs on his hands.

(6)

Everyone is gone now and I am alone in the church hall. Apparently, I have been buried already. Somehow, I find myself here, quite pleased with myself and even with losing my mind in my final days.     In death, the Spider Queen gets a voice. That’s something. And where better than a blog on the world wide web? A voice that the world listens to, that will fuel and fire a hashtag campaign. This is the web that the Spider Queen has spun and I come here, for the calm, to watch it gain a life of its own. It would grow… more spiders would spin their own webs too.  Outside, it’s raining wild animals. Nothing would be quiet after this.         


Temitayo Olofinlua is an award-winning creative writer and editor who calls herself a content busybody. Her first and second degrees are in Literature-in-English. She is currently a Ph.D student at the Institute of African Studies, University of Ibadan.