Ezekiel turned on the ancient tap in the middle of the forest and the tap coughed once, twice, before spurting out water the colour of rust. He waited for the water to run clear, then he placed an enamel pail under the flow. It amazed him every time that the tap still ran years after the cashew plantation stopped functioning.
People at the State Water Board had probably forgotten to disconnect the water. As the pail filled up, he debated if bathing was worth the physical torment he expected. He scratched his chest and the grime and crud on his skin collected under his wild fingernails. He took his nails close to his nose to sniff himself and recoiled like he’d been punched. Death, he thought, I smell like death.
He turned off the tap just before the water overflowed, and scanned the forest for the best place to wash, away from the heat of the sun. He chose a cashew tree that didn’t have too many rotting fruits under it and walked towards it carrying his pail of water in one hand and a plastic bag containing his skincare products in the other.
He placed the pail under the tree and thought about the wisdom in bathing after all these years. But, he would clean himself because he was expecting a woman, the most beautiful human he’d ever seen. She had promised to return, so Ezekiel would go through the torture of self-care even if it killed him.
The sun was out and eager and it was still only morning. The sky was a merry silver-blue. The yellow-billed kites swooped down and fed on the overripe cashew apples still hanging on the trees. All around him, rows of diseased cashew trees stretched into the distance and down to the ravine below.
He could hear the wash-wash sound of the river sweeping over rocks way down in the ravine, the festive zzzz of the bees traveling from tree to tree, the faint whoosh-whoosh of the trees swaying in the wind, the srak-srak of small animals foraging for their keep. He stood in the middle of it all, arms outstretched, naked, and imagined himself the conductor of this astonishing orchestra. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with clean air that smelled like rain and the sweetness of decaying cashew apples.
He stood in the middle of it all, arms outstretched, naked, and imagined himself the conductor of this astonishing orchestra. He closed his eyes and filled his lungs with clean air that smelled like rain and the sweetness of decaying cashew apples.
Ezekiel poured laundry detergent into the water and stirred until the pail foamed over. He dipped the sponge into the foam and scrubbed his skin and rinsed and scrubbed and rinsed until the pail emptied, then he returned his skincare products to the plastic bag and in the order of purchase: sponge, detergent, salt, dry gin, scissors, razor. The shop attendant had turned her nose away when Ezekiel handed her the money, and Ezekiel had fought the impulse to crack her small head against the counter and spill her brain. He hadn’t walked that far into town to be so insulted.
As expected, his decision to wash came with consequences. He angered the lice living in his matted hair and pubic region, and the parasites began a mutiny that had Ezekiel scratching under his balls until strips of skin broke off and left long, bloody gashes.
He could only bear this torture because of her.
Now that his pail was empty, a thought sparked in Ezekiel’s mind and caught fire. He needed more than a mere wash, he needed a baptism that would make him born again. So, he headed down the ravine to the river, zigzagging his way through fist-sized mounds of cashew apples festering in the hot sun, holding on to shrubbery so he wouldn’t slide uncontrollably down the side.
When Ezekiel got to his destination, he sat on the bank and scooped white sand from the riverbed and scrubbed until his pores breathed free. He took out the razor and sheared his hair, displacing the lice from their long-time home. He shaved the area around his loins until he could once again see his penis from base to tip, then he rubbed the dry gin on these body parts that had once housed hair, killing whatever lice remained. Ezekiel exhaled and stretched out on the rocks, his eyes closed, the sun warming his freshly-laundered skin.
And then he thought of her.
Red dress clinging to her like a possessive lover. Thick box braids cascading down to her slim waist. Eyes twinkling like fireflies.
She’d promised to return today, and for the first time in years, Ezekiel had looked forward to a new day.
Three days before she first appeared, Ezekiel had woken up to see a man pacing the edge of the ravine, muttering to himself, sweating so hard his red shirt was now soaked maroon in places. Ezekiel stood at the door of his shack and stared, mesmerized by the sight of the man who was seconds away from diving off the edge. Jealousy had bloomed in Ezekiel’s heart. Here was a suicidal fool who was brave enough to do something about not wanting to live anymore.
How many times had he, Ezekiel, walked to the edge, prepared to jump, only to walk back because he didn’t remember why he wanted to die in the first place. And then rage sprouted and replaced the jealousy. If the brave fool jumped his body would desecrate the ravine below, Ezekiel thought. There were many places to die in the world and the idiot’s decomposing corpse would not be allowed in the place where Ezekiel’s mother had taken her final breath.
Ezekiel approached the man on the edge and thought of planting a foot square on his back and sending him on his topsy-turvy way, but he managed to string together a few words of affirmative nonsense that had the man backing away from certain death. The man took the tale back to town and reporters swarmed the forest in search of Ezekiel and a frontpage story.
Strangers shoved microphones under Ezekiel’s nose and shot questions at him.
What is your name?
How many suicides have you prevented here?
Is it true that you are not mentally stable?
This story is all over Facebook, do you care to comment?
Ezekiel’s temper combusted. He rushed into his shack and brought out a machete, and the reporters scrambled to safety – a stampede of humans and their cameras and microphones.
He nursed the thought of decapitating a reporter and displaying their bloody head on the rusty signpost that welcomed visitors to the State Cashew Plantation. But he doubted whether that was enough deterrence for people so annoyingly persistent.
It was then she came.
Ezekiel had felt her before seeing her. It was in the way the air stilled and everything went silent. Her skin was black velvet, her lips a fiery pepper-red.
“Can I return tomorrow to interview you?” she’d said.
Ezekiel’s voice left him.
“Tomorrow evening, then,” she continued.
When she turned around and left, Ezekiel stood there motionless, machete still suspended in the air, watching as the wind played with her dress as she walked away.
As promised, she returned. He just blinked and she was there. He saw her standing on the edge of the ravine, staring down at the chasm below. He closed his eyes and took three deep breaths but she was still there when he opened them again. He thought of running from her and not looking back till he got to the end of the world but his rogue, bare feet led him to her.
“How far is the drop?” She asked without turning to look at him.
“Far enough that falling would crack your skull open like a coconut.”
He regretted it immediately. It wasn’t the kind of stuff one said to a woman, but he had been isolated for so long that he forgot propriety was a human thing.
“Wow,” she replied and turned around to face him. “Thanks for letting me interview you.”
Interview? She didn’t carry a recorder or a notebook, and when Ezekiel’s eyes traveled lower, he saw that her feet were bare against the loam soil.
“Not a bad place to live,” she said as she closed her eyes and spread out her arms and gorged on the clean, fresh air.
Ezekiel wanted to reach out and stroke her braids, run his fingers down her face, press his nose against her neck and fill his lungs with her. The last time he’d touched a woman he was sure she hadn’t even been born.
But he cleared his throat and said, “It’s a place to live, good or bad.”
She opened her eyes and gazed out across the ravine to the other side, an impenetrable forest.
“How did you come to live here?” her voice was like a soothing breeze. “It’s so peaceful.”
He thought about his situation, whether it should be called living. It wasn’t living when he slept in a shack in the middle of an abandoned, haunted plantation and saw his dead mother hiding behind every tree.
“You know this forest kills things, right?”
“How? Everyone is talking about how you saved that guy, so this place can’t possibly kill everything.”
“It’s deserted. No one wants the plantation anymore,” he said instead.
“I know about the former owners,” she said. “One of them is currently in the race for governor.”
“Nigerian politics is definitely more profitable than being a farmer.”
The silence stretched and snapped between them as though her presence had paused life in the forest. He listened hard but he didn’t hear the bees, the birds, or the rabbits. Wondering if he’d imagined her into existence, he stole a glance and caught her staring at him, a curious smile stretching out her red lips.
He was known to attack people who strayed into the forest uninvited, except for the schoolboys who paid him to gain access to the cashew nuts, which they roasted and sold in traffic out there in town, but this was someone he hoped would never leave. He needed her here because she reminded him of someone, someone who skirted the edges of his memory. Maybe she could help him remember.
“I’m more interested in you. I’d like to know your name, your life before this plantation, your education. Yes, I have noticed that you speak perfect English,” she said.
Her compliment snatched him away to another place and time, a lifetime ago. Another girl sitting at his feet had smiled up at him, had commented on his English.
“How am I sure that all these big, big words you like using are real English words, enh, Zik?”
And his mind swallowed the memory with a speed that left him stunned. He reemerged beside a beautiful girl standing at the edge of a ravine, looking across a gaping hole in the middle of the world.
Now that she had mentioned his perfect English, Ezekiel wondered about his own education. He wasn’t sure why he sometimes remembered The University of Oxford, the name and not the school. He didn’t know if he’d ever gone there, doubted that he had ever enrolled, but it came to him in those times his fractured, chaotic mind cooperated with him.
“I had a life before now,” Ezekiel said, forcing out the words stuck on the roof of his mouth.
Another memory clawed its way out of the muddle of his mind, its fingers bloody and splayed from the effort. Yes, he once had a wife. And a child, too.
Wife: a young girl hemorrhaging in a corner of a dark room.
Child: the blood flowing from a source between the young girl’s thighs, coursing through the room like a poisonous river, soaking Ezekiel’s books across the room, drowning all his dreams.
He was gasping when he returned to the present; excavated memories required too much oxygen.
“I was married,” Ezekiel said simply.
She was quiet but Ezekiel felt that even when he wasn’t saying much, her eyes dove into his soul and saw the words whirring unsaid inside him.
Her toes poked the edge and sent loose earth careening off into the ravine. One wrong move and she’d go tumbling down the side and all the way to the bottom and branches and rocks would reach out and scratch and grind her bones to powder, and she’d land at the bottom like a ragdoll.
“I assume you’ve been down there,” she said. “If I lived here, I know I’d be curious enough to want to go see how it is below.”
“Yes, I have been down there. I was only a boy the first time I went.”
And then another buried memory flickered to life in front of Ezekiel. A scene from his childhood emerged. A pregnant woman crouching on her belly turned to a young boy crouching behind her and held her finger to her lips to show him he had to be quiet. The little boy stopped whimpering. The bushes weren’t thick enough to conceal them from the horror they were trying to escape.
The little boy turned onto his back and looked up at the sky, but all he saw were bombers filling up the afternoon sky like pregnant clouds. And then it began to rain bombs. The woman grabbed the boy and covered his bony body with hers, but he still saw the world go to hell from under his mother. The ravine was filled with loud explosives and shrill screams and flying severed limbs. A man on fire stumbled and fell a few paces away from the boy and his mother. The boy’s eyes locked with the dead man’s feral ones, and in them, the boy saw their world burn.
“We hid down there during the civil war,” Ezekiel said.
The reporter was young and probably hadn’t been born during those years of darkness. Ezekiel didn’t tell her that he’d crawled out of the valley one dark night, dragging his mother’s dead body up with him. A few days after he scratched out a shallow grave and buried his mother with her pregnant belly and bloody toes sticking out of the ground and pointing at the sky, the war ended and the government said there was no victor and no vanquished. The young boy stumbled back to town to live in the ghost of the war, taken in by neighbors until he was old enough to live alone.
But that was decades ago.
Now he saw his mother every day. Sometimes she followed him around the forest and spoke to him in a language he couldn’t understand. He often walked through her as she darted in an out of his path. He spoke back to her when he felt his voice rusting inside his belly, when he was sure he would explode from being silent for so long. One day he had tried to escape from her by leaving the forest, but she had managed to follow him all the way to town. He had turned around and told her off, attracting stares from people around. Everyone had stared at Ezekiel with questions in their eyes, and through his mother, like she was made of air.hey had hurried away from Ezekiel like he had something contagious.
Ezekiel took two steps backward from the edge, putting some distance between himself and the chasm.
“Do you want to see the rest of the forest?” he asked, but not because he was interested in giving her a tour. He wanted to keep moving, to leave those memories in a burning heap. They walked side by side and Ezekiel was relieved that he had bothered with a bath. He cast a sideward glance at her and knew somehow that his stench wouldn’t have bothered her. She reminded him of someone – not his mother, who had been a tiny bullet of a woman. It was another woman who lived in the periphery of his shredded mind. This woman, she’d come to him, always at high noon when the sun’s backlighting would distort the exposure of her image, rendering her fuzzy and out of focus – a dark silhouette with glowing edges.
Up above Ezekiel and the reporter, the sky – moody and grey, began to grumble under its breath. Lightning forked the earth in the distance. Their bare feet mashed rotting cashew apples as they walked. He looked at the trees in various stages of decay and imagined how pretty they would have been when people had cared about them.
“Leave anything on its own long enough and watch it go mad,” she said, making Ezekiel wonder if she was reading his mind about the current state of the plantation or if she was referring to something else. Or someone.
“I guess,” he mumbled, suddenly self-conscious.
She stopped and turned to face him.
“You said you were once married? I really want to know about your wife. How did you meet? Where is she now?”
He was forced to stop because she had stopped. He didn’t want to talk about his wife because his memory of her was as foggy as a cold harmattan morning.
“Aren’t you afraid to be alone in a forest with a man like me?” He said, hoping to deflect her question.
“A man like you? Do you hurt women?”
Did he hurt women?
Her playful questions slammed into another door and forced open a locked memory.
Ezekiel’s wedding night snapped into life, and his new bride, crouched in a corner, wept into her blouse. Ezekiel was in the frame and he was livid. It was in the fifth hour of his wife’s weeping that he got up from his mattress, went to her in the corner and served her a flurry of sharp slaps. She leaped to her feet and went for his throat.
“Kill me, Zik,” his bride said, flinging off her wrapper to fight him naked. “My world has already ended, Zik, what difference will my death make?”
“You should be afraid,” Ezekiel said now as the memory evaporated into the afternoon. “You should be afraid to be alone with me.”
“How did you meet your wife?” She was insistent, but Ezekiel would rather dodge her questions.
“I thought you wanted to ask about the suicidal fool I supposedly saved?”
“I want to know Zik the man before Ezekiel the savior.”
Ezekiel raised his eyes to her face, shocked. She had called him by his names and he didn’t remember volunteering that information. Now he wanted her gone. Whoever she was. He started to send her away, but she twirled around and the wind picked up the skirt of her red dress and it ballooned out – a crimson parachute. She was no longer smiling.
“Am I bothering you, Zik? Should I leave?”
Her presence had jiggled too many door handles and a headache was already brewing from peeking into memories Ezekiel wasn’t even sure were real. But what would the forest be without her presence? Who else in the world would care enough about him to ask him about his life, even though he barely remembered anything?
She began to flicker in front of Ezekiel like a torchlight running out of battery juice. He closed his eyes and inhaled, craving her presence yet hoping she’d be gone when he opened his eyes again.
“Our meeting was nothing special. One day she walked into my room and we made love.”
Ezekiel feared she’d fade into nothing if he told her to leave. And he’d be alone. Suddenly he wanted to sink into the earth and become a part of the mulch, or part of anything at all. Loneliness pressed down on his shoulder and hammered him into the ground.
“That’s odd. You mean a girl just walked into your room and you took her to your bed?”
“To be honest, it wasn’t much of a bed. That bug-infested mess was as thin as a sheet of paper. He brushed his feet against the rough earth to remove the pulp of the cashew apples they’d walked on, “And, she wasn’t a stranger. She was my landlord’s daughter.”
Ezekiel looked up at the sky and saw that darkness had fallen like someone threw a blanket over the sun, and loud thunder protested this affront. The reporter didn’t seem to notice that the kind of rain that was about to fall would go on for days. Ezekiel knew she needed to leave before the rain came, and even if he didn’t really want to see her gone, it was still her choice to make. But he saw in her pleading eyes that she wanted him to continue the story, that hearing it mattered to her more than oxygen.
The memory she required of him had a huge metal door, the kind of door needed to lock in important things. Or keep them out. Ezekiel turned the knob but the door wouldn’t budge. He took a deep breath and closed his eyes and a scene formed behind his eyelids. The scene was dog-eared and curled around the edges, but not from frequent use – it was an inbuilt self-destruct mechanism of abandoned, unconfronted history.
The steel door blocking Ezekiel’s memory opened and he crashed into a windowless room. On the wall, there was a poster of Fela in his signature tighty-whities, next to a faded poster of Fidel Castro. A student union almanac hanging on a nail announced the year 1981. The most impressive thing in the room was the stack of books that rose from the naked cement floor to the popcorn-stained ceiling. Onyeka Onwenu’s voice blared from a turntable and drowned the laughter of the room’s two occupants.
Ezekiel saw a young man sitting on a paper-thin mattress on the floor. The young man had a thick Afro and fat sideburns that anchored his hair to his chin. The young man molded a fat ball of eba and dipped it in a plate of steaming afang soup, then he swallowed the morsel, his face as rapturous as one who was about to break into a bout of singing and dancing. A young girl sat at his feet and stared up at him. Her skin was black velvet, her lips a fiery pepper-red.
“Your mother’s contraband soup that you sneak to me every day should be made the eighth wonder of the world!” the young man said.
“I wonder how you will survive London, you that loves Nigerian food more than you love women,” the girl said.
“But the London stint is a rather brief one, my dear girl. I will get my Masters from Oxford and return before you can say Jack Robinson.” He called her my dear girl even though he was not much older than her, Ezekiel observed. Ezekiel guessed there were at most two years between them, but he sensed that the balance of power tilted in the young man’s favor because he loved her less than she loved him. The young girl stood from her perch on the floor and went to look at the Fidel Castro poster.
“It’s a good thing you are leaving on your own. My father swears that he’ll chase you away after your rent expires. He says he can no longer stand the number of women you parade in and out of your room.”
“Everyone knows your father doesn’t like me much. Your mother, on the other hand, is a woman after my heart.”
“Do you know that my mother once caught me sneaking soup to you? She snatched the plate from my hand and went to the pot to fill the plate with more pieces of meat.”
“She’s a class act, your mother. I suspect she knows about and endorses our dalliance.”
“Which one is dalayance again, Zik?”
“Dalliance means your mother’s food in my mouth and your ripe breasts in my hands afterward.”
“Hian! Mbok, please, is it that simple thing that you had to say in big, big grammar like that? Sometimes I wonder whether you just make your own words as you go.”
“I speak big grammar to impress you, you know. I am of the belief that you are more attracted to my mammoth vocabulary than you are to my person, my dear girl. You wouldn’t be here right now if I spoke Ibibio to you like everyone else.” A mischievous smile lit the young man’s face.
The girl turned around and leaned on the wall, facing the young man.
“I have this feeling that you will finish your school in London and return to Nigeria and become a big man. I see you becoming president.”
“I don’t much have any sights set on politics, my dear girl.”
“But intelligent people like you always enter politics. You will marry a beautiful wife, someone like that your yellow girl that speaks English through her nose like white people. That is the kind of woman you need when you become a big man. She will speak her grammar and wear fine, fine clothes when you people appear on the television. When you vex her, she will throw your big words back at you.”
“My dear girl, you may not be as educated as most of these my, er, friends, but who says you are any less than they are?”
“Zik, why haven’t you asked me what I’ll do after you leave? Do you care?”
Ezekiel saw that the young girl’s eyes glistened with tears.
The young man pushed the empty plates aside and stood to his feet.
“You become despondent, my dear girl, whenever I broach the subject of my imminent departure. I know you’ll do well without me because you’re a smart girl.”
“I know when you leave you’ll never come back, not to me at least.” The young girl sniffed back tears. “So, I’m leaving also. I’ll go to my aunt in Lagos and apprentice at a beauty salon. I will come back here and build a big salon and all the big women will be my customers. My life will never be as great as yours, Zik, but it will be something.”
She wiped her tears with the back of her hand and stooped to gather the empty plates.
“Where are you going to, my dear girl?”
“You are done with the food, aren’t you?”
The young man reached out and took the plates from her and set them down on the floor, then he reached for a corner of her wrapper and pulled it from her body, unwrapping her like a delicious treat.
“Don’t you know, my dear girl,” he said, drawing her to himself, “that a man has many appetites?”
Ezekiel was gasping and on his knees when the memory left. He held the ground for support, and on all fours, it looked like he was worshipping the young reporter in front of him. Except she was no reporter.
“I’m sorry. I’m sorry. I’m sorry.” He cried out in an endless loop, like a skipping turntable record.
She loomed over him, her red dress flowing furiously behind her, the sky angry and black above her head. And the world was black and grey and red. She was here to force him to remember.
The missing pieces snapped into place, and, finally, all his fragmented memories made sense. The night he got married he had been sitting shirtless in his room. It was dark outside, so he lit a lantern and placed it in a corner. He opened the door to let in some air but that meant he had to beat off the mosquitoes that came to feast on his skin. Looking up, he saw his landlord and his family crowding his doorway. Their faces were stormy. The visitors parted to reveal the young girl weeping behind them.
The landlord’s sons, all four of them, marched into Ezekiel’s room. Ezekiel felt like a caged animal. There were furious fists everywhere: on Ezekiel’s face, his ribs, his stomach. Blood pumped from his nostrils and ears.
“You! Utebe mfem – smelly cockroach!” It was the landlord’s booming voice. “Congratulations, Zik! You have impregnated my only daughter. I have brought her to you for free. She’s your wife now.”
“I’m sorry,” Ezekiel said now, wondering if sorry was enough apology to a woman he had killed. The rain washed over him and he felt reborn. He took her hand when she offered it to him. He let her pull him to his feet. Now her small face was familiar. Her beauty had enticed him. Her beauty had doomed them both.
“I have been waiting for you, Zik,” she said. “Sometimes you come close to me but when I open my arms to receive you, you always drift away.”
“Was it you in front of the sun? Did you always come at noon?”
She smiled her response.
His hand was still in hers, so when she started to walk away, he followed her. He noticed that even when the rain fell so hard her red dress wasn’t soaked, that it fluttered and flapped. It was the same dress she had worn the night she died.
“We both know that I don’t love you,” he’d said to her back then. “And, you know you only have one option.”
“You can go to London and I’ll wait here for you.” Her swollen eyes begged.
“This is for your own good. You’re not exactly the kind of girl I’ll end up marrying, even you know this.”
“Save yourself now that it’s not too late.”
He threw some money at her and stormed out of the room only to return that night and step in a warm and sticky puddle. He lit a lantern and saw her, no, them. The young girl sat in a corner with her back to the wall and her blood flowed in thin tributaries towards his books. In the moments before his mind cracked, he saw his mother’s broken body.
It wasn’t his young lover anymore but his mother now, pregnant and bleeding at the bottom of a ravine. Dead babies stretched out their tiny arms to him wherever he turned, blood pumping from their eyes like tears, crying to be picked up and held. He ran and ran and ran. The only thing that made sense to him was the fact that his legs had brought him to where his mother had died during the war.
“Follow me,” she said, jarring Ezekiel back to the present.
He walked with her, step by step. She stopped to give him a smile when they reached the edge of the ravine.
“Come,” she said, smiling through her tears.
Ezekiel turned around and looked at the plantation. He could stay and be all alone. He turned around and followed her over the edge, satisfied he had someone now.