This is an excerpt from the author’s new novel, “An Unwritten Life”
this year, I’ll wear purple on christmas maybe add a little blue here & there a splash of red near my sleeves ah, yes, that’ll do well
by mk, 2015
I Pretoria – Kroonstad
The car moved south across the country, like a teardrop down a cheek. Only the driver was awake, hunched over the wheel, hands grasped tightly at ten-to-two. Her eyes flicked constantly between the mirrors and the headlights of oncoming traffic, the strain of her divided attention taking its toll. She thought she was focused, but it was only when she took the exit to the filling station that she realized she had actually been falling asleep at the wheel. Joining the shortest queue at the pumps, she became aware of her toddler’s nursery rhymes, still playing on the loop as they had been ever since they left Mamelodi: When the bow breaks, the cradle will fall, down will come baby, cradle and all …
She asked the petrol attendant to check the oil, water and tire pressure, things she’d skipped in her rush to get out of Gauteng. But Cape Town was still a long way off, and she didn’t want to run the added risk of car trouble on the way. It felt good to be out of the car, but the nagging feeling that he might be following them surfaced again, so she got back into the car, locked the doors, and kept her eyes on the mirrors.
The commotion woke Jackson. Where are we? He asked, looking around with sleep-soaked eyes.
Kroonstad, Sara said.
Want anything from the shop?
Coffee, please. Black, no sugar.
What about him? Jackson checked, tilting his head at the child sleeping in the back seat.
He’s sorted. But get some more Jelly Babies. He loves those, she said, counting out enough notes to pay the attendant before handing him the rest of the wad she’d withdrawn from an ATM in Pretoria.
All this, he said.
It’s safer with you, she replied.
Leaving the shop, Jackson wondered around the parking lot, looking for the car. It was the start of the holiday season, and the filling station was full of travellers from the northern provinces destined for summer vacations by the sea. In the end, he sent her a message: Can’t find the car. Where are you?
The tone filled Sara with dread. Reluctant, she reached for her phone, but sighed with relief when she saw the message. Behind the Pickfords truck, she responded, flashing the hazard lights.
He found her in the passenger seat, scribbling down numbers. How are you feeling now? He asked.
You’ll have to take over from here, she said, dismantling her phone.
But I don’t have a license.
He shrugged his shoulders. Prison and what, what, remember. Me, I’m still catching up with life.
Well, it’s either a fine with you at the wheel or an accident with me.
She reached for her coffee with one hand and gave him the key with the other. Let’s go.
IIKroonstad – Kimberley
She woke to the sound of Zakariya singing in the back seat. The nursery rhymes were back on.
Salaam alaikum, baby boy, she smiled, reaching around her seat to squeeze the toddler’s cheeks.
By now the sun had risen, so she pulled down her sunglasses from the top of her head, realizing then that they’d been there all night. Then she looked around in panic.
This isn’t the N1, she said. Where are we?
Outside Kimberley, he answered, decisively.
You need to rest, and Zak needs to get out of the car. Cape Town’s still far.
He won’t look for you there.
It was late in the afternoon when she woke. Far from rested, her nap left her feeling listless and lethargic. Her neck was sweaty, her collar soaking wet. In the distance, she could hear Jackson and Zakariya playing in the pool. She wanted to join them, but fatigue nailed her to the bed, which sucked her down like quicksand. Too tired to resist, she submitted to the exhaustion and stared up at the ceiling, while the sequence of events that had led her to this sweltering city, this bog of a bed, flooded her head once more.
She returned to her office from the last meeting of the year, a spring in her step at the prospect of shutting down her computer for the summer. But her mood changed when she saw the envelope waiting on her desk, instantly recognizing Adam’s handwriting in the shape of her name. Too afraid to open the envelope, she gave it to her assistant. The colour drained from his face when he read the letter. Go back into your office, he said. And close the blinds. I’ll call security.
When the security guard arrived, he confirmed that Sara’s husband had delivered the letter himself. Once the guard had read the letter, he advised Sara to go straight to the police. I need to get my son from nursery first, she said, haphazardly throwing things into her bag, unable to distinguish between what was needed and what was not.
Seeing her frenzy, the guard took her keys and drove her himself, through a city she had lived in all her adult life, but that now seemed terrifyingly unfamiliar, it’s sedate tree-lined avenues transformed into Hansel and Gretel’s ominous woods, howling trees clutching at the car with gnarled and twisted fingers.
Once they were inside the police station, the nightmare abated, but when the police directed them to the family court, providing an armed escort there, the ordeal resumed, escalating before her like a magnifying series of Matryoshka dolls all in the guise of Chucky. When the paperwork was finally complete, two officers accompanied her to Waterkloof to deliver the interim protection order to Adam in person. Flanked by an officer on either side, she was gripped by terror when one of them rang the doorbell. Please, let’s make this quick, she said to the policeman.
When Adam opened the door, one of the officers asked him to confirm his name before handing him the order. Adam flipped through the document casually, as though he were merely browsing through the pages of one of his motoring magazines. Once he’d signed the document as the policeman had instructed, Adam looked up at Sara, his contemptuous stare causing her hands to tremble.
She clenched them into fists to steady herself, knowing in her gut that the document would not restrain him, but that it had in fact inflamed him even further. The police escorted her to back to her car. Do you have safe place to say, one of them asked. Realising then that home was no longer home; a feeling of utter destitution convulsed her. For a while, she just stood there staring blankly at the officer until eventually one name emerged from the haze ⎯ Jackson ⎯ filling her with hope as a galleon on the horizon does a castaway.
She found him waiting for them outside his shack. When she crossed his humble threshold and collapsed onto his rickety bed, she became certain of two things: that her life as she had known it was over, and that the Mamelodi shack she was in was safer than her Waterkloof mansion would ever be. But when she woke the following day, Jackson sat her down, arms stretched out on the table in front of him, his fingers interlaced as people do when they have something serious to say.
Me, I’ve thought about this very carefully, he started. Even with you locked up inside here, your car has already drawn too much attention. People are talking.
What are you saying, Jackson? Do you want me to leave?
He shook his head. I’m saying that you’re not safe here.
So what should I do?
We need to leave.
That he’d used ‘we’ instead of ‘you’ brought some comfort. And where should we go?
Your husband, he’s a powerful man.
Jackson, she said impatiently. That’s not an answer. Where should we go?
Jackson opened his eyes wide, causing his brow to furrow. As far as possible, he said.
Mamma, Zak called out when she joined them in the pool, the water cool and invigorating against her skin. Under, Mamma, under, he shouted, so they both breathed in as she had been training him to do, and ducked under the water. Zak laughed in delight when they surfaced with a Boo! Gain, Mamma, gain, the toddler called out.
He’s adorable, isn’t he? It was the lady from the guesthouse, smiling beside the pool. How old is he, two? She guessed.
He’s three, Sara said, curtly.
And half, Mamma, Zak added. Dak tlee and half.
Sensing Sara’s awkwardness, the woman dropped the subject and came straight to the point. I thought I’d remind you that we have water cuts from six to six, in case you want to have showers, or a bath for the little one, if you prefer. Just make sure to keep it shallow, won’t you?
Tired from the journey and his swim, Zak was asleep as soon as his mother had bathed and fed him. She and Jackson were sitting at a quiet table by the pool, her food untouched on her plate.
Jackson tapped his finger on the lip of her plate three times. Eat, he said. You need to keep strong.
In the distance there was a dull flash of lighting and a muffled rumble of thunder. A sudden gust of hot wind caused the candle on their table to flicker, and left Sara feeling flustered and confined.
Fuck it’s hot, she said, holding up her hair to expose the back of her neck. She pushed back her chair, but once she had risen from her seat, she didn’t know why she was standing, or where she should go, so she proceeded to walk in circles around the pool until the tune of Here We Go Round the Mulberry Bush surfaced in her head. Eventually she sat down at the edge of the pool, kicking her feet in the water. When Jackson finished eating, he sent her plate to her room and walked over to the pool.
You can’t bath, but you can swim, he said, sitting down next to her.
Maybe they pay a levy, she speculated. Or get a business exemption, a tourism waver, or something like that.
Or maybe they’re just rich, he said.
They sat quietly by the pool for a while, moving their feet gently around the water.
You should get some sleep, Jackson said, looking at his watch. We have a thousand kilometres to cover tomorrow.
I should, Sara agreed, but just continued to stare trance-like at the ripples on the surface of the pool. There was a TV playing somewhere in the background. Some of the other guests were laughing at Trevor Noah’s story about a vampire called Vernacular who was chasing a woman through a township.
“I’m gonna bite you,” Vernacular threatened.
“Please don’t bite me,” the woman pleaded.
Sara imagined Adam pursuing her with his gun. “I’m going to kill you,” she heard him shout, while she ran away pleading, “Please don’t kill me.”
III Kimberley – Three Sisters
By the time the white line of dawn appeared on the horizon, they were approaching the Orange River. Sara opened her eyes and leaned over to check the speedometer.
I don’t drive as fast as you, Jackson said. He slowed down as they crossed the bridge into Hopetown. Let’s stop there for some coffee, he suggested, pointing at a little filling station on the south bank the river.
When Sara returned from the shop, she found Jackson squatting in front of the car. Elbows resting on knees, he was looking out over the river, smoking a joint. Hey, she whispered with urgency. There’s a police van right over there.
I know, Jackson said.
First she looked at him in disbelief; then she sat down beside him and lit a cigarette. I had no idea where I was when the alarm clock went off this morning, she said after a while. I looked around my room for clues, but nothing made any sense, not the lamp by the bed, or curtains on the window, or the carpet on the floor. Even the cot at the foot of the bed; I didn’t know why it was there. It was only when I saw the picture of the Big Hole on the wall that things came back to me.
The sun was rising, illuminating the fog on the surface of the river and the trees growing along the banks. I wished he’d drive his car right into that fucking hole, she said. They say it’s so deep the water down there is like acid. I imagined him and his car just melting away, the biggest asshole in the world melting away at the bottom of the biggest hole in the world. The two of them looked at each other and laughed.
Jackson started collecting pebbles from the ground between his feet. You know, in this place, farm boys once played marbles with diamonds, he said, and placed three perfectly smooth pebbles in her palm. Never lose hope, he said. Nothing’s going to happen to you. Me, I’ll make sure of it.
Say Insha’Allah, Sara said.
Otherwise it’s bad luck.
Eish, I thought you don’t believe in all that stuff.
Well, my feelings come and go, she said, and under the circumstances, I’d rather not tempt fate.
Okay, Jackson said. Insha’Allah.
Nutly lime, Mamma, nutly lime, Zak called out, clapping his hands in the back seat. Sara pressed play, and the nursery rhymes resumed: Three blind mice, three blind mice, see how they run …
How do you know what he’s saying? Jackson puzzled. Me, I sometimes have no idea.
Mothers just do, Sara said. Mothers just do.
By now they were deep into the Great Karoo. With two provinces and half the country behind them, Sara was starting to feel a little more at ease, although she still leaned forward in the passenger seat to check the wing mirror from time to time. The road was quiet, and Jackson had set the cruise control at 130 while he sat cross-legged behind the wheel in a lotus-like position, letting the high-tech features of the luxury vehicle do the work. She marveled at him.
How do you remain so calm? She asked, with a mixture of irritation and awe.
Jackson looked around. All this space, he said. Then he leaned over the steering wheel and looked up. All that sky. Uit die blou van onse hemel.
I’ve never heard you speak Afrikaans before, Sara smiled. But this is Jackson, she thought, never starting to answer at the point you’d expect, but somewhere far away and tangential. So she just stared at the road ahead while he told his story.
There were times on death row when I felt so sad, not for killing those men ⎯ they did not deserve to live ⎯ but for all the places I would never see after they hanged me, like the sea, like here, he gestured.
She’d barely noticed the landscape Jackson was pointing out at. To her it was a desolate wilderness, a tedious backdrop to the terrifying scenarios circling the ominous merry-go-round in her head. She just wanted to get to Cape Town. But Jackson, never having left Gauteng, was fully present; overwhelmed by the unending vastness of a country he was seeing for the first time. Our sky, he thought, it’s not just a sky; it’s like a universe. Our land, it isn’t just land; it’s like a continent.
You know, babies are born alcoholics here, Sara said.
But Jackson, overcome by an uncanny sense of déjà vu in a place he’d never been before, wasn’t listening. Perhaps he’d been here in one of his walking dreams, he thought. He shrugged. You never know how life will turn out, he said. Me, I should have been dead in my grave for twenty-seven years by now, but here I am, driving you to Cape Town.
She’d registered Jackson’s words, but her own were echoing more loudly in her ears. She cringed at their superior tone. Now, fully aware for the first time of her own son’s ordeal whilst still in the womb, she felt embarrassed. How was she any different from these abused hinterland women she felt herself so superior to? She was a rich city girl, she thought, but that was all. She pulled down the sun visor to look at herself in the mirror. Her wealth made her all the more culpable. She had the means to leave after the first punch, but chose to return instead, and every in utero blow Zak endured subsequently, she now thought, was one she had exposed him to.
IV Three Sisters – Laingsburg
At Three Sisters, they debated about whether to stop or continue on to Beaufort West. Her anxiety resurfaced; they were back on the N1, the road Adam would be on if he was pursuing them.
How far is Beaufort West? Jackson asked.
I’m not sure, about 100 km, she said, glancing at the fuel gauge. There’s enough petrol, and Zak’s fast asleep, so let’s carry on.
The road was much busier now, a more visible police presence hovering on the side of the road. Jackson resumed manual control of the car, making sure to stick to the speed limit. I think you should drive from Beaufort West, he said.
The heat slapped them with a scorching palm when they stepped out of the air-conditioned vehicle at Beaufort West.
Puppy, Mamma, puppy, Zak called out.
Still dazed by the heat, what Jackson heard was Pappa, Mamma, Pappa, so he fell to his knees to reach for the gun strapped to his ankle.
Sara’s eyes went wide open. You have a gun, too?
But seeing Zak point at a little boy with his puppy, Jackson left the gun in its holster and scooped the child up in his arms as he rose back to his feet.
Why don’t you go to the bathroom, he told Sara, while we go see the puppy, he smiled at Zak.
Sara’s mind jarred before her predicament came crashing in like a tidal wave. She was about to leave her son in a parking lot with a man who had a gun. She looked at her son, then at the boy with the puppy, then at Jackson’s ankle. She didn’t want to be here, weighing her deadly options. She wanted to be back home in Waterkloof, surrounded by beautiful things, cared for by doting servants. When her eyes met Jackson’s, she could tell that he had read her mind.
If that’s okay with you, he checked.
And just like that, he’d defused the situation. She sighed out loud, her shoulders dropping from where they had been hunched around her neck. She didn’t attempt to camouflage her altered posture; she was now too tired to pretend. Whatever, she said, waving her hand dismissively. For solace and concealment, she pulled a thin scarf loosely over her hair, and walked to the bathroom.
The queue at the ladies’ was long, and Sara wondered why the woman ahead of her seemed familiar. At the washstand, she recognized her as the woman from the parking lot, the mother, she now concluded, of the boy with the puppy. The taps were set to slow release, and the woman was hunched over the basin, her palms cupped under the slow trickle till she had collected enough water to splash on her face. When she rose to look into the mirror, Sara noticed the bruises on her face. The woman made to lower her sunglasses, but stopped herself. She dropped her arms by her side and just stood there, looking back at Sara, revealing herself fully to her in the mirror. Drying her hands on her T-shirt, Sara turned to face the woman. She took the letter from her back pocket, and handed it to her.
The woman’s face fell. Is dit hy? She asked. Ontvoer hy jou? Ek het sy geweer gesien.
Sara shook her head. It’s from my husband, she said. We’re on the run.
And then it hit her. She’d become a woman she never thought she’d be, a woman on the run, from a man with a gun. A woman on the run, with a man who had a gun. Sensing Sara’s fear, the woman put her arms around her.
You’re very brave, she said. I’ll never forget you.
Ek sal jou ook onthou, Sara said.
Those are our boys playing out there, the woman continued. I’m staying for the sake of mine, maar jy vlieg met joune. Ek sou dit nooit moontlik gedink het nie. But now I see it can be done.
I’ve wasted a lot of time by staying, Sara said. I thought things would get better, but they just got worse. I should have left him long ago. Just leave him, she encouraged the woman.
And go where? Maybe one day I’ll find a way, like you. She returned the letter, pulled her sunglasses down, and left the bathroom.
Insha’Allah, Sara whispered.
The road to Laingsburg seemed endless, and Zak would not stop crying. From the passenger seat, Jackson had held out toys, offered Jelly Babies, sung nursery rhymes, and pulled all the funny faces he could muster, but the child was inconsolable. I give up, he said to Sara. He wants you.
When she’d found a safe place to pull over, Sara switched on the hazard lights and attended to Zak while Jackson paced around the car.
What’s this? He asked, pointing at the Arabic calligraphy that ran along the bottom of the rear window.
Sara looked up. My father put it there when he gave me the car.
But what is it?
It’s the shahada.
The Islamic creed.
Jackson nodded. And why is it here?
I told you, she said impatiently while trying to comfort Zak. My father stuck it there.
I don’t know, Jackson. Muslims have it everywhere. It’s even on the flag of Saudi Arabia.
Can you read it? He asked, his fingers tracing the intricate weave of white loops and strokes standing out in striking contrast to the black tinted window.
What does it say?
Really, Jackson? Now?
Jackson tapped his finger on the glass three times.
Okay, okay. It says: La ilaha illallah Muhammadur Rasulullah.
And what does it mean?
Sara rolled her eyes and sighed. It means: There is no god but God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.
Good, Jackson said. Pray. You need to keep strong.
In the distance, he saw a small white house. He wondered what it must be like to live there, so far away from everywhere and everybody. He liked the hustle and bustle of the township, and knew he couldn’t do it; too much space can be as restricting as too little, he thought. He knew he’d feel very confined, very closed in, as though he were back in prison.
Look, Jackson said.
What? Sara asked, looking around anxiously.
That man over there, he said, pointing at a lone figure walking in the distance.
Oh, Sara said. What about him?
He’s walking. Where is he going? Jackson muttered to himself. When will he get there? He turned to look at Sara. Do you know what my friends call me?
Seated in the back seat, Sara shook her head, her attention more focused on Zak.
When I was in prison, there were nights when I couldn’t breathe, and I’d break out in sweat, even in winter. Nights in prison are long, and you find yourself getting lost in your mind, like in those rooms with magic mirrors you get at fun fairs, except you’re stuck and you can never find your way out. So you just go round and round while your mind turns and twists your thoughts into scary shapes. So me, I would close my eyes and imagine I was walking. Just walking, walking, walking. Many times I couldn’t picture where I was walking, so I’d just imagine looking down at my walking feet, one foot going in front of the other, step by step. You know what I did on the day they released me?
Sara shook her head again.
Me, I walked. I walked right out of Pretoria, wanting to get as far away as I could, until I eventually ended up in Polokwane.
Rocking Zak in her lap, she turned to look up at Jackson. Really?
I’m telling you. I just walked. It was almost dark when I got to Ga-Rankuwa. I had no money, no phone, nowhere to sleep. So I just turned around and walked all the way back to Pretoria. Now I walk everyday. Most days, I walk home from work.
You what? From ⎯. She cut herself short, incredulous at the prospect. You walk from Waterkloof to Mamelodi?
How long does it take you?
From your place to mine, four, sometimes five hours. Three and a half hours when I walk fast.
She stopped rocking the child for a moment, and looked at Jackson with a renewed sense of awe.
Me, Jackson continued, I’m catching up with the steps. I can’t get back those years, but I can walk, try to walk all those steps I imagined when I was locked up. It calms my mind, makes me feel alive and free. By now the lone figure was reduced to a distant spot. Jackson pointed at the horizon. You see that man disappearing over there, he doesn’t have much, but I’m telling you, him, he has a very calm mind. Me, I’m very sure of that.
There was a lull in the traffic and Jackson noticed that the road was empty. He walked into the middle of the road, balancing on the white line, arms outstretched, as if on a tightrope that spanned the country all the way to the old gallows in Pretoria. He takes regular walks to visit them. He used to clean them before and after an execution. He’d stand on the trapdoor, under one of the seven nooses, looking around at the last place he’d ever see. He knew that it was only a matter of time before someone else would be sweeping those steps for him, cleaning up his mess after the life had been wrung from his body.
He’d rehearse the moment of his death, again and again, so that when the time came, he’d be resolute, knowing exactly what to do. He’d eat and drink only a little before the day, just enough for the guards not notice his abstinence. He did not want to shit himself or piss his pants as he had seen other inmates do. He’d use the hunger and the thirst to focus his mind. He would not sing as some men did, or cry, but would climb those fifty-two steps courageously and to the sound of his own final footsteps resounding through the room. He would not look at the black telephone for last-minute stays of execution. Why should it ring for him? He’d take his final two steps onto the foot soles painted on the trapdoor. He’d try hard to keep his feet from twitching when the trapdoor swung open. He would imagine them moving back and forth, back and forth, as though he were walking, walking on air.
When you’ve stared at Death as hard as Jackson, you begin to recognize Him in the crowd. He observes people, their comings and goings, like the woman at number 68. He’d noticed her leave one morning, immaculately dressed as always. When she returned a few hours later, he knew that Death had called her number. She invited him over, as she did from time to time. They had tea and cake in the garden, while she told him what the doctor had said.
After that, he spent a lot of time patrolling outside her house, not guarding her against mortal men, for whom he no longer had any fear, but standing firm in the face of Death, letting the woman know that she was not alone, letting Death know that they were ready. He remembered the student at number 89, who came home early one day. Sensing that something was terribly wrong, Jackson locked the security booth and cycled after him. He planned to ring the bell and make something up. Get him to open the gate and just start talking about something; it didn’t matter what. But he was too late. He got to the gate just in time to hear the shot go off. Jackson looked over to where Sara was still trying to pacify Zak by the side of the road. Yes, we’re the same, he thought to himself once more, the suicidal, the terminally ill and the condemned; we know things other people don’t.
He’s not settling, Sara called out.
Jackson saw her fear, but it was still the lesser fear of a mortal man, he noted, not yet the greater fear of Death Himself.
I think we should make a move, she shouted. We’re very exposed here.
She did not yet have the resigned look of the condemned, the look he’d glimpsed every time he caught his reflection on death row. She still had hope. This is good, he thought. He was doing his job, keeping Death at bay. He pledged to keep it that way. He looked up into the heavens and stretched his arms up to the sky. Then he stepped off the white line and walked over to the car.
You’ll have to drive again, Sara said.
He had not been driving long when he noticed a traffic cop a little way ahead, signaling them to pull over.
Fuck, Sara said in the back seat, but Jackson remained calm.
When the traffic cop tapped on the window, Jackson lowered it.
You were speeding, the cop said.
No, I wasn’t, Jackson replied.
122, the cop said, showing him the reading. He peered through the window at the mother and child in the back seat, and then looked at Jackson. License, he said.
Before Jackson could answer, Sara was out of the car, with Zakariya balanced on her hip. Let me explain, she said to the cop, stepping inside the yellow line behind the car. Jackson watched them from the rear-view mirror. He saw her point to him in the driver’s seat, all the while rocking the child on her hip, but the cop seemed determined. Sara returned to the car to get her handbag from the back seat. She retrieved the protection order from her bag, Adam’s letter from her pocket, and showed them to the cop.
What’s happening? Jackson asked when Sara opened the driver’s door.
Move over, she said. He’s escorting us to Laingsburg.
Jackson watched Sara keep up the with cop car ahead. When the speedometer hit 120, the traffic cop turned on his blue lights and siren, while the reading on the speedometer increased rapidly: 125, 130, 135, 140 …
Pee, paw, Mamma, pee paw, Zakariya clapped excitedly in the back seat, imitating the sound of the siren.
When the speedometer settled at 160, Sara activated the cruise control.
That’s more like it, she said.
V Cape Town
It was late afternoon when they cleared the Huguenot Tunnel, a palpable sense of relief rising in the car. They were on their final approach down the N1 into Cape Town, the southern sky still arching overhead like a universe, the Cape Peninsula spread out before them, just like the jewel Jackson had always imagined it to be. Sara had the sun visor down against the setting sun. Still peering routinely into the rear view mirror, she noticed the large car that was following very close behind.
She pulled down her sunglasses. It was the woman from the bathroom. Her husband was asleep in the passenger seat next to her. Sara slowed down. She lowered her window and waved at the woman through her wing mirror. The woman waved back. Then she raised her forefinger and spun it around in small circles. She pointed at her sleeping husband, and then pulled her finger across her throat. Sara interpreted the gesture to mean, “One day I’m going to kill him.” She stepped on the brake, but only had enough time to make a mental note of the number plate before the woman slipped away at her exit and disappeared over a bridge.
Everything okay? Jackson asked.
Sara closed her window and stepped on the accelerator. The engine roared and the Mercedes surged forward, the force pinning them back into their seats. Please send Tina another message, she said. Tell her we’ll be there in half an hour. She turned on the navigation system, and followed the directions to her best friend’s house.
Oh, my, god, Tina said as soon as Jackson went to bed. Your man’s gorgeous. Is he the one you’re supposed to be fucking?
Sara shook her head.
Because he’s worth it. I’d do him, even if it meant the kiss of death.
The two women laughed till tears streamed down their faces, and Sara realized that she hadn’t laughed like that in months, maybe even years.
Listen, she said to Tina once their laughter had subsided. There’s something Jackson wants you to know.
Tina gave her a puzzled look.
He wanted me to tell you on the phone before we arrived, but mine is off and he didn’t have much airtime, so I thought I’d wait till I could tell you face-to-face.
What is it? Tina asked.
As we’re staying in your house, he thought you should know ⎯
Oh for heaven’s sake. Just say it.
He’s a murderer.
Tina leaned forward. What?
Sara nodded. He killed two white men during the old days, and seriously injured a third. He didn’t want you to find out somehow and think he was keeping secrets.
He just wanted to be upfront with you, I guess.
I mean, why did he kill those men?
They gang-raped his neighbour.
Tina’s jaw dropped.
Tina’s jaw dropped even further.
And then they tried to kill her. That’s when Jackson intervened.
Tina, are you okay? Sara asked. I’m sorry to shock you, but it was right to tell you.
I’m glad you did, Tina said.
Do you want us to leave?
Are you crazy? No, I’m glad you told me, because now you’ve really turned me on to him. I mean, is anything more seductive than a bad boy who’s a good man?
The women laughed again.
It’s so good to see you, Sara said, reaching across the table to hold her friend’s hand. Thank you for putting us up at such short notice.
Hey, how long have we known each other? You’d do the same for me. We’re like family, and family don’t say thank you. You’re safe now.
Safer, Sara emphasized. And it’s only for tonight. We’ll find a guesthouse tomorrow.
A guesthouse? Are you serious? It’s the week before Christmas. Cape Town’s fully booked. What’s still available will be very expensive.
I know, but I’ve been thinking about it. Adam might guess I’d come here, and I can’t take that risk. I can’t put you in harms way, too. No, he can’t find us here, she said emphatically.
Whatever, Tina responded. But I’m coming with you.
In which case, Sara said, can we take your car?
The following day, they checked into The Cottage, nestled on an oak-lined avenue in one of the city’s most exclusive southern suburbs on the slopes of Table Mountain.
It’s all pretty self-explanatory, the manager explained, but proceeded to give them a detailed tour of the luxury property anyway. Water from the bathrooms and kitchen feeds the garden, he explained, but do please keep your usage to the municipal limit of 86 litres per person per day. Gauteng is still getting a lot of rain, but down here Day Zero’s fast approaching.
Jackson looked blankly at this man who seemed as though he’d never gone a day without in his life. In the township, he thought, it’s been Day Zero all our lives. He stepped away from the group and started tapping on his phone.
In the magnificent garden, the manager pointed at the dense growth of trees that ran along the far side of the garden. The manor house is on the other side, but it’s quite a way off. It’s accessed by a separate driveway, so you’ll have all the privacy you need down here. They won’t disturb you. Then he pointed at the sparkling infinity pool. But the water no longer flowed over the edges of the pool, revealing the weir and catch basin at the pool’s most dramatic infinite edge with its breathtaking views of the mountain. With the structural mechanics of the pool now in view, the visual effect was diminished, like a magic trick loses its charm once its method is revealed.
The level’s four tiles down now, the manager said, pointing around the edge of the pool. Last week it was three, so it’s dropped a level in a week, he added for emphasis. It’s a nightmare keeping it clean without the overflow, so absolutely no diving, please. We’d prefer to keep the water inside the pool.
Feeling patronised, Sara turned to Zak. It’s much smaller than our pool in Waterkloof, isn’t it? But, turning to look back at the manager, it will have to do, she said.
Oh, my, god, Tina exclaimed when the manager left. And they call this The Cottage!
I’ve found it, Jackson said, handing his phone to Sara.
She clicked on the map for directions. It’s fifteen minutes away, she said.
What is? Tina asked.
The nearest pawnshop, Sara said.
Tina gave her a questioning look.
We’re running short of cash, Sara explained, and I can’t use my bankcards. Adam will know where I am. So I’m going to sell this, she said, taking off her diamond wedding ring.
How much did you get, Jackson asked when Sara returned to the car.
She showed him the wad of notes.
Is that all?
I know. And I even salaamed so nicely, she said, removing her scarf.
Jackson took the money and got out of the car.
Where are you going? Sara called out, but he had already closed the door and disappeared around the corner.
What the fuck, Tina exclaimed when Jackson returned to the car. I’ve never seen so much cash in my life. You guys are really getting trippy.
What did you do? Sara asked, starring down at the large amount of cash Jackson had placed in her lap.
I just got you a fair price for your ring, he said. Now let’s go. I have somewhere I have to be.
Sara was still reeling. But ⎯
Tina interrupted her by starting the car and revving the engine. The man has somewhere to be, she said, and drove off.
Tina had lived all in life in Cape Town, but had no idea where they were when Jackson told her to stop the car.
Where the hell are we? She asked?
It was dark. There were hardly any streetlights, and groups of thugs hovered in the shadows.
Will the car be safe here? She asked.
Jackson drew an insignia of some kind in the fine layer of dust that covered the bonnet. Yes, he said. Follow me.
Inside the lights were dim and the mood relaxed. People were sitting at tables and lounging around in sofas. There was a small dance area, but it wasn’t full. Against the far wall, a projector cast Shekhinah, singing in a red VW Beetle: “Suited for each other, don’t try to move me from my lover.” People looked up at the newcomers. Tina felt a little self-conscious, but followed Jackson in his confident stride to the bar. They sat down in bar stools shaped like bums.
I’m here to see Nomsa, he said to the woman behind the bar. We’ll have two beers while we’re waiting, he added.
The woman didn’t look up. There’s no Nomsa here, she said, and continued shining glasses.
I won’t repeat myself, Jackson said.
Ignoring him, the woman turned to her assistant behind the bar instead. Did you get that, she said to her. He walks into my shebeen out of nowhere, with this little miss thing, ordering me around, like some big dick. She sucked her teeth.
It’s not your shebeen, Jackson said flatly. We’ll have those beers now.
There was a sudden hush. Looking over Jackson’s shoulder, Tina saw a majestic woman crossing the room; a magnificent doek wound high on her head. She was walking directly towards them. People put down their glasses, others dropped their cigarettes, and those on the dance floor cleared the way for the woman they’d all heard about, but who most had never seen.
The woman stopped a few paces away from Jackson. A beer for my friend, she said to the bartender. And one for my friend’s friend, she added, sizing up Tina.
Molo, Nomsa, Jackson said.
Nomsa’s dead, the woman replied. I have no mercy left. You can call me Big Babe now. Come, she said, nodding to the back.
When Tina rose to follow them, Big Babe turned around. Give us a moment, she said. I last saw this man in another country. De Klerk was still in Tuynhuys, and I’m guessing you were still at school. I’ll send for you when we’re done.
Tina sat back down, smiling awkwardly at the bartender. She went for her cell phone, but remembered that she’d left it with Sara. Swiveling around in her bum-shaped seat, she took another look around the room, noticing then that there were hardly any men present. Then it struck her that the thugs outside seemed to be women, too.
Unjani. How’s Cape Town treating you? Jackson asked Big Babe once they were seated in her den.
Well, as you can see, she said, gesturing at the room, then at herself, seated in an elaborate armchair under a portrait of Felicia Snoop Pearson.
What can I do for you? She asked, sparing him from having to.
My friend’s in trouble, he said. I need some help protecting her while we’re here.
The skinny one out there? Big Babe asked, raising a finger in the direction of the door.
Not her, he said. Someone else.
No. She’s kind of an employer.
Big Babe raised an eyebrow. Your employer needs my help?
Not that kind of employer. I’m a security guard in her neighbourhood.
Big Babe sat quietly while Jackson spoke, a steely expression covering her face as his story unfolded.
And where is she now, this employer?
At the guesthouse. In Bishopscourt.
A rich bitch, Big Babe said.
You could say that, Jackson nodded.
You fucking her, this rich bitch? I need to know the dynamics.
No, Jackson said.
What about the skinny one? She has the hots for you. I can tell.
Jackson laughed dismissively, shaking his head.
Good, Big Babe nodded. Keep it that way. We don’t want soft hearts and wet pussies getting in the way.
So you’ll help us? Jackson asked.
Big Babe leaned forward and rested her hand on his knee. Mamela, she said. There’s not a day goes by when I don’t remember what you did for me.
Jackson looked down. It was nothing, he said.
Ha, Big Babe scoffed. You may call death row nothing, big balls, but I don’t. So this is what you’re going to do. You’re going to send me some pictures of the igwala husband, and that fancy idilesi in Bishopscourt. And this is what I’m going to do. I’m going to send some of my toughest bitches to watch over you. Then she pulled out two drawers concealed in the coffee table in front of her, and sat back in her armchair. Now let’s have a party, she said, pointing at the contents of the drawer. Go get your skinny bitch from the bar, while I fetch mine from the bedroom.
When Sara had put Zak to bed, she called the Helpline.
Promise me you’ll call them, Tina said before they left. You need to build evidence for your case. Here, I’ll leave you my phone.
Such a serious death threat, it doesn’t come from now where, the voice at the other end of the line said. It usually follows other forms of abuse. Has that been your experience?
Sitting out in the garden, the dark mass of the mountain bearing down on her, Sara flinched at the memory of the first blow Adam ever delivered. She was three months pregnant, and flew home to her parents in Durban the following day.
Marriage is hard work, her father said. You’ve got to make things right with him, he urged. Our families have been doing business for generations.
This isn’t only about you, her mother interrupted. Your sister’s married to his brother. Have you forgotten that?
Hello, Ma’am. Are you still there? The voice asked.
I’ll have to call you back, Sara said. She hung up the phone and sobbed.
There was nowhere to park in Camps Bay, so Tina drove them further south along the Atlantic coast to Llandudno Beach. They hired a beach umbrella, setting it up in a quiet spot amongst the large granite boulders at the southern end of the beach.
So this is what the beach feels like, Jackson said, marveling at the feeling of the silky sand between his toes. When he and Zak went down to play in the shallows on the shore, Sara turned to Tina. What am I going to do now? She asked. I can’t stay here forever. She looked around at the other people on the beach. Is this a non-smoking beach?
Tina rummaged around in her bag.
But I’m so fucking exhausted by it all, Sara continued. I feel as though my head is going to explode if I have to make one more decision.
Menthol or plain? Tina asked mischievously, holding out two packets of cigarettes. She winked at Sara, and the two women laughed.
Can I say something? Tina asked through huge plumes of smoke.
Sara nodded, taking a hit.
I think you were right to get away. You’ve been to the police, you have a protection order, and you’ve driven yourself to safety. You’ve got enough of money for now, and a safe place to stay. Most of all, Zak is happy and content. And look at Jackson. The two of them are having a ball down there. So here’s what I think. It’s the holiday season. Just use the next few days to do that.
Do what? Sara asked.
Have a fucking holiday! Tina exclaimed. I mean, look at you. You need to relax, girlfriend. Take some time to calm down and enjoy yourself, so that when the time comes for next steps, you can decide what to do with a clear and fresh mind. But you don’t have to make those decisions today, or tomorrow, or even the day after. You’ve bought yourself time, and Jackson’s friends are just over there keeping an eye on you, she said, gesturing at the Babes in the middle distance. Now just sit back and relax. Can you try to do that? Tina looked at her intently.
Sara nodded, but was not convinced. She lowered her sunglasses and lay down on her beach towel, where, despite her best efforts, she just continued to fret.
When Jackson and Zak returned from the shore, Sara had fallen asleep and Tina was busy on her phone. How was it? She asked.
Eish, the water’s freezing, Jackson said. And very salty. Me, I never imagined it would be that salty.
And you little man? Did you have fun? Tina asked, wrapping a towel around Zak. The toddler muttered excitedly, pointing around and up and down, but Tina couldn’t understand a word he was saying, so she just smiled broadly and said, Is that so?
How’s she been, Jackson mouthed to Tina?
Stressed out, Tina whispered, but she’s fast asleep now.
Good, Jackson said, picking up his phone, while Tina and Zak started building castles in the sand.
Tina, Jackson said with earnest, holding out his phone. You posted pictures of us on the beach.
Yes, Tina smiled. Aren’t they lovely? And then her expression changed.
Come on, Jackson said, jumping to his feet. We’ve got to go. He woke Sara, and let out a wolf whistle to alert the Babes.
Jackson, out of habit, was counting the steps leading from the beach up to the parking lot. He had not yet reached fifty-two when Zak shouted out, excited, Pappa, Mamma, Pappa, pointing at his father who was holding out a gun. Lama laikum, Pappa, the toddler said.
Sara and Tina froze. The Babes pulled out their weapons, but Jackson stepped forward, arms out stretched. Everybody just stay calm, he said. Then he turned to face Adam. Please lower your weapon, Sir. Nobody needs to get hurt here today.
But Adam just looked back at him, wild-eyed. You’ve got that wrong, he said. And then he pulled the trigger, the sound travelling through the air like a series of violently crashing waves.
There was mayhem. The people closest to the shot fell down. Those further away darted around, ducking and screaming. Sara threw herself on top of Zak. Only Jackson and the Babes remained standing. Several seconds passed before Jackson fell, first onto his knees before finally collapsing to the ground. Then a second shot rang out, striking Adam in the shoulder. Sara rushed over to Jackson. Tina took hold of Zak. The Babes overpowered Adam.
Sara cradled Jackson’s head in her lap, a stream of blood already flowing down the stairs, seeping into the white sea sand.
I never told you what my friends call me, Jackson said, looking up at her.
Sshh, Jackson, Sara pleaded, desperately pressing down on his wound. Somebody call an ambulance, she cried out.
My friends, they call me Walker, he said.
Sara smiled through the flood of tears streaming down her face.
You can call me Walker, now.
Okay, Walker, she sobbed.
Glimpsing the mountain through the canopy of trees that overhung the stairs, Jackson moved his lips again. Don’t worry, he gasped. Everything will be fine.
Me, I’m going to climb that mountain now. And then his eyes closed, and his body went limp in her lap.
At Cape Town airport, Sara and Big Babe stood side by side by the window, looking out over the runway. In the background, Tina kept Zak occupied with the toy she’d bought him. Starring ahead through their reflections in the window, Big Babe broke the silence. So here we are, the poor still taking the fall for the rich.
But Sara, her loosely draped black scarf lending her an air of regality, just starred blankly out at the runway where their luggage was being loaded onto the plane.
So now you just gonna stand there, cold as ice, Big Babe said. Let me tell you something. That man, he was on death row, but I was the one who died. Thirteen years. It was hard on him, but let me tell you, it killed me. Every fucking day, knowing you’re out there, free, living your life, while another man is going to swing for you … And then, by some fucking miracle, just a few days before he’s due to hang, De Klerk suspends all executions. Can you imagine that? There’s no words to describe the relief you feel when shit like that happens. And so he survived, until you rocked up. You, Waterkloof, Wabenzi, Bishopscourt, ma sha’allah, throwing it around, managing to do what a whole fucking regime couldn’t, getting him killed … So now I bet you’re thinking Big Babe’s a mean and heartless bitch, but I’m telling you like it is. Because I know the guilt.
He survived death row, but me, I still, still I lie awake at night because of the anguish and the years behind bars I cost him. Let me tell you, that guilt’s gonna haunt you till the day you die. So you better be starting to fall down on your knees woman, knocking that pampered head of yours on the ground, asking Allah for some deep ⎯. Big Babe stopped herself, breathing deeply before she continued. Accept this: all you got is Allah, that child, and Big Babe now. I’ll say it to your face: I don’t like you. But that doesn’t mean I won’t watch out for you. He called you his friend. That means something to me … And you, you’re the one, while me, I’m the almost-one, the woman he almost died for.
That makes me so angry, I could slit your rich ass open right here. So you better make it count. You hear what I’m saying? You’re the one, so you better make it count. No more daddy’s girl shit, because you know what, if he had protected you the way he should have, we wouldn’t be standing here right now … So here’s what’s gonna happen. You’ll be met at O.R. Thambo. My people will take care of you from there. Anything you need, you just say. Your car’s already on its way.
Sara nodded, jaw clenched tightly, standing firm. But when a goods vehicle appeared on the runway, pulling a long white crate towards their plane, she buckled and fell down.
Big Babe pulled her back onto her feet. Stand up, she said, this is no longer only about you. Stand up, like he stood up for you. Make it count. Make it count right now.
Sara turned to Big Babe, a look of desperation on her face. What if he gets out? Why didn’t your people just kill him?
Big Babe did not look at her, but stared at Jackson’s coffin as it rose into the aircraft. You want to know why my bitch didn’t aim to kill? So that he’d go to prison. Do you know what we do to men like him in prison? That’s where we’ll get him, don’t you worry about that.
When the crate had disappeared from view, Big Babe turned to leave. She did not acknowledge Tina, but ran her fingers through Zak’s curls as she passed by.
Wait, Sara called out to Big Babe, then caught up with her. There’s something else I want you to do. She handed Big Babe a slip of paper. The woman who drives this car needs help, Sara said. I saw her a few days ago, taking the off-ramp to Paarl.
Big Babe looked at the note. Your husband, she said, he’s on me, but this job is going to cost you. Do you understand? She looked at Sara, waiting for a response.
When Sara nodded, Big Babe put the note in her pocket and walked away.
Go efafane, Mamma, go efafane, Zak called out.
Yes, baby boy, she said. We’re going to the aeroplane.
How do you understand what his saying? Tina asked.
Mothers just do, Sara said. Mothers just do.
“Marriage for love is the beautifulest external symbol of the union of souls, marriage without it is the uncleanliest traffic that defiles the world.” Olive Schreiner, Story of an African Farm, 1883
Trevor Noah, The story of Vernacular
Shekhinah, “Suited,” Rose Gold, Columbia Records, Sony Music Entertainment, 2017
Ishtiyaq Shukri is the author of The Silent Minaret and I See You.
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.
It is about time you woke up. You’ve been sleeping in the grave for months. Have you not had enough? Oh, sorry, I should have started with, “you are welcome.” But still, I have been sitting here for thirty minutes listening to you snore. Well, we don’t have much time today. So, I will try to show you everything as fast as I can and introduce you to a few people and then we will continue tomorrow. Okay?
There’s a party tonight, that’s the reason for the rush, and I need to prepare. We all do. We hardly ever have festivities above anymore, so when one presents itself, we make it our aim to be there very early and have as much fun as possible before we either get thrown out or morning comes. Anyway, up on your feet. Let me take you round your new neighborhood.
What? Come on, let’s go. There is no rest here. Oh no, I can’t believe this. Okay, I will only explain to you because you look terribly confused. You are dead. You died six months ago. Remember how you came down with a lung infection right after your campus trip to Mount Kenya? You were later admitted to the hospital, but were too far gone. You died and we have been waiting for your earthly flesh to rot before we could welcome you to the afterlife– and here you are.
Okay? There’s a party tonight, that’s the reason for the rush, and I need to prepare. We all do. We hardly ever have festivities above anymore, so when one presents itself, we make it our aim to be there very early and have as much fun as possible before we either get thrown out or morning comes. Anyway, up on your feet. Let me take you round your new neighborhood.
What? Come on, let’s go. There is no rest here. Oh no, I can’t believe this. Okay, I will only explain to you because you look terribly confused. You are dead. You died six months ago. Remember how you came down with a lung infection right after your campus trip to Mount Kenya? You were later admitted to the hospital, but were too far gone. You died and we have been waiting for your earthly flesh to rot before we could welcome you to the afterlife– and here you are.
Yes, I know it’s a lot to take in. Normally I don’t mind sitting with the newly dead and explaining to them step-by-step until they understand and accept, but as I mentioned, there’s a party tonight, and I don’t have the luxury of time. So, if you could kindly follow me for your tour, that would be great or if you want, you could just sit out here and hang out with the hyenas when night comes and then I’ll come find your bones in the morning.
Great choice you have made. Sometimes I think it’s even more dangerous here in the afterlife than in the world above. Have I introduced myself? No? How wicked of me. My name is Adala. I died four years ago, shot dead by robbers during an invasion of my home. They killed my Mother too, you will meet her later, I guess. What else? I died when I was twenty, so I’ll always be twenty. You are twenty-four, yes? Of course, I know your age, I know everything about you. Everyone knows. Your name is Kwame, a university student. You are a single man though you have a son by a girl called Wakini whom you impregnated in high school. Hahaha. Sorry! Didn’t mean to scare you, let me stop there.
How do I know? From the eulogy readings and the gossip at your funeral; of course, I was there, we all were. It’s our sacred duty to attend every funeral of our kinsmen. Yes, we are related. Don’t ask me how, I don’t know. What I know is, everyone who arrives here has the same blood flowing in their veins as the rest. We are practically family.
So, as you can see, we are in a village. It’s where our great-grandfathers lived. They pretty much run it since they built it. See that big red ochre hut on top of the hill? That’s where Babana and Mamana live. They are the overseers and currently the oldest in the community. The white huts besides theirs belong to their immediate families, Babana’s sons, and their sons.
We all live with the same families we lived with above to avoid confusion. So, after this induction, your immediate families who have died will come take you to go live with them. I know your Aunt Sophie who died last year will be very happy to see you. Yes, I know her, I told you, we are all related here, and we know everything about each other. Oh, that’s Nyajeri coming, whatever you do, don’t look at her face. Look anywhere but her face.
“Good day Nyajeri.
Oh yes, this is he, the new arrival. You think he’s handsome? Well something must be wrong with my eyes then. Does my mother know I’m here with him? Yes, she’s actually with us and has just stepped into the bush to urinate. Will we see you at the party? You are not aware there’s a party? Okay, goodbye.”
Curiosity killed man, but since you have asked and we are already dead anyway, let me tell you why we can never look her in the face. She has the ugliest burn marks and scars on her face. How do I know? Of course, I steal glances at her when she can’t see me. But don’t let her catch you. She was a professional boxer above and was having an affair with her coach, who was a married man. It was his wife that threw hot water on her face then stabbed her to death. If you want to experience her rage, look at her face, then she will flex those boxing hands of hers on you and shatter your nose. What, oh that? I don’t know why she thinks my mother must know where I am. They say her head is not right though, so we have to be kind to her.
Sorry, what did you say? You are itching? Don’t worry it will pass. Your bones are getting used to the new skin on you. Of course, your old skin did rot in the grave. What we now have is this flimsy layer to console us. But it’s better than walking around with bones, isn’t it? See that big yellow hut on the left? It belongs to Rodale Monona, yes that famous singer. We just call him Uncle Rod. He does sing when we have ceremonies here. You will meet him at the party. Oh, that’s the River Karee. Yes, it flows here too. What a silly question, what did you think we were living on? Of course, there’s food here and farms where we plant them. I thought I told you we are living in the times of our great grandfathers Their way of life is our way of life now.
Oh, this is Lowe coming. We arrived here at the same time. Actually, he got here a day after me.
“Hi Lowe. How are you?” Come on Kwame, shake his hand. “Goodbye Lowe, see you at the party.”
He never answers. In fact, for as long we have been here, I have never heard him speak. It’s because of the witches. Yes, witches. Didn’t you see how tired he looked? He’s always tired. The witches above use him to run errands. I know you noticed the needle sticking out of his forehead. That’s what they use to control him. You think I’m lying? Why would I lie about something like that? It is because he refused to embrace death. When it was his time, he resisted.
He still wanted to live above and, well, the witches can always tell those whose souls yearn for the above. As soon as he was buried, they beat up his grave and his corpse came up, they then pierced it with the needle and voila. As soon as darkness falls, they call him up to dig their farms, do their house chores, send him to beat up their enemies and all manner of tasks. There is no rest for him. No, the needle cannot be removed.
This is the path that leads to the shrine. Be careful that you don’t step on the grass. Babana and Mamana insist that we go there every other sunset to give thanks to our forefathers. What we do? Just sing and mumble and I don’t know what else, I always zone out. Sometimes we offer sacrifices. Of course, we have animals. All animals or pets that we owned in life follow us here when they die. Yes, when your dog Oyo dies, it will come here to you. Why we offer sacrifices you ask? To give thanks for life and at times also to request for death. It’s terrible, I know, but you see when someone dies and joins us here, the air becomes purified. It gives the trees a new lease of life.
Breathe in deeply. Can you smell the pine trees? Can you smell the fragrance of the earth combined with the fallen leaves? When people stop dying above, this place reeks of wasting flesh. So, we are all very happy that you came, at least we have a few more months of fresh air.
Oh, before I forget, at the gathering tonight, people will want their greetings so ensure you have them beforehand. What do you mean you don’t understand? Let’s walk to that brown field ahead as I explain to you.
“Hello not-so-beautiful girls and handsome boy. Yes, Felix it’s good to see you too. Yes, I’m showing Kwame around. Kwame, this is Judina, Felix and Naira. Say hello to them. Yes, I’ll show him where your hut is Naira. He can speak for himself. Kwame do you want to go to her hut later tonight? Ouch, how does rejection feel Naira? Who are you calling crazy, Judina? At least I’m not crazy with envy like you. Whatever, bye”
Those girls are bad news or maybe good news, depending on whom you ask. Why they have thorns on their feet you ask? I was about to get to that. You see in their life above, they died as virgins. Hard to believe I know. Don’t worry, they are certainly making up for lost time. Why else do you think Naira is inviting you to her hut? Yes, we are all related, but people still sleep around. After all, we can’t have children here or even get STDs and die. How much deader do we need to be?
Hahaha, you don’t think I should make jokes about death? Oh yes, as I was saying, they have thorns on their feet to prevent them from going back above to haunt virgin girls. Believe me it’s very possible, other girls without thorns have been known to do that. Once they realize what they missed with hot, young, blood-pumping men, they appear in the dreams of living virgins and threaten them with death. It’s envy, they want the girls to die without tasting the joy of men like they did.
They don’t like me very much those two girls. It’s because, one – I didn’t die a virgin, and two – I slept with Felix a few months ago even though he was going out with Judina. That puny pimpled Felix, why would I like him? I only slept with him to spite those girls.
So, this is the field we hold our parties and ceremonies. We also gather here every time there is a full moon. Say what? Yes, I was to explain to you about the greetings that will be expected from you at the party tonight. Okay, remember the mourners at your funeral? Yes, I’m aware you were dead at that time, wise man, but your spirit was alive. And if you think about it keenly, you will recall how when they were crying, they mentioned other people who had died before you. Something like ‘oh Kwame you have left us so soon, you have gone to be with Aunt Sophie and grandmother Leocaldia, sob sob’ those are the greetings.
If anyone’s name was mentioned, you have to tell it to them. It’s very important. It adds a shine to our skins and gives one a few more years in the underworld. What happens if no one remembers you anymore? Simple, your skin sheds off. You remain with bones and disintegrate. That’s why Mamana and Babana are living up there; they have been dead for so long no one from above remembers them anymore. They are just walking bones now, waiting for the final death.
Back to this field; all major events involving the community are held here. Weddings, burials, interventions, meetings, you name them. So, every time you hear there’s a gathering, this is where you come. No, tonight’s party is being held in the above world. We occasionally get to visit there if the ceremony is being thrown on behalf of any of us.
My grandfather is the one throwing the party. Of course, he’s still living, why would we go above if he was dead and living here? It’s an appeasement ceremony. Yes, appeasement. My mother possessed him because he didn’t carry out the wishes which she had instructed him before she died. He’s agreed to do them now, that’s why he is having the ceremony to appease my mother’s anger. I’ll tell you more about it later, let’s go; we don’t have much time left.
What? You can see someone laying at the edge of the field? Oh, that’s just Mukonyai. He comes here first thing in the morning and leaves only when the sun sets. Why? Because he has nothing to do, that’s why. In the life above he was a medicine man but when people embraced hospitals he became jobless, depressed and later died. When he came here, his spirit turned evil and he would go and cause double births to expectant women above. It was the only thing that gave him pleasure. But even that became pointless, because people no longer see twins as a taboo or bad luck, they now accept it. So Mukonyai became useless and since he refused to help in communal duties, he just sleeps here.
Come, I’ll show you one final place before I hand you over to your Aunt Sophie for today. I really need to go prepare for the party. I need to bathe, pick something to wear and do up my face. You have no idea how long those three things can take. You have an idea? Well, good for you. Hurry up then. See those huts beyond the thicket? They belong to the people who have been dead for more than thirty years. They like to keep to themselves most times. They say the recent dead confuse them with their ways and talks. They are the real meaning of conservative.
That’s the children’s nursery. You can’t see it? The big white hut with pink animal drawings on it.es, that one. It is where the orphaned infant dead are taken care of by the community. Most of them have parents still living above, so they just remain babies until the day they will be forgotten and die or until their parents die and come pick them from the nursery. The women and older girls take turns working in there five at a time. Which reminds me, I’m on duty from next week. See that homestead that has been fenced with eucalyptus? It’s the mad people’s house. All those people who died when their heads were not right live there. Let’s walk faster. Why am I whispering? Because I don’t like to pass by this place, it scares me. I don’t even like to see it. Faster, walk faster, no, let’s run.
We are finally here. This is the tunnel of acceptance. You have to go through it. I will meet you on the other side. Go on now. You want to know what’s inside first? I can’t tell you that, as it is different for every person. Some go in and leave just as they came. Some go in and leave with bruises and marks; the forefathers punish them for the bad things they did above. Some go in and never come back and yet if someone goes after them, they don’t find their bodies. How was it for me? I came out just fine. You see, my mind was empty so the forefathers had nothing on me. You don’t want to go in? Well, you must or else you will disintegrate at midnight. Yes, your body will turn to dust and blow away. If midnight strikes before the forefathers acknowledge your presence and cleanse you, you will cease to exist. It’s for your own good I tell you.
Can you hear those voices approaching us? Quick, we must hide. Go inside the tunnel, and I will be waiting on the other side. No? What if it’s those crazy people from the madhouse that have come to kidnap us? Hide me, here they are. Oh, it’s just my mother and your Aunt Sophie and Nyajeri. The two men with them are from the community. I guess we need not worry.
Yes mama, I’ve been showing Kwame around. No, he didn’t come earlier than expected. He arrived rather late if you ask me. I had been waiting for him for thirty minutes before he woke up. See Kwame, I told you your Aunt Sophie would be happy to see you? See? She’s crying with joy, go on, hug her back. What did you say mother? Why I ran away from the house this morning? I did not. I went to wait for Kwame. Well I have shown him enough for today. Let’s go and prepare for the party, it’s almost time. What do you mean there’s no party? Grandfather is holding a ceremony above to appease you tonight, have you forgotten? Don’t mind my mother Kwame, I think she’s slowly losing her mind.
Why are these men holding me? Tell them to let go of me, Mother. Get your dirty hands off me you ugly men. Stop apologizing to Kwame. Mother stop it. Why are you telling him to forget everything I told him? No Kwame don’t listen to her. I’m not crazy. I repeat, I am not crazy. I did not escape from the home of the mad people this morning. I don’t live there. Don’t listen to my mother Kwame. She’s lying. What do you mean you did not know that he had already arrived? Okay, I get it now. It’s this insane woman Nyajeri that told on me. You deserve a slap on that burnt face of yours. If these men were not holding me; I would give you the beating of your life. No, no mother, I don’t want to go back to that place, it’s full of crazy people. I’m not mad Kwame, tell them Kwame. Tell them how I showed you everything.
Stop telling him to forget everything I said. Promise me Kwame, promise me you will not forget. What do you mean Felix will induct him afresh? Felix is a crazy fool who knows nothing. Oh no, don’t make me go back there mother. I hate that loony house. Please I want to be with Kwame. Stop dragging me you big headed men. Well, goodbye Kwame, I will see you at the party tonight. I have to go and prepare now. Yes, there is a party, I must prepare for the party. Bye Kwame, I will see you soon. I promise.
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.
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.
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.”
“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?
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.
“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.
How To Kill A Spider: Blog Post by Rita Odeh
“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.
“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.
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.
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.
I had lost my mother ten years to the date. Ten years since a vital part of me left, effectively upending my life and what I came to know of it.
She was gone, yet I refused to let go. It took me a decade to finally come to my next conclusion. The thought scares me as I jot it down. I feel like I need some type of record to archive this. Scared said thought might flee my head if I don’t do it this way.
I am about to undertake one of the most important decisions of my life. I expect to face some obstacles, especially from family members. But if I don’t do this, the regret will plague me for the rest of my life.
I am going to resurrect the dead!
At first it sounded so blasphemous when it came up. My mother was a staunch Christian and I wondered how she would have reacted to such a notion when alive. Superstition had always played an interesting role in my life growing up. I lived with and around people who worshipped in church on Sundays but sought out herbalists and witch doctors to supplement their faith. It sounds like a contradiction and perhaps it is, but one must keep in mind, that prior to colonization, Africans had their beliefs and religions that have remained even though open belief in them tends to lead to condemnation.
My idea would not involve unearthing the dead or doing rituals to communicate with spirits. Mine would be much more practical yet the thought scared me because I didn’t know how others would react. I was going to digitally replicate my mother, a virtual twin of sorts, and in that space, she would and she could live on without ever having to die again.
There were a few obstacles I knew I would face, the primary one being I had to create a convincing replica of her. One that would be believable enough to not feel like some hollow mockery.
The other was actually figuring out who my mother was in order to give this creation a personality. No small task because in that moment, I realized I did not really know who she was. All she had been to me was from a maternal role. Surely she was someone beyond wife and mother. The guilt was so overwhelming that it took me a few days to get past the fact that whilst alive I had not done enough to truly understand my parents. I had taken them from granted and now for one of them, it was too late.
As grandiose as my plan seemed, I still needed to know if my idea was possible. Would it be a holographic recreation or was it going to be a virtual experience where I would be digitally transported to a certain area to see her? I researched fastidiously, eventually settling for virtual reality, which also seemed like the cheaper option. I reached out to a few creators and companies and, whilst some expressed reservations about the project, I connected with others who were genuinely intrigued by the prospects of immortalizing loved ones in a digital format. They agreed that the more information I could dig up on my mother, the more useful if would be in creating a well -rounded character.
I knew to undertake this, I would need to get my father on board. There was no getting around it. If there was anyone alive who knew more about my mother, it was him. I kept the details to a bare minimum when I contacted him. Simply suggesting I was coming home for a month or two for research. It would be the first time in fifteen years that I’d be spending more than ten days at home at a stretch. My father was thrilled that we’d get to spend time together but what I didn’t tell him was that my research would involve retracing my mother’s life, sometimes to places where my father might not want me to go. I knew and was prepared to face obstacles along the way. I was just unsure how I would handle it.
I was a single man with no attachments. I rarely took vacations from work so I had stacked up enough leave days to embark on this trip. This was going to be the equivalent of jumping into the unknown but I was grateful my family was still in Nigeria to help me navigate the places I’d be going.
A month after notifying my father I would be coming back, I headed for home, to revive the dead. Phase one of my plan was now underway.
Going back home to me is such a surreal experience. As the flight descends into Lagos, one thing is immediately glaring. From up top, one can make out the sparse array of lights, like little fire flies blinking in and out of existence, an instant reminder that rampant power outages are still a reality many Nigerians have to deal with. I had been coddled and spoiled abroad for so long that the mere thought of a night without electricity brings a sense of dread. Yet I knew this was one of the issues I’d be dealing with going back. I secretly hoped that I had the mental fortitude to last the length of this trip.
My whole family had come to receive me at the airport, and the joy on their faces wiped away any doubts I might have had about this trip, at least temporarily.
I was born and raised in Lagos. I lived here for seventeen years before going abroad for my collegiate years. Yet I felt like a foreigner in an alien land. The sights, the smells even the warm summer breeze on my skin felt so unique. I still hadn’t told my family about my plans. But seeing my father again after so long, I wondered if it were a wise course of action to tell him the full intent of my plans. As we drove back to my father’s place, my sister bugging me about my travels, I made a note somewhere in my mind, to refrain from doing anything hasty. Eventually I would tell them everything, but for now, I would be more judicious about my plans.
That first night in Lagos, I had an unsettling dream about my mother. The details are blurry now as are most dreams, but I do recall the sense of helplessness I had, chasing my mother all over the globe. From subways in Chicago, to the busy streets of Tokyo and finally to Lagos. One thing was clear to me, she wafted through these scenes as if teasing me. Every time I thought I was close enough to reach out to her, she dematerialized and escaped my clutches.
When I told my father about the dream, he told me I had to come to terms with her death. It was then that I revealed that I would need his help retracing my mother’s life for a book I was writing on her. I do not know if he believed me or not, I suspect he did not, but I couldn’t tell. He simply nodded in agreement and told me he would do his best with the aid of my siblings. Our first start would be my mother’s remaining family members, some of whom still lived in the same state.
It was finally happening, I thought to myself. This idea that had seemed so impossible a few months back was getting closer to reality by the day. Whatever guilt I might have had was superseded by the fact I would create something that would immortalize my mother. A noble goal I thought to myself and perhaps one that would revolutionize the way we viewed death and loss.
The next day, my father and I set out to find my mother’s father who was still alive. My father cautioned me to temper my expectations. The man was old and quite frail. He may or may not be able to remember much about my mother and I must not push the issue if he was not willing to talk.
I kept mum for most of the trip, bracing myself for a visit to the grandfather I hadn’t seen in decades. There was a certain level of guilt welling up within me. I had moved abroad and detached myself from the lives of these people. I had wrapped myself up in a cocoon of my own doing, justifying my absence from their lives as the result of my own problems abroad.
Lagos itself looked so different to me.
I had once roamed these streets and, whilst there remained a familiarity, I knew I was an in-betweener now. Never truly fitting here, nor in the place I now called home.
Shortly afterwards we pulled into a familiar street. Victorian era-style houses were lined up on each side. Peddlers took up spots along the street. Nostalgia reached out to me and I embraced back. This place hadn’t changed much, at least this portion of my life remained intact. I remembered the days my sibling and I would come out to play ball, dodging oncoming traffic and getting into all sorts of mischief when we came to visit my grandparents.
As the car came to a stop in front of a black corrugated gate. I got nervous realizing I was unsure of what to ask my grandfather. We all got down from the car, my siblings wasting no time in finding their way inside whilst I fidgeted nervously with my outfit, knowing I would be walking into that house as a stranger.
My father must have been a mind reader as he nudged me and told me not to worry. He would take care of things. I looked at him with gratitude and followed him into the compound.
Memories flooded my mind yet again, pieces of me that had once roamed this area reached out. It was overwhelming to say the least.
Inside, an attendant ushered us into the living room and told us that grandfather would be with us shortly. We were offered food but we declined politely. I didn’t want to be distracted from the task at hand.
A few moments later, I heard a shuffling sound, followed by the appearance of a man of once great stature, now bent with age, slowly walking into the room, squinting to make out the shapes around him. His attendant gently led him to a seat and whispered something in his ear before leaving.
My dad stood up and walked up to him, bowing his head as he addressed him. A smile broke on grandfather’s face as he reached forward to embrace him. Dad would then beckon to us to come over and introduce ourselves. I was last to do so and was shocked at how different my mother’s father looked.
When it came to my turn, he looked me over for a moment or two, as if discovering something new. A bunch of emotions ran through his face so quickly that I thought he might be getting sick. His grip was firm and he clutched harder, pulling me into an embrace. “Jide, Omo mi, kabo. Ajo o da bi Ile. Jide, my son, welcome. The journey can never replicate home.
He would hold me for another five minutes, showering me with praise and prayer. Lamenting over the loss of my mother and mildly excoriating me for not coming to visit in so long.
Finally he let me go and turned towards my father. They would talk briefly about the country, the politics and the state of things around the nation before my father finally brought up the reason as to why we had come.
“We wanted to know more about my late wife,” he said. Father fed Grandfather the lie that I’d told him. Pangs of guilt welled up again, here was yet another person that would be expecting a non-existent book from me. How would I break it to this old man that I was doing this for something entirely different?
I may have felt guilty in the moment but going home with the wealth of knowledge I received from my grandfather that day is something I will cherish for the rest of my life. I found out about what type of person my mother was growing up. How stubborn she was and how it got her into a lot of trouble. “She was daring and mischievous,” her father said, regaling us with tales and adventures that had all of us hooting with laughter.
He would tell us about my mother’s greatness on the track and how she consistently dominated as a track star throughout her secondary school years.
He pondered loudly if she could have been an Olympian with proper support. He came off hurt for not pushing her enough to chase those goals. Instead, she went off to nursing school.
He expressed regret that be never pushed his children as much as he should have education-wise. He told us he was a fool who believed then that marriage was a woman’s main goal. He was glad my mother had not been deterred in going to nursing school despite little to no support from him. He heaped praise on my father for not being as backwards as he was and told my sister not to stop for anything or anyone in pursuing her goals.
We stayed for a few hours, my notebook full of notes and stories that I had never heard of my mother prior to this meeting. Some that I would like to keep close to the chest. I left my grandfather’s house richer. Now armed with a wealth of knowledge about my mother, I knew I could build a personality that would exhibit some of the traits her father had told me about.
On the way back home, we talked about some of the stories her father told us. Some my father knew, others were just as surprising to him as they were to us. I don’t know if my siblings caught it, but there was a tenderness to him as he spoke about my mom that I rarely saw come out. The encounter I thought to myself was meaningful. It was a good start and I looked forward to continuing with even more investigation on my mother.
Unfortunately, things did not go as planned. I was hit with a bout of malaria that sidelined me for a good week. By the time I got back on my feet, my siblings had used up their time off from their different jobs, leaving me with only my father to accompany me on my fact-finding mission. This was problematic considering he didn’t do much driving at his age and I didn’t have a driver’s license.
Hunting for an affordable driver was something I had not planned for, but eventually we settled on Mojeed, a recent graduate from the University of Lagos, who was having difficulties finding work post-graduation and resorted to using his car for taxi or rental services.
Our next port of call was to visit my mother’s three siblings who luckily still lived in the state.
The eldest was affable and warm, receiving us into her home and regaling us with tales of our mother, most of which we had heard but a few were surprising. We left feeling fulfilled, my knowledge quota on my mother had once again been topped and I promised not to lose connection as I had previously done in yesteryears.
The second sibling, the one born before my mother was not as welcoming. She criticized my father for keeping her sister and her kids away from the family. She lamented about the detachment and blamed my father for it. She didn’t criticize me much but mentioned how family shouldn’t act the way we did. She hadn’t heard from me in decades and felt disappointed that I had refused to reach out to her.
To be fair I sensed she was in pain. Some of the blame could be appropriated to my parents distancing themselves from their immediate family and for good reason. However, I also saw a woman struggling to come to terms with the death of her sister. She didn’t say it out loud, but I felt she alluded to the fact that she felt guilty that she and my mother weren’t on good terms when she passed away.
From her, we didn’t glean much about our mother. Her bitterness was too evident, though my father had warned me ahead of time that she’d react that way.
Seeing my mother’s youngest sibling was more emotional than the other two. She cried a lot. It was if seeing me was a reminder of my mother and she could not handle it. Whilst alive, she had been the closest to my mom, and through sobs, she revealed the altruistic side of my mother that even I didn’t know.
My mother had always been generous from my recollection, but some of the stories her younger sister told us that day simply blew me away at how much this woman gave away to those in need. I wondered if I could ever live up to her values.
On my way back home that night, I asked my father about her flaws. There had to be aspects of her he disagreed with. So far all I had gotten were the positives but even I knew that was not the summation of a person.
I still recall his sigh, caressing his eye-brow as he thought up the right words to say.
“She was too trusting,” he said. “Trusting to the point of naivety at times. She was a very savvy woman, but she believed that people were good by nature and in this country, such a trait is bound to be exploited.”
I wanted to press him more on that but he seemed tired after a long day. I filed it away, planning to ask him again but I would never get the chance as the thought slipped out of my memory after that.
The last few days of my vacation in Lagos involved tracking and catching up on the aspects of my mother’s life that I had been oblivious of. From the now defunct grade school she attended, to the nursing school she had graduated from.
With the aid of my siblings, I was also able to trace down some of my mother’s closest friends. Most received us warmly but a few were more reserved, including one who flat out refused to let us in, saying our mother had abandoned her in her time of need. I tried to press my father on this but he simply said it was a falling out between friends and only my mom would be able to give her side of the story.
My trip was now nearing an end and I had collected enough information to create a fully formed concept of my mother. This construct would have all the information required to create a convincing copy. There would be flaws of course, but that was a price I was willing to pay.
I still had not solved one big problem; telling my family about my plans.
I took the coward’s option and waited until the night before my departure to tell them. I simply couldn’t imagine letting any sort of disagreement fester between us for days before I left. To be honest, I did try several times to talk to my family about my decision, but I couldn’t work up the courage to do so.
I can still hear the generator humming outside, the whirling of the fan as it dispersed humid air around the room and the silence that followed after I outlined my plan of bringing my mother to life.
My usually vocal sister was the first to register her disapproval. Her expression said it all but instead of voicing her thoughts, she looked at father, and ceded the floor to him.
I expected a lecture from him, which would probably have been better than his terse response.
“I don’t agree nor support this plan of action. Leave the dead be. I am going to bed, good night.”
And with that, he got up and walked into his room. Right then and there I knew he couldn’t be swayed to accept this. I wish he had outlined his reasons for disagreeing. That would have been easier to digest than living with the briefness of his dismay.
I recall my sister lashing out at me. Some of the words stuck but it all felt like a blur because the one person I needed on my side was unwinnable. I was reeling from self-doubt and could not sleep.
On the threshold of pulling off something that I thought could change the way we as human beings dealt with death and grief, by prolonging and digitizing the memories of our loved ones, my family had given me serious reason to question my plans. Only my younger brother didn’t seem to mind. In fact, he thought whilst the whole thing was weird, he saw no reason to doubt the sincerity of my plans.
The next morning, the household felt like all the joy had been sucked out of it. I emphasize this because when we are all together, we tend to be boisterous. People unfamiliar with my family might assume we are quarreling but with my siblings, banter was as natural as breathing.
We avoided each other or to be specific, I avoided everyone else. I felt sad that my last day was spent like this. I didn’t know when I’d be back but to leave like this felt wrong. There was no way I could repay these people for their time and service during my brief stay here. I had a few hundred dollars left so I divvied it up between my siblings.
My sister who I could tell was still mad at me, gave me a terse hug. I knew she was fighting emotions but I understood where she was coming from.
The ride to the airport was a solemn one. I was appreciative for the radio that broke the silence and gave some life to an otherwise dreary commute.
I had achieved my goals but at what cost? My father still had not said anything to me since that night, though he had accompanied me on my way back to the airport.
I tried to imagine his disagreement with my idea. For him, seeing someone he loved being brought back in such a manner, even though it was just a digital replica must feel like an affront to his sensibilities. No matter what popped up on screen or in the virtual world, it would never be my mother.
No one on this planet knew her better, yet as the scenery flashed by my eyes that night, for the first time since dreaming up this concept, it began to dawn on me that I was pushing for this because of my guilt.
Guilt that I had not spent enough time with her. Guilt that I hadn’t done enough to save her. Guilt that I hadn’t been in a position to take her away from Nigeria and to the states where she most likely could have been saved, and most importantly, guilt that I didn’t know my mother well enough as evidenced by the treasure trove of information I now had at my disposal.
I wasn’t doing this for family or for the greater good of humanity who might want to use my virtual reality creation bridge the gap between life and death. No, in all honesty, I was simply doing it for me.
I was in this state of contemplation when we arrived at the airport. Disembarking, my siblings helped me unload my luggage as the time for farewell had fast approached.
Goodbyes are always tough, and I remember the first time I left for the States. I remember the wistful look on my mother’s face as she let her first son go. This time, the wistful look was mine as I was bidding farewell to the ones I cherished the most in the world.
My sister’s stance had changed and I could tell she was no longer mad at me. She kissed me on the cheek and gave me a long hug. “I am proud of you, Egbon mi,” she said. “Don’t forget to call as soon as you get there.”
With tears in her eyes, she pulled away and walked back to the car. I know for her, saying goodbye was especially tough considering how little we saw each other and the unpredictability of not knowing when next we would see ourselves again.
With my brother, it was a quick hug, a handshake and a playful punch aimed at his shoulders. He was like me in many ways, pretty much all we had to convey to each other was unspoken. Our relationship was that solid.
Finally I turned to my father. So many thoughts rushing through my head, but most importantly I wish I could explain how important this project was to me. I understood his reservations, but I was going to treat this with the most utmost of respect. I didn’t expect him to ever see it, but I wanted him to know it would not be used to tarnish his wife’s life.
Instead he was the one who saved me from myself yet again. Laying a hand on my shoulder, he looked me directly in the eyes, his words boring deep into my soul.
“Jide, regardless of what you do. I am proud of you and so is your mother. She is always with us, never forget that. God speed and let us know when you get home.”
Now to those who may be unfamiliar with my family, those words might not mean much, but couple those words with my father’s hand to shoulder gesture and the sincerity with which he conveyed his message, looks even more profound than I initially thought in retrospect.
My father has never been the expressive kind. His emotions have always been even keeled, never given to random fluctuations in emotions.
This was as good as it gets, and that little moment was as good a blessing as any. I hugged him back, then prostrated as we do in my culture before bidding him farewell.
I walked into the airport briskly but turned around one last time to wave goodbye to my family.
These people meant the world to me and I vowed to make sure that I would make them proud. I was finally able to sleep soundly on the plane, refreshed to pursue and finish my mission as soon as I got back home.
I’d love to tell you that things went smoothly as soon as I got back. For a while it did actually. I collated all my information. Weeded out the unnecessary ones and created what I felt was an accurate depiction of my mother. Along with pictures, video tapes and voice mail recordings, I took everything I had to the virtual reality specialists and watched as they created magic from my research.
The very first time I saw my mother’s replica on screen, I burst into tears. It was surreal and overwhelming. This time it was simply a static form staring back at the world, lifeless in every sense of the word. I was told from then on, they’d input actions, commands and aspects of her character that they now knew from all I had given them. In essence we were creating life on that screen and it shocked me.
I was restless for the next weeks as work continued on her. Deep down inside I was unsettled. What we were creating was not my mother but something wholly new. I questioned and challenged myself but kept my resolve, believing this would have a profound impact around the world.
On the day I was called in to launch the project, I went in unsure of what to expect. I don’t think I have ever felt as nervous as I was then about anything. I was going to be reintroduced to someone I thought I had lost forever and my nerves were all over the place.
I was ushered into a room with a virtual reality visor tethered to the most complex computer I had ever seen in my life. Every single person that had worked on this project was gathered in the room, making me even more nervous than I initially was.
Andy, the lead engineer ushered me to the console where he walked me through what to expect. While, movement was restricted for me, my mother would be able to move around freely in the virtual construct. I could talk to her and she would respond based on the algorithms programmed into her.
After a few moments I told him I was ready and allowed the gear to be fit on me. It took some adjusting but then I found myself in an all-white room with no walls or roof. It simply looked infinite. I looked down to see if I had a body but all I saw were polygonal shapes to represent my limbs.
It was a bit disconcerting but I didn’t have time to fixate on it because approaching me was a person who looked exactly like my mother. I gasped and almost fell, but sturdy arms in the real world grabbed me and held me upright telling me it was okay. I knew I was crying because I could feel the wetness on my cheeks. Was it possible that this was my mother?
She moved closer and I was blown away at how realistic the replica was. She even smiled the same way my mother did.
“Mom,” I said.
“Jide,” she responded.
An alarm went off somewhere in my mind. It wasn’t that her response didn’t sound like my mom, in fact her voice was accurately performed but it was the way she pronounced my name that felt wrong.
I shrugged it off and commented on how good she looked. She thanked me, yet once again, her response felt odd. It was robotic, cold, complete opposite of my mother, whose whole persona was bubbly and full of vigor.
Clearly, there were still a lot of kinks that would be sorted out as this project went forward.
I asked her a few questions, she responded as accurately as she could. This was a great program indeed and the engineers had done their work well. I asked to take off the gear, and was presented with a room full of eager people, looking for commendation on their project.
I didn’t disappoint them, heaping effusive praise on all who had been involved with this, but I asked to be given time to mull over what I had just seen before given the go-ahead to fully launch the program.
The rest of my day was spent in contemplation but it wasn’t until that night that I got my answer as I went to my favorite spot in the city overlooking the river.
My reflection stared back at me but I also noticed something else. My mother’s facial features mixed with a bit of my father’s. I had always been told that I looked more like my mother than my father, and my recent trip to Nigeria, including the visits to her sibling who could barely look at me was even more confirmation of this. Now I understood what my father was getting at when he talked to me last. I grabbed my phone and dialed Andy.
“Andy, I have come to a decision. I won’t be going forward with this project anymore, I understand and apologize for the time you and your crew have spent on this. I promise to properly compensate you for your time and effort, but for personal reasons I won’t be moving forward with this. Can you erase all data and delete the replica?”
Andy seemed baffled on the other end, and I truly felt bad but he agreed to do as I had requested. Hanging up the phone, I felt relieved. I looked into the water once more, and at my reflection.
My mother wasn’t dead, she lived on within us and quite frankly, that was good enough for me and my family. I didn’t need a replica to remind me of her, I had my book of memories at my disposal now. Coupled with what I knew of her, there was no way I would ever forget her. Her legacy would live on with my siblings and I. We would be her reminder to the world of her existence. Our great deeds would pave the way for that.
I looked up from my plate of saabo. Bayuo glowered at me the same way I imagined he did at weevils when they invaded his crops. I smiled back.
“Hello there, brother,” I said. “What brings you here at this time?”
I glanced pointedly at his short shadow, the most obvious indicator that it was still too early in the day for him to have left the farm. His scowl deepened. Bayuo could never conquer his envy over the fact that I could afford to eat lunch in the shade, while he and the rest of my siblings had to do labor-intensive work throughout the week. He didn’t consider my work to be a legitimate source of income. According to him, I made money simply by cheating the universe’s balance structure, getting something from doing nothing—which simply wasn’t the case. I considered myself a resourceful person, and if I could use my gifts create freer, more flexible employment for myself, there was no good reason for me not to.
“There’s a woman at the house,” Bayuo said. “She’s looking for you.”
“Is she? That sounds promising. Tell her I’ll be with her soon. I just have to finish my lunch first.”
I could almost hear Bayuo’s stomach rumble as I said that. On a regular work day, all he ever had was breakfast and dinner. Make no mistake, though; the fact that I ate lunch regularly didn’t mean I was fond of splurging. On the contrary, I saved so intentionally that my little sister used to ask if I owed someone a debt. I was only saving towards my dream: to be so financially independent that I could leave this country and wander forever, anywhere I pleased, anywhere in the world, until the day I got too tired or too bored to keep travelling—because if there was one thing I hated, it was being tethered to one place.
“Get someone else to pass on the message for you,” said Bayuo. “I, personally, have work to do.”
He stalked away, and I calmly finished the rest of my saabo.
Back at home, a woman with short-cropped hair and angular features sat on the front steps. She reminded me of a crowned hawk-eagle. She wore a loose boubou that would have reached down to her ankles if its fabric weren’t scrunched up from the weight of the swaddle she was cradling on her lap. Whatever lay within the cloth adamantly refused to stop screeching.
The woman looked at me silently, appraising; probably making sure whoever had referred her to me hadn’t lied. Her gaze lingered on my bushy freeform locs, which I’d been growing over ten years. They were long enough to reach my buttocks, cascading down my shoulders and perfectly positioned to cover the nipples of my barely-there breasts, which were more or less the size of Bayuo’s. Her eyes roved over my face, pausing at my sideburns and the line of hair above my lips. They travelled down beyond my narrow torso and traced the widening curve of my waist. The only piece of clothing I had on was a raffia skirt which stopped just shy of my knees. I could see the woman taking stock of my slender yet muscular figure, perhaps wondering what exactly lay beneath my skirt, and adjusting to the ambiguity of my body. Masculine. Feminine. Both. Neither.
Satisfied, she raised her eyes back to my face.
“Betweener,” she said. She spoke Dagaare with a very faint accent and I briefly wondered what her native tongue was. Sisaala? Gonja? Maybe Dagbani?
“I am that,” I acknowledged. “But I personally go by Nbelenyin. And you are?”
“You can call me Ma.”
That wasn’t a name; it was what I’d have called any older woman whose name I didn’t know—but if she wanted to keep her identity secret, let her. It was none of my business.
“How may I help you, Ma?”
Ma rose to close the gap between us, unwrapped her swaddle of clothes, and held it out to me for a look.
“Blood of my ancestors!” I swore.
The creature she held almost didn’t qualify as human. This child was barely alive. It screamed louder when it saw me, the shriek of a kontonbili accidentally caught in a hunter’s trap. It looked like it hadn’t had a meal since the day it was born. Its flesh stretched tautly over its bones, and its shoulder blades, cheekbones, and chin all threatened to tear through its skin at any moment. That would have been enough to terrify me, but it was the eyes—so large, sunken, and devoid of childhood joy—which made me visibly shudder and recoil.
“Her name is Ngmennakomantware,” said Ma. That name was a desperate prayer—may god give me my own. “She’s almost a year old, constantly sick, closer to death every day. Her spirit is looking for a way out of her body and I need you to make it stay.”
Ngmennakomantware wailed again and the sound rattled in my skull. By the looks of things, her spirit was at least halfway back to where it came from already. I didn’t think I could do much about it. Besides, this wasn’t the kind of work I engaged in.
“I’m sorry, Ma, but the bigbanmé—the returning children—are independent spirits, entirely in charge of their own affairs,” I patiently explained. “Even Betweeners like me don’t have the authority to interfere with them.”
Ma reacted so violently, I feared she would drop the baby.
“My child is notbigbanmé!” she spat. “Her soul is human! Human!”
I retreated. “Hey, take it easy, no offense intended. I’m just saying, you know, certain spirits like showing up just to torment mothers and leave. If you just let them go, you might eventually birth a real huma—”
“Listen to me carefully, Betweener,” Ma interrupted. “I know a non-human spirit when I see one, and I can swear by Ngmen that my daughter does not have one. Her human spirit is stuck on the other side, and I need you to find it and set it free to cross over completely!”
My own clients didn’t usually frighten me—usually the other way around, with people treating me so cautiously you’d think I was a god—but Ma was getting dangerously close to scaring me away from my own home. I tried to be more careful with my next words.
“There might be a slight misunderstanding here,” I said. “See, I go to the spirit world to deliver messages to dead relatives that their loved ones didn’t get a chance to tell them in person. Or to track down ancestors to ask for clues on how to break generational curses. Simple things, you know? Cross over, ask questions, return, and deliver answers. Freeing reluctant human spirits, though? I’m sorry, but that’s way outside my skill set.”
I hoped that would convince Ma to turn around and go home, where Ngmennakomantware might finally die in peace. But she only stared at me, and I didn’t dare blink.
After a few moments, she said, “Betweener, come with me. I need to show you something.”
Common sense told me that following an uncooperative woman with a half-dead baby was a horrible idea, but I was more scared of what she’d do if I refused.
She took me to the back of my house, where a woven cane basket with a lid lay partially obscured by a small bush. She shifted the baby to her left arm and used her free hand to lift the basket’s lid. Gingerly, I leaned over to peer inside, and gasped.
The basket was full of cowry shells, the most I had ever seen in one place, more than I could have hoped to make even after years of saving. With this much money, I might never have to work another day in my life. I could start living my dream lifestyle at once! Of course, I was instantly suspicious.
“Where did you get all this?” I asked. I couldn’t imagine anyone amassing this much money through any method other than witchcraft.
“Where it came from isn’t important. Just know that everything in this basket is yours, if only you can make Ngmennakomantware’s spirit stay.”
Ah! How many times did I have to tell this woman that I didn’t have the power to do what she wanted?
“Please,” she begged. “I need my baby to live. Please.”
I massaged my forehead, trying to ease the stress. I had to find a way to placate her, to at least give her something. Otherwise, she clearly wouldn’t leave me alone.
“Okay, tell you what,” I said. “How about, for a small fee, I cross over to the spirit world and try to locate Ngmennakomantware’s soul? Just to, you know, find out what its problem is and why it’s trying to leave so soon. When I have answers, I’ll come and report back to you.”
Right there, Ma set the baby down, scooped up two handfuls of cowry shells and dumped them in my arms. “An advance, then,” she explained. “Everything else when the final job is done.”
Locating the spirit was the final job.
“Eh… sure. Where can I find you once I return?”
“I’ll be around. Just do the job.”
I shrugged. “Yes, Ma.”
Most people’s bodies are too disproportionate to slip in and out of one reality—but moving between worlds is like crossing a river on an extremely thin log with perfect, unwavering balance. It comes quite naturally to Betweeners, though. Fluidity is woven into our very flesh.
The odor of civet secretion assaulted me immediately I arrived in the spirit world. I gagged so hard, I had to take a few moments to remember how to breathe again.
I landed in the same forest every single time I crossed over, surrounded by grass as tall as my waist, trees five times my height, and nearly nothing else. But the spirit world is like untamed nature that responds to the will of those who tread it. When I looked up, the branches parted to let in the sunlight. Exactly where I stood, the grass was barely as tall as my ankles, and it continued to shrink for me with each step I took.
“Nbele-bele-belenyin,” sang a mocking voice.
I spun towards it and saw the civet emerge into the light with a glint in its evil eyes and a smirk on its face. Its large, spotted backside heaved as it approached. I shuddered. Civets were the only creatures in either world that really freaked me out, and the spirit world was full of them. They were like the Betweeners of the animal kingdom. The first time I encountered one, I couldn’t quite tell if I was looking at a canine or feline creature, a type of weasel or hyena. Civets were in a league of their own, thriving in their ambiguity and leaving their marks in either world through their awful, smelly secretions.
“Nbelenyin!” the animal continued. “How de-de-delightful to see you here again. I wonder what the mission is this time?”
It was circling me, compelling me to keep swiveling with it, because I didn’t trust civets outside my line of sight.
“I’m looking for a spirit whose name I don’t know yet,” I said. “There’s a child connected to it in the living world who’s dying quickly.”
“A child!” the civet crooned. “How precious, precious, precious! But surely, if its spirit is so rebellious, not even a Betweener ought to get in the middle of its affairs?”
I chose an arbitrary direction and started walking, hoping to get away. Unfortunately, the vile creature followed me.
“My client is rather persistent,” I said. “And besides, I don’t intend to get in the middle of anything. I’m just going to find the spirit, ask it a few questions, and go. Like I usually do.”
The civet snorted, and I suspected it was laughing at me.
“Just how much are you invested in this child, Nbelenyin?”
“Not in the least. I’ve already been paid more money than this trip is worth. I’m just trying to pacify my crazy client.”
“He-he-heeh! Yes—that’s what I thought,” it said. Then it leaped onto a low branch and vanished.
Once the civet was gone, the forest too disappeared. I was now standing in a city of colorful vegetation, with every plant I could think of and many more I couldn’t even name. A few of the landforms—the ground, rocks, anthills, and the like—were made of soil, but the rest were made of pure earth minerals like iron, copper, diamond, and gold.
There was an infinite number of directions to turn now, and I had no idea which would lead me to Ngmennakomantware’s spirit. Luckily for me, though, I was surrounded by the very creatures whose navigation skills never failed.
“Excuse me,” I said to a nearby crow. “I’m looking for the spirit of a child named Ngmennakomantware. It’s a particularly stubborn one, doesn’t seem to want to stay in the living world, but is—as I’m told—definitely human and not bigbanmé. Would you happen to know where I can find it?”
“The spirit you seek goes by Nkongaa in these parts,” the crow replied. “He lives in the Ivory Valley.”
“Thank you so much,” I said, but I walked away frowning. If I’d needed any confirmation that Ma’s agenda was a bad idea, the fact that her daughter’s spirit was called “I Won’t Go” in this world was more than enough.
I soon landed in the section of the spirit world where all the hills were a creamy, smooth ivory. Trying not to lose my footing, I descended into the valley between the two largest hills and there, I met the spirit I was looking for.
Nkongaa was not what I expected. The body I’d seen in the living world belonged to a one-year-old girl, as frail as loose feathers. But Nkongaa, who sat in a wooden rocking chair with ankles and arms crossed, and a chewing stick in his mouth, took the form of a human male whom I’d estimate to be at least seventy years old, had I met him in the living world. He had a balding spot at the top of his head, around which thick, gray hair still grew and connected to a moustache and beard of the same texture. He sensed my presence without looking at me, and the first words out of his mouth were his name.
“I won’t go,” he informed me, with his eyes fixed on an ivory hill in the distance.
“Right, pleased to meet you too. Mine’s Nbelenyin,” I said. “I’m not here to make you go, by the way.”
“Don’t lie to me, Nbelenyin,” said Nkongaa. “You wouldn’t be the first Betweener to try persuading me to return to the living world. I said I won’t go.”
“And I fully respect that decision,” I said, nodding solemnly. He looked at me for the first time since I’d arrived, and his eyes were full of distrust.
“Are you trying to trick me?”
“Me, a trickster? Oh goodness, no! I leave that kind of thing to the spiders. Betweeners, while occasionally confusing to the eye, don’t present ourselves as anything other than what we are. With us, what you see is what you get. We’re as straightforward as they come.”
Nkongaa took the chewing stick out of his mouth to spit, and I cringed at the sight of the mangled garcinia kola root. It looked like he’d been chewing that nasty thing for years.
“Then what,” he said, replacing the stick between his teeth, “Do you want?”
“Merely an explanation. If you don’t mind, tell me why exactly you won’t go, so I can satisfy whomever it may concern in the living world. It might be your best bet to get them to leave you alone. People like answers, you know? I’ve learnt from experience that humans do lots of ridiculous, annoying stuff when we don’t have them. I’m just here to help.”
I sat down on the ground before him, crossed my legs, and cleared my throat. “Whenever you’re ready.”
Nkongaa spat again, then tossed his chewing stick onto the ivory earth, which instantly swallowed it up. “How many lives have you lived, Nbelenyin?”
The question caught me off guard.
“I don’t know,” I admitted. “This might be my first one. If there are lives behind me, I have no recollection of them.”
“Consider that a privilege,” Nkongaa growled. “You know how many lives I’ve lived? Eighty-three. Ever heard of a spirit who’s lived eighty-three lives?”
I had to admit, I had not. If you asked me to describe the relationship between worlds in one word, I wouldn’t have to think twice before I chose “balance.” For whatever was given, something else was taken away, and vice versa. For every spirit returned to the spirit world, another was born into the living. When ancestors lost interest in returning to life, new spirits were created—born into the living world for the first time, to pay off the deficit caused by those who opted out of the rebirth cycle. As such, the human populations in both worlds consistently increased. All things hinged on principles of balance. That was why Nkongaa’s story was so surprising; there was nothing balanced about one spirit being reborn eighty-three times, when there were so many others the universe could choose from. For Ngmen’s sake, I’d be exhausted after four!
“Never in my life,” I answered.
“You see! Nbelenyin, every life after my first has been progressively worse than the one before it, and the living world seems to have deteriorated a lot more each time I return. You don’t often feel your past lives in the living world, but then I die and come back here, and it’s like I’ve gained another millennium’s worth of tiredness. I don’t sit in the Ivory Valley all day because I don’t want to walk around; I’m here all the time because I don’t have the strengthto leave! I feel the weariness of having lived, more potently than any other spirit you’ve likely ever met. The one thing I’ve craved, for Ngmen knows how long, is permanent rest from toil, hardship, and carnal needs. But each time, just when I think I’m free, I feel that tug calling me back there! I won’t go! I say, I won’t go!”
By the time he ended his rant, he was shouting and crying, and, to my surprise, my eyes were a little moist as well. I had to fake-cough a few times to make sure my voice wouldn’t crack with my next words.
“Well, that was a… very reasonable explanation, I think. Thanks a lot. I’ll be sure to pass it on. And, uh, I hope things work out for you, so you can, you know, rest here for an eternity if you need to. I mean, I personally couldn’t imagine being tethered anywhere for even two centuries, but hey—everyone and their own brew of pito, right? Well, I’ll be on my way now. Thanks again,” I said, standing up and shaking my locs out.
“Nbelenyin,” called Nkongaa, just as I was preparing to step back into the living world.
“I’ve always hated asking for favors, but I’m asking one of you now. Convince whoever’s trying to bring me back to just let me stay here. I really don’t have the strength for an eighty-fourth life, and I don’t care if you have to kill the baby yourself.”
I winced. “Well, homicide generally isn’t one of my preferred conflict resolution techniques, but I’ll do my best to help within humane limits,” I promised, then stepped out of the spirit world before anything more absurd could possibly be asked of me.
I rematerialized suddenly in the bedroom I shared with my siblings. A little unsteady on my feet, I stumbled, and my knee collided with the wood of Bayuo’s bed. I yelped and hopped backward, crashing into Bayuo himself.
“Blood of my ancestors!” he shrieked. “Can’t you cross over more elegantly? Why are you always crashing into something—or someone—upon entry?”
“Because something or someone always happens to be in my way!” I paused, noticing the silence from within the house. “Wait. No one else is home yet. What are you doing back so early?”
His face turned grim, and all traces of our sibling rivalry temporarily vanished.
“Looking for you.”
“The woman, the one from a few days ago? She came back to the house, and you weren’t here, so she sought me out at the farm. She’s impatient, and Nbelenyin…” His eyes scanned the room as if he expected something to jump out, and he lowered his voice to a whisper. “I think there’s something very dangerous about this woman. She might be clinically insane. She’s made something… Well, you should come see it for yourself.”
I followed Bayuo to our front door. Ma was perched on the very same steps I’d met her on before, with a swaddle in her arms as usual. I exited the house, and when I was far enough away from the steps, I turned around to face her.
“Good evening, Ma,” I greeted.
She glowered at me with more disdain than even Bayuo had ever been able to muster. “It’s been days, Betweener, and you still haven’t finished the job. My baby is still sick and getting worse by the hour. I thought you might need a little more incentive to complete your mission.”
I sighed. “Look, Ma, you’re not my only client, and I’ve been working on several requests in a short span of time. Besides, I’ve done what I promised to do—I found your daughter’s spirit and discovered its problem. See, this soul has lived eighty-three lives already. You hear that? Eighty-three! Ngmennakomantware would be his eighty-fourth, and he’s dead exhausted. Even Icould see it. You know how ancient and tired you have to be to look old in spirit form? He’s spent, Ma. Certainly not the kind of soul you should want in your baby girl.”
“You think I came to you because I wanted you to tell me to let my only child die?”
“With all due respect, Ma, with a soul that old, even if we cured Ngmennakomantware’s sickness now, she still might not make it past childhood. I know what you asked me for, and I repeat: soul restoration really isn’t in my skill set. I’m just a Betweener—a messenger, if you will. What you want from me is either witchcraft or just plain old impossible.”
“Ah. I see.” With exaggerated calmness, Ma rose to her feet. “Then have fun making that choice.”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Witchcraft or impossibility. The choice is yours to make. I’ve already made mine.”
Bayuo must have been right about this woman being mad, because I couldn’t understand a thing she was saying. She started shifting her arms, and that was when I realized I hadn’t heard a peep from the swaddle throughout our interaction. Was Ngmennakomantware already that much closer to her death?
Ma turned the swaddle vertical and shook all the cloth to the ground. I gasped.
Standing on Ma’s palms was a wooden statuette—a kpiindaa—made of ancestral wood, about twelve inches tall. It was immediately clear that this was no ordinary kpiindaa; it was too easily identifiable. Although, like other kpiindaa, it was a smooth, carved stick that depicted no genitalia, the one she held had several intricate, sectioned carvings, going down at least half the stick’s full length. I had no doubt whose locs—whose body—the figure was meant to represent.
For a few seconds, I couldn’t breathe.
“It’s taboo to make kpiindaa of people who are still living,” I said quietly. As if she didn’t know that when she was making it.
“Do you know what would happen if I burned this kpiindaa, Betweener?” she asked, the first hint of a smile I’d seen so far on her face.
“Yes.” It would kill me and lock me in my body, leaving me unable to cross over, even after death. I’d never met anyone wicked or insane enough to do something like that. “Why are you doing this?” I whispered.
I didn’t notice I was crying until the wind blew cold air on my face.
“Make my daughter’s spirit stay,” said Ma. “By any means necessary. Because if she dies… then so shall you.”
Ma picked the cloth up from the floor, re-wrapped the taboo kpiindaa, and walked away, leaving me rooted to the spot. Once she was gone, Bayuo did something he hadn’t done for many, many years: he came and embraced me. Only in his arms, with his moist cheek against my forehead, did I notice that he was crying too.
Leaves crunched under our feet as Bayuo and I stalked through the forest with the moon as our only light source. We’d snuck into the house while the rest of our household slept, and we could only hope they’d find us alive in the morning. Bayuo, although bigger, taller, and older than me, was walking uncomfortably close to me, clutching at me nearly every time he heard a sound besides the leaves. I was terrified too, but not because of the darkness or the bush.
My worst nightmare was coming true. It wasn’t the threat on my life that shook me so much as the thought of being tethered to a dead, rotting body on earth forever.
“Nbelenyin,” Bayuo whispered, interrupting my thoughts. “What if a poisonous snake suddenly attacks us?”
It was ridiculous that Bayuo was fussing about meeting snakes by accident, when the person we were going to meet on purpose deserved far more of our anxiety.
“At this time? Snakes are cold-blooded. They come out to bask in the day’s warm sunlight. At night, they sleep in places well-hidden enough that annoying humans like us can’t disturb their precious slumber. Oh!” I thrust an arm out to halt him. “Don’t move!”
“What is it? What is it?”
We’d have missed the remarkably camouflaged cave entirely if we’d gone any further. Outside, it was covered with tree bark, and branches and leaves cut from nearby trees spread out from its roof. Kontonbili, for all their meddlesome antics, didn’t like being too easy to find.
“What do we do now?” asked Bayuo.
“The polite thing, of course.”
I knocked, decisively but not aggressively, on the tree-bark door. For a few moments, nothing happened.
“Maybe it didn’t hear you?” said Bayuo. “Knock louder.”
“Oh no, darling,” came a shrill voice from behind us, causing us both to spew out curse words. “Not unless you want to wake the snakes.”
The creature who’d spoken winked at Bayuo, and he’d have swooned if I hadn’t steadied him. He looked at her the way new people sometimes looked at me; it was one thing to know of a spirit person’s existence, and another thing entirely to encounter them sensually.
I wasn’t particularly tall, but the top of the kontonbili’s head barely cleared my chest. There was no doubt, however, that she was fully grown. Her hair grew in freeform locs like mine, but hers were much thicker, pure white, and only shoulder-length. She wasn’t wearing a top, and her nipples were almost level with her navel. A chain of beads looped around her loins more times than I could count, starting low on her waist and ending halfway down her thighs.
“I’m not particularly fond of curse words,” she continued. “But they’re always the first things out of humans’ mouths whenever I meet them. Strange, isn’t it?”
On another occasion, I might have been delighted to find that a spirit being had a sense of humor—but I’d lost mine the earlier that evening, when my life and afterlife had been threatened by a madwoman with a demonic statuette.
“Yeah, sure, very strange,” I said. “Listen, I have a dilemma I don’t think any human can help me with.”
“Of course, darling. That why everyone comes, isn’t it? Why don’t you tell me all about it over a nice calabash of pito?”
“Thanks, but no thanks,” I said, before Bayuo could respond. Kontonbili could be helpful where no other creatures could, but they were unpredictable tricksters as well, and far from trustworthy. Asking one for help was risky enough; consuming anything they offered was entirely out of the question.
“Ah, well. Your loss, surely. Now what is it you need help with, darling?”
I explained my situation to the kontonbili while Bayuo supported my trembling shoulders.
“Ah yes, I see,” she said, when I had finished. “Rather messy problem you have there. So! How do you plan to solve it?”
“What? For Ngmen’s sake, I don’t know! Why do you think I came here? A madwoman is trying to kill and bind me if I don’t save her damned baby!”
“Ahahn.” She nodded solemnly. “Sounds like you need to save the baby, then.”
“I don’t have a clue how to save the baby! Weren’t you listening? Its spirit is determined to remain in the spirit world. All I have on me is a smart tongue, and although it can be occasionally persuasive, it’s certainly not witchcraft.”
“Ahahn. Sounds like you’re asking for witchcraft to save the baby.”
This was absurd.
“I am asking,” I said through my teeth, “For a way… to save… my life!”
“Oh dear. You look like you’re getting worked up. Sure you don’t want some pito to calm you down?”
I sighed and turned to Bayuo, about to suggest that we quit wasting time and go back home, when she continued, “The soul you met in the spirit world is split; held partially in the spirit world by the power of its own will, held here by the power of your client’s. But there’s a way to fix that condition.”
“You could have told me that a minute ago,” I muttered.
“Show us how to do it,” said Bayuo. “We’ll do anything.”
“Oh yes,” said the kontonbili. “I already know you will.”
I crashed to my knees in the roughest spirit world landing I had experienced in ages.
“My oh my!” said the amused civet. “Nbelenyin’s back again so soon? I wonder what the mission could possibly be this time?”
“The mission this time,” I grunted, getting up and dusting myself off, “Could possibly be none of your business.”
“Oh my, oh my! Gotten ruder overnight, have you?”
“Please, just leave me alone, civet, I beg you.”
“As you wish, Nbelenyin. But be wise,” warned the civet as it faded with the forest. “Be wise…”
Back in the Ivory Valley, Nkongaa looked like he hadn’t moved anything but his jaws since we’d last spoken, although, thankfully, the chewing stick between his teeth was a fresh one. As I approached, he gave me a smile so expectant, it threatened to melt my heart.
“Nbelenyin! You’ve returned! Did you tell my story? What was the outcome?”
“I’ve returned indeed,” I said. “With both good news and bad news. I’ll start with the latter, like a good storyteller, so we work ourselves up to the redemptive part. So! The mother of the child—the one your spirit’s locked in—is quite the obnoxious woman. She intends to continue doing everything she can to keep the child alive.”
Nkongaa’s face fell. “Ah. I see.”
“However, that’s where the good news comes in! I have found a way to fix a soul-split, like the one you’re currently suffering from; to join it and tether it to one world, and one world only.”
His eyes grew wide with astonishment and hope. “Are you serious?”
“Dead serious. And that’s not even the best, part, you know? This method tethers the soul to one realm permanently. You’ll never have to be reborn again.”
Nkongaa was momentarily speechless. When he spoke again, his voice was so low, I had to read his lips. “Are you telling the truth?”
“Everything I’ve said is true, swear on Ngmen.” He visibly relaxed after hearing that.
“And how did you discover this method overnight?”
“I asked a knowledgeable person for help.”
“Kontonbili?” he asked. Well, you couldn’t fool a guy who’d lived eighty-three lives, could you?
“Yes,” I admitted. “But I know she wasn’t lying. I got a different kontonbili to verify everything the first said.” And thanks to all that walking, Bayuo and I hadn’t caught even a minute of sleep last night.
“Yes, that’s good. Kontonbili are their own creatures. They could work just as easily for our good as for our demise. You were wise to seek verification.”
I shrugged. “What is a Betweener, if not a skillful navigator of spiritual affairs?”
Nkongaa smiled. “Alright then, superhero, what do I have to do?”
I smiled back. “Thought you’d never ask.”
From the woven satchel I’d strapped to the back of my skirt, I pulled out an iroko flute and handed it to Nkongaa, who turned it over several times, inspecting it.
“I think I recognize this instrument,” he said. “It looks like a tambin. The kind the Fulani make.”
“It looks like it, yeah, but this object was made in Dagaabaland, and you’re only holding half of it. It’s a simple process: you blow into this half, the creature who has the rest of your soul inhales into the other half, and just like that, your split is healed and permanently fixed.”
“So, all I have to do is blow?”
“All you have to do is blow.”
Nkongaa’s eyes welled up slowly, and a few tears spilled over. His voice broke on his next words. “Nbelenyin… I couldn’t even begin to thank you for—”
“Stop right there. Emotional scenes aren’t in my skill set either, so please don’t get weepy on me. Just blow.”
With his wet face and blurry eyes, he nodded slowly, then blew once into the tambin.
“A very strange sensation,” he commented a few seconds later. “I think I’m getting… heavier.”
I had no more strength left to pretend nonchalance. I started crying too.
“I’m so sorry, Nkongaa,” I whispered.
His expression transformed with immediate comprehension, and he growled.
Nothing I’d said had been false—it was just that I’d given him the wrong end of the pipe. The one he should have blown into had been placed in Ngmennakomantware’s mouth by Bayuo once I’d crossed over. The soul-split was mending in the living world and not the spirit one.
“Nbelenyin! What have you done?” shrieked Nkongaa, as the last of him vanished from the spirit world forever.
“I’m sorry,” I whispered again, but he was no longer there to hear me.
I sat down, buried my face in my hands, and wept with more sorrow and guilt than I’d ever experienced in my life. There was no way I’d ever learn to stop hating myself after this. I cried for what felt like hours.
When I opened my eyes again, I was in the civet forest. The civet itself sat before me on its hindquarters, staring into my face and sneering.
“Poor Nbelenyin,” said the civet. “Feels weird, doesn’t it, to be tethered?”
“Can’t you see I’m not in the mood, you disgusting creature? Please go away. Or better yet, I will.”
I stood up, furiously wiped my tears with my palms, and took a few steps forward. I should have landed back in my bedroom already, but no matter how hard I concentrated, each time my feet touched the earth, it met the grass of the civet’s territory. I tried jogging and even running, but I couldn’t get out of the damned forest. The civet looked on in amusement, uncharacteristically quiet. It clearly knew exactly what was going on. I turned on it angrily.
“Why can’t I cross over?” I asked.
The civet stretched itself out, yawned, and lay down. “Isn’t it obvious, Nbelenyin? You’ve clearly lost your balance. Balance is the principle by which the universe operates, and it looks like this time…” It paused to yawn again. “You’re the payment for the deficit.”
I froze. Then I screamed.
“Ah, look,” said the civet. “Your tethers are already starting to show.”
I followed its gaze to my chest, where my breasts were suddenly almost the size of my sister’s. Intuitively, I brought my fingers to my upper lip, and they came away with clumps of shedding hair.
“Poor Nbelenyin,” the civet mocked. “What a pity she’s not a Betweener anymore.”
Ivana Akotowaa Ofori is a Ghanaian storyteller. Self-styled as “The Spider Kid”, she is a weaver of words in many forms, including fiction, non-fiction and spoken-word poetry. She has been longlisted twice for the Writivism Prize, first for nonfiction and second for fiction. Some of her work appears in the Flash Fiction Ghana anthology, Kenkey for Ewes and Other Very Short Stories. When she is not reading or writing, she is likely to be raving online and in person about frustrations with school and life, or about her great love for the color purple.