A Conversation in the Woods

2012-10-07 13.22.05

“I have cheated death before,” my uncle said to me.

He pulled what remained of the small piece of wood he had been chewing since we lit the campfire and spat a gob of spit to the ground before returning the wood back to the corner of his mouth.  The embers of the flame lit his face in a revolving glow of yellow and orange, making him out like a ghoul out of a nightmarish dream.  The flame highlighted every ridge, crevice and wrinkle line on his feature, especially his eyes.  His eyes were grave and distant.  He was gazing at me across the fire but his eyes seemed to gaze beyond me . . . into the past, or wherever it was they transported him.

“Four times I have cheated death.  The first time happened forty-three years ago far from here, in Vietnam,” he scratched an itch on his cheek.  His voice sounded hollow and strange.  “That was another time.  I was young and like plenty like me, too dumb to know what we were fighting about or to care.  I remember that day.  There I was driving my squad truck back to base in the morning when I caught a flat tire.  I was three miles from the camp and in the middle of nowhere.  Nothing all around but green foliage that went for miles.  No one out there beside me and all the things you hear out in the woods.  I should have been scared—that’s just how dumb a fellow I was back then— but I wasn’t thinking any of that.  All I wanted to do was change the goddamn tire and haul ass to camp before I got my ass chewed out and pull KP duty.”

My uncle stopped to look at me as if he assumed my attention had wandered.  Nothing regarding his tale could have made me think different.

“I heard rustling in the bushes behind me,” he continued.  “But I never heard it till it was too late; the whole time I was working the jack handle to get the tire out.  Then the world exploded around me.  I heard something zip past my ear, sounded like a bee on a jet pack, then came puncturing sounds in the body of my truck.  I looked up and saw holes, three of them, about five inches from my head, and then the fear hit me like a brick in my gut and I knew I was in a shit of trouble.  The rustling noise in the bush was getting louder.  I turned around and at that moment I’d never been so scared in my life when I saw two . . . no, three Viet Cong guys aiming rifles at my ass.  I ducked face-forward and rolled under the truck.  Felt like it happened slowly like time had quit moving.  The guys kept on spraying bullets at the truck; till this day I’m surprised none of it landed on me.”

My uncle paused in his narration.

“What happened after?” I asked.

“What happened was there was a group of Marines who were in a motorcade coming behind me, also heading to the camp.  They got to my rescue in time.  But the Congs melted back into the bush like they’d come out of nowhere.  That was the most exciting time I had while in Vietnam.  I had countless others, but none topped that.”

He picked up his small bottle of rum that was beside him and took a swig from it then muttered a sigh.

“Second time I almost died I was caught out in a blizzard back in ’82.  I was working for a hauling company back then out in Chicago.  Cold fucking day that was; so cold and windy you couldn’t see anything but white.  The wind was rough, I tell you.  Fool that I was, I thought I could make it across town in record time ‘cos I was on a deadline to deliver the goods I was carrying.   I could barely make out anything in front of me.  Just like that, I rammed into some truck caught in a ditch and some lengthy pipe tore through the windshield and stopped three inches from slamming into my face.  I stepped so hard on the brakes my head bumped against the wheel and I definitely saw stars.  I could barely move, and I was bleeding from a cut in my head.  I probably would have remained there and frozen to death if a cop car hadn’t been patrolling around.  The cops came to my rescue; I ended up with a couple of stitches afterwards.  Spent the rest of the week hauled up in bed fighting off frostbite,” he chuckled.

“But if you think that I had that one coming, the third one was the scariest.  This happened in the late eighties—’89, I think it was.  I had quit Chicago by then and was back in New Jersey where I grew up.  I was doing plenty of maintenance in my old home.  There I was at a traffic stop waiting for the light to turn green.  Nothing wrong was happening; it was another typical spring afternoon and I had plenty of stuff doing then.  Anyway, the light did turn yellow then green . . . except for a moment—couldn’t have lasted more than a couple of seconds—I didn’t move.”

“What do you mean?”

“You’re not going to believe me when I say this, not that I expect you to, but you know me well enough that I’m never the sort who likes to waste time at a red light.  Once I see that light turn green, I’m off like a rabbit.  Except this strange time that didn’t happen.  What I heard was some voice speak in my ear telling me to wait . . . just wait.  And wouldn’t you know it, just when I was about to hit the gas, a car came speeding from my left and almost knocked out my side mirror.   The car cut across mine and drove on like a demon into the opposite lane.  I must have shut my eyes for a second, my hands gripped the wheel tight and stomped down on the brake, ‘cos what I heard next was metal hitting against metal.  I opened my eyes and saw the speeding car crashing into a Toyota that was coming from the other lane.  Truth be told, had I not listened to that voice, had I been myself and just driving on, I’d have caught in that mangled mess.  I know, it sounds strange, especially coming from a dumb old fart like myself.  Call it whatever you like – luck – for me, I knew what I heard, and it was a voice.  Where from, I don’t know.  Glad I never got to hear it since then.”

The fire was gradually dying down.  I picked up two logs of wood and threw them into the pile and in no time, the fire built back up again.  My uncle removed the stick from his mouth and spat a couple more times into the fire before resuming his chewing again.  A flock of bats screeched above our heads into the branches of the tall trees around; twilight was nearly upon us.  The wind was getting stronger and colder.  I hugged myself and drew as close to the fire as I could.  My uncle though seemed impervious to the cold, though.  His eyes were still staring beyond me into the approaching night.

My uncle’s voice grew sombre when he spoke.  “My fourth experience, well, you could say I probably had that one coming.  Not something I could have dodged, not in my age, but thinking about it, I’m surprised it took so long for it to happen.  But I’m glad I lived through it.”

“What was it?” I asked, too eager to hear.  My uncle gave me that wan smile of his I’ve always cherished.  His feature seemed to warm against the camp fire unlike when he’d earlier begun his tale.

“I had myself a heart attack.”

He said it like it was something cute and ordinary, and then he laughed.  I didn’t know whether to laugh with him or not.  I sat there baffled by his action and simply watched him break his chuckling fit into a cough and then he hoicked and spat into the flame.

“Sorry about that,” he said.  “Anyway, yeah, that was what happened eight years ago—a fucking heart attack was what I had.  It was the last year I spent in New Jersey, month of February.  I was out shovelling snow out of my driveway, just another typical winter morning.  My neighbour, Morgan, came out with his snow-blowing machine which I wanted to borrow from him.  He was saying something except I wasn’t listening.  There was this tightness in my chest that was growing inside me.  It felt like someone exploded a hand grenade inside me and I was burning from inside.  I remember clutching my chest . . . I so badly wanted to scream but couldn’t do that.  The pain didn’t seem to want to go away.  I tumbled on the snow and saw Morgan race into the street.  That was the last thing I saw before I passed out.”

He removed the stick from his mouth and threw it into the fire.

“What happened when you came to?”

“Opened my eyes and saw myself in bed in St. Peter’s hospital, that was what,” my uncle said.  “That was two days later.  They’d operated on me and put a heart packer in my chest and the whole time I was out of it.  Your mother was there as with two of my kids.  She kept saying I was lucky; if only she knew.”

“But you are lucky, uncle.  Four times.  That’s great coincidence.”

“Well, I’d say two of those were coincidences.  The one of me hearing that voice, you might put that under supernatural; the fourth one is just . . . I don’t know like it was bound to happen, I guess.  There’s plenty of things out there that can kill you, boy.  Out there and in here,” he jabbed a finger at his body.  “Doesn’t matter what.  When your time comes, that’s it, you’re done.  End of story.”

I couldn’t think of anything to counter that with.  Not that I had anything else to say.  My uncle was usually a taciturn fellow; this was this first time I’d heard him talk so long and I wanted so much to treasure the moment.

He raised his head and stared at the night’s sky that had pretty much crept upon the world.

“When it’s your time to go, you go,” he said.  “But until then, ain’t no use thinking about what should and shouldn’t be.  Just keep walking, my boy.  That’s what your uncle has been doing since.  It’s what I’ll be doing still.”

I smiled at that and said, “Happy birthday, uncle.”

Death in the Closet

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Screecht . . . Screeeecchhhttt . . .

He had been doing this for some time with his eyes shut. Since hiding himself in the bedroom closet waiting for his intended quarry to arrive. The hour was getting late. He couldn’t make out the time in his watch in the closet’s darkness. There was growing stiffness in his legs from standing so long. The little light he gleamed from the tiny slit between the closet doors through which he sighted the bed told him it was the onset of dusk. His knapsack containing his other weapons sat beside his feet. His quarry will show—he was certain of that. The information he had of the man was accurate to have brought him here. This hotel suite was his usual resting hole whenever he was in the city. The man conducted his business during the day and enjoyed his pleasure at night time.

Screeehhhhttt . . . Screeeeeccchhhhttt . . .

His knuckles and arm muscles tightened each time he ran the sharp edge of his sickle blades against each other. He didn’t care about the noise they made; the noise was soothing to him. Comforting and relaxing. It sharpened him for the impending blood he was going to spill in this room. It won’t be his blood, but it might as well be his. He was getting antsy. He thought of how long his wait would be before his quarry arrived. Would he return alone or be with company. If with company, how many? He wasn’t worried if his quarry came with company. He was prepared for whatever surprises his quarry might bring with him. He had here in his fists his own brand of death-dealing surprises to dispense. One his quarry won’t ever be expecting. He had dispensed similar treatment to another from whom he had acquired the information that led him here and it added comfort to his mind. His hands felt melted together with the sickle daggers. The daggers were an extension of his hate.

His head snapped up and his eyes came alive in the darkness when he heard a door come open. He stopped what he was doing with his daggers and listened to the chattering voices that just entered the room. He made out a woman’s voice with that of a man—his quarry, no doubt. There wasn’t any other voice in the background beside theirs. He peeked through the slit in the closet doors at the movement of shadows in the room. The lights came on and his quarry stepped into view, standing by the foot of the bed with his female companion. He watched his quarry take off his jacket grabbed the woman’s arms and fell with her on the bed, both exploding in mirth. He watched them grope and fondle each other, neither aware of his presence. He raised his arm to his brow and it came off with sweat. He watched the couple frolic, bidding his time.

Otis gripped the handle of his sickle blades and counted down numbers in his head and then when he was done, eased quietly out of the closet. Neither his quarry nor his woman seemed aware of his presence—they kept on with their kissing, lost to the danger in the room. The bedroom door stood ajar and Otis glanced that way to make sure there wasn’t any other company around. He advanced upon them, holding up his sickle-shaped daggers and determined to use them. His breathing was slow and labored.

His quarry was too busy ministering kisses upon his date’s neckline while she gasped and prodded him along. Her eyes opened with startled fright at the dark figure in the room with them and she let off a shriek while struggling to push her date off her. The man pulled himself up on his arms, startled by her screaming and right there and then, he too sensed danger upon them but it was too late.

Otis came at them and jumped down on his quarry’s back. The man fell back on the woman with his face connecting her nose, making a crunching noise that cut down her screaming fit. Otis raised his sickle daggers then rammed them down on back of the man’s back. The twin daggers tore through the man’s shirt and imbedded three inches into the man’s scapula. The man’s face came up and he let off a loud cry. The woman remained under him gasping and coughing from her bloody nose. Otis twisted the blades, ripping through the man’s scapular trapezius. More blood sprayed the bed and the man was screaming and beating his arms and feet on the bed, wanting to push Otis off him but failing. Otis pushed the man’s head down on the woman’s face to choke off his screams. When he reckoned he had incapacitated his quarry enough, he extracted his daggers off his back, ripping off flesh and bits of his shirt and then he came off the man’s back. Otis wiped sweat off his brow with his arm. He surprised himself with how unperturbed he was with watching the man bleed.

Father’s Land (Excerpt)

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The morning progressed into the day. Otis sat behind his desk with the window in front of him. His laptop computer was open before him and he was reading the past page of manuscript he’d been working on before fleeing the States. Done with the reading he flexed his fingers then got to work typing. The work was slow and cumbersome. The images were there behind his eyes. It was hard bringing them before him to put on the page. Time after time he wrote a sentence then pressed on the backspace key deleting much of it. He was sweating underneath his shirt. His lips grew dry. He stopped after he had filled one page and looked at his watch but was aghast to see time had barely moved. It felt like he had been at work half the day already.

Otis dropped down his hands and slouched in his chair in defeat. That was what he felt right now. It was what he had felt when he arrived at JFK Int. the night before his flight was to leave. His rent had been up a week before and he had spent the past days living with several writing buddies while counting the days. Each day was a labor to him. Otis sometimes thought he would run out his mind trying to think through his predicament. All he had done or tried to turn the tide and nothing seemed to work. By the time it became three days left before his departure he had given up and resigned to fate. For whatever was bound to come his way he would accept knowing he had tried and nothing in his power was enough. That was the problem that nothing was ever enough.

Otis pushed back his chair and got up. He scratched at itch in the back of his head. Electricity had returned an hour ago. His bed seemed inviting but sleep was the least on his mind. The heat blowing in through his window told him that. There still was the itching dryness in his mouth.

He left his room and went downstairs to the kitchen. He got an empty glass and filled it with water and drank it. He stood beside the kitchen sink staring out the window at the Boys Quarter building. He could make out Samuel cutting firewood on an old tree stump. Otis drank one more glass of water then rinsed the glass and left it upside down to dry on the sink. He left the kitchen.

Otis came up the stairs but stopped when he saw his Dad’s door open. He was walking toward it when he heard a clanking sound and turned his head at the far corner and saw his Dad in his wheelchair positioned beside his door. Otis covered the distance to meet him.

“Morning, Dad,” he said.

His father grunted in reply then pointed a gnarled finger at his door. Otis took the handles of his Dad’s wheelchair and led him into his room. His Dad wore a dirt-stained undershirt with a blanket draped over his thigh and legs. Otis led his Dad toward his desk so he could sit in his chair. They waited in silence while heat blew into the room through the windows.

“So,” Elder Moses said. Every word that issued from his lips was a struggle. “You back home.”

“Yes, Dad. I’m back home.”

“You go back again?”

Otis shook his head. “I don’t know. Right now, I don’t know.”

“What you . . . what you going to do?”

“I don’t know. Finish my book, and maybe see about finding a job. That’s all I can think of.”

His words sounded trite and desolate. He felt overwhelmed with his earlier tiredness. His bed called out to him each time his eyes went to it. Suddenly he didn’t want to be in the presence of his Dad anymore; he didn’t want to rehash the past. He wanted to forget the past and pretend it doesn’t exist. Otis had the urge building inside him to get up and roll his Dad back to his room so he could hit the bed and continue to soak in his misery. There seemed to be much welcoming fun in doing that.

“I missed you,” Elder Moses said.

Otis looked at his father. He couldn’t comprehend if his Dad meant what he just said or not. His father had never been the sort who opened up emotionally. He seldom displayed it either. Plenty of times Otis had struggled to reckon what his mother say in him and why she never left him. It was no surprise his Dad was impossible to live with. For years Otis’s one pressing thought was one leaving his homestead and never returning to the miserable sight his father made it become each year. That thought went into overdrive after his mother died. Thinking maybe his father would soften after that happened. He did soften all right. He was practically a broken man realizing the one thing that kept him going, the one person who stuck beside him all the years, the one person he showed much despise was now gone from his world.

“I missed you too, Dad,” Otis said.

“I miss your brother, too.”

“Where is Joshua? What happened to him?”

His Dad’s eyes seemed to moisten when he said that. His jaw muscles shook as he struggled with his next batch of words. “Your brother dead,” he said.

“What do you mean? Is he dead? Whatever happened to him?”

Elder Moses shook his head. Tears welled in his eyes. “Your brother dead. Gone.”

Those words reverberated in Otis’s head as he remained in his chair and watched his father break into tears. The scene felt awkward for both of them and especially for him. He came to his Dad’s arms and hugged him.

“It’s okay, Dad,” he said as his father blubbered in his embrace. “Everything is going to be just fine. I’m here now. I’ll take care of you.”

He wheeled his Dad back to his room. Samuel appeared to help give Elder Moses his bath. He carried with him a bucket of hot water and sponge. Otis sat in his Dad’s bedroom and watched Samuel lift his Dad out of his wheelchair into his bathroom. He sat his Dad on a makeshift chair in the large tub that took up much of the bathroom’s space.

Elder Moses sat docile and watched his house servant mix several aromatic chemicals in his bucket of water before soaking the sponge and gently washing every inch of his body. Neither exchanged a word. He turned his head and saw Otis sitting on a rocking chair beside his bed watching them.

Otis grew uncomfortable watching them and got up and left them to stand outside. He waited for Samuel to return his Dad on his bed and then leave the room.

“How is he doing?” he asked.

Samuel shrugged. “Managing. That’s all.”

“What happened to Joshua?”

“Joshua left,” Samuel said. “Went to join the Black Path.”

Otis frowned. “Black Path?”

“Militants. Worse than Boko Haram. They fight each other sometimes. Everyday they’re on the news. One bombing here and another killing there. This country is not safe anymore.”

“Why? I mean, why did Joshua go to join them?”

Another shrug. “We don’t know. One day he came with some of them. Police was looking for them. Your Dad was worried. Your Dad told him never to return. Since then we haven’t seen him.”

“How long ago was this?”

“Been months now. I can’t remember.”

“Dad doesn’t talk about him?”

Samuel shook his head. “He doesn’t want to. Not anymore. He says Joshua is dead to him.”

Otis watched Samuel walk away carrying the now empty bucket in his hand. He returned to his room.

He returned to his desk and appraised his work on his computer. The electricity solved his debacle for him by going off. Otis didn’t know if to be grateful or sad. He shut down his computer and went to lie on his bed. He shut his eyes and tried to sleep. Images of his time in America floated in his eyes. The images were between a month and three months old and they cursed at him for giving up too soon. For not going the extra mile of fighting to remain in the States. All the effort he applied was for naught. Otis rolled to his side squeezing his eyes shut. He tried pushing the images off his mind but they kept stroking his despair. Finally he gave up and opened his eyes panting. The heat in the room was becoming almost unbearable. He ran his palm over his face and it came off with sweat. His shirt too was sticky with sweat. Otis came off the bed and went to wash his face in the bathroom. He returned to his room and changed his shirt. He checked his watch and noted the time. He grabbed his wallet and slipped his feet into his sandals and left the room.

Outside he went looking for Samuel. He found him inside his room in the Boys Quarter sipping a bowl of Garri with water and bread.

“Do you know where Sybil works?” Otis asked him.

* * *

Sybil sat alone with herself under the shade of a tree situated close to the college gate with one feet crossed over the other and looking prim like a Victorian nurse. Otis had no idea what a Victorian nurse looked like but the idea felt good in his mind when he spotted her after the guard manning the college gate listened to him and let him inside. Several students flocked past her and startled her reading. Sybil looked up and that was when she saw him. Otis caught the look of surprise in her face and felt happy seeing it as he approached.

“What . . . how did you find me?” she asked when he stopped in front of her.

“You look surprised. Samuel told me.”

“You came all the way to Minna to find me?”

He shrugged. “Electricity went off, and I had nothing else to do. No one to talk to.” He came and sat beside her. “Anyway, I didn’t come just for you. I went job-hunting.”

“Really? And where did you go besides trailing me here?”

“To tell the truth, this was my starting point. You think I can become a teacher here?”

Wind slapped at their faces and ruffled Sybil’s hair and the manuscript pages on her lap. She pushed her hair off her face. “You think you can handle fifteen to twenty year olds?”

“I can give it a try. If you can do it, why can’t I?”

“What would you want to teach?”

“I don’t know. Anything of science, I guess. I can’t handle math.”

“I don’t know if the school’s hiring right now. I’ll have to find out later. I’m enjoying your book.”

“You like it?”

She nodded. “It’s fun. It’s got some things I don’t get, but overall, it’s fun. You should get it published.”

“I would if I can find someone to look at it for me. I told you it was hard finding a literary agent.”

“Just in America? What about other countries?”

“I wrote to several in the UK. but haven’t heard from them so far. I’m still waiting.”

She touched his shoulder. “Don’t give you so easy. You’re better than that.”

“I know. I try every day. I just never meant to be back, or even to come back for this. I always thought things would be different.”

“Things are different,” she said. “Just not the way you wanted.”

“Yeah, I noticed that. Samuel told me about Joshua. Why didn’t you tell me?”

“I was going to, but I didn’t want to get you further sad than you were yesterday. It’s been tough on all of us, especially your Dad.”

“You ever seen or heard from him since?”

“Who, Josh? No. But I’ve heard plenty of crazy stuff.”

He looked at her. “Like what? Tell me?”

She shook her head. “Not now. First, I need some food in me. Come on, I know a restaurant not far from here.”

“Only as long as I’m buying,” Otis helped her to her feet as she returned his manuscript into her handbag.

“I thought you’re broke,” she said.

“I am broke, but now destitute. I’ve still got some coins left in my account. Lead the way and I’ll follow.”

They walked out of the school premises and across the street. Sybil led him towards the market square less than a mile from the school. City traffic flowed past them and so too other pedestrians. They waited for the traffic to slow down before crossing over towards the south-east section of the market. Sybil led him to a two-floor shopping building. The ground floor housed a restaurant. They arrived early to secure themselves a balcony table. There were northerners in the restaurant, all wearing kaftan outfit. A young waitress approached their table and took their order before rushing back to fetch their meal.

“Seriously, why do you want to teach?” Sybil asked him.

“It seems like something worthwhile to do. Also, anything to get me out of the house.”

“But you just got back. You should chill for a while. Write something else.”

“I’m tired of writing, Sybil. I can’t think of anything worth writing about anymore. I need something to take my mind off things.”

“How about spending time with your Dad?”

He gave her a wry look. “Is that supposed to be amusing?”

“He’s not the man you once thought of, Otis. It’s time you let that go. He’s old and he’s helpless.”

“You say that now, but you don’t know him. Not like I do.”

“You’re never going to be a happy person if you keep carrying this weight on your shoulders. You know that, don’t you?”

Otis wasn’t looking at her. His eyes went toward two men inside the restaurant having some altercation with one of the waitresses regarding their bill. One of them dropped his bag, explaining he was coming to get money from his car. Otis watched him breeze out the doorway looking upset.

“Are you listening to me?”

Otis returned his eyes to Sybil. “Uh . . . sorry, I was wool-gathering there. Yeah, I head what you said. I’ll work on it.”

The waitress arrived with a tray loaded with their meal. She dropped each plate on their table.

“Hope you enjoy your meal,” she said to them.

A brilliant flash of light went up inside the restaurant followed by an earth-shattering explosion went off. The explosion tore through the brick wall vaporizing everything contained inside the restaurant and in its path. Glass shattered and screaming voices went up. The force of the explosion pushed Otis and everything beside it off the balcony to tumble on the ground ten feet from them. The waitress was blown off her feet. She had time to release a loud cry before landing halfway on top of him dead. Bricks rained everywhere. The market became abuzz with fright and danger. Panic and screams went for miles. A black smoke furled over the rubble that was the former restaurant. Sirens went off adding further bedlam to the panicking folks.

Otis felt himself immersed in a ball of pain. His tongue tasted something wet and copperish in his mouth. Blood ran down the side of his face. His eyes came open and he inhaled dark smoke and rubble. Sybil lay on her side across from him. Her eyes were open and still and staring past him into nothing. Otis tried to move but couldn’t. His arm lay in front of him bleeding. He heard panicking screams and random shouting all around him. Sybil still remained on her side unmoving.

“Sy . . . Syb . . .”

His voice sounded hoarse. Her eyes remained staring into nothingness. Otis shut his eyes and in the depths of his mind hoped to join her wherever she was now.

 

Unpublished Novel: Father’sLand

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Some journeys end in destinations. Other journeys continue almost without end. Like daytime that sees no nighttime. The world keeps on spinning. Trees grow and die and little boys turn to wrinkled hobbling old men. The journey goes on without end.

It took Otis Lovejoy another day before arriving at the small town called Futa Mallon which he called home. The same place his father and his father’s father too had called home. They could trace their ancestry back to the 1700’s when the white man had conquered their land with rifles and cannons in one hand and the Holy Bible in the other. His father wasn’t an atheist but he had no truck with the one called Jehovah. It was the one grip he often had with their mother. Mother had been raised a Catholic and wanted her sons to follow in the white man’s way of religion. Father opted they went to school to get an education and do whatever they cared with their lives. As for going to church he would have cared less if they hung behind the parish shooting bottle rockets and causing a stir amongst the parishioners inside. He in fact loved hearing when they did such. Mother never hesitated to take a belt to Otis and his brother Joshua.

His flight arrived an hour before midnight in Abuja airport. The motor parks were closed by then and won’t open till 5:30 a.m. He had no choice but to find a motel to stay for the night. He had a cell phone but his father didn’t have one. There was a house phone but his father had long discontinued from paying the bill. The phone had sat like a piece of junk in the living room for years. A relic of its time his father was unwilling to get rid of.

That was the problem with his father, thought Otis as he laid his head on the twin pillow of the bed in the motel room he had paid for. His father seldom threw things away. Always hanging on to some broken piece of heirloom, memorabilia, or mementos of his past and never making room for anything new. Come to think of it now it seemed his father too was as much afraid of the future as he. He hadn’t gotten over the pain of been back in his country. Stepping out of the airport he familiarized himself with the sight and sound of everything he loved and despised of been back home. He was accosted by northerners as he exchanged some American Dollars for Naira before looking for a taxi to take him to any nearby motel that was cheap.

The alarm in his cell phone woke him up at 7:35 a.m. Otis came sharp awake. He could hear raucous traffic from the streets pouring through the window. Sometime at night the electricity had gone off. His face was a pool of sweat; the pillow under his head bore this evidence. Otis sighed and cursed his luck as he got up grudgingly and sat by the bed’s edge. Hard to believe nothing in the country had changed since he left. Outside the sun was creeping into the sky.

He got up, took off his clothes, and went into the bathroom with towel and toiletries bag in his hand. He couldn’t believe the face that stared back at him in the medicine cabinet mirror. It was the face of a stranger. Haggard and weary. His hair was scraggy. He had left his beard a week more than was appropriate. His eyes appeared bloodshot and cold. He lathered his chin before applying his straight razor to his face. Minutes later he was looking his better self. But nothing he could do about his eyes. They were the eyes of a penitent convict just released from prison after years of hard labor. Disillusioned and grave. There was so much darkness in those pair of eyes.

Otis had his bath and was hungry by the time he wore a fresh pair of clothes and checked to make sure he wasn’t forgetting anything and then left the room with his bags intact. He boarded a taxi that dropped him at Minna Transit bus stop. He ate fried plantain and beans at a Buka restaurant before crossing the street to find a bus going toward Futa Mallon. The park was laden with noise and chaos of travelers, market women, traders, beggars, street urchins, hustlers, taxi drivers, and just about anyone else who had no business there but simply had to be there. Vehicles pulled in and out of the park minutes after each other; the stench of the place was overwhelming. Otis paid for a taxi’s front seat and waited for other travelers to fill the vehicle before the driver eased out of the premises.

The sun hammered down on the earth. Otis fell in and out of sleep as the taxi drove along the open highway. On both sides of the road were rugged hills and valleys stretching as far as the eye could see. Cluster of clouds hung over their heads like halo. Once in a while they drove past Fulani men herding group of cattle into the hinterland. The heat in the vehicle was sweltering; the wind blowing through the windows was soothing.

Otis had traveled this road plenty of times. He knew it even if it was dark and he was walking home dragging his luggage behind. They would pass two more towns before reaching his destination. The country seemed to return to uncharted terrain the more the taxi drove. It was like returning to the birth of the world. Everything here was past tense; the future was another lifetime away.

 

Headstones Under a Grey Sky

2013-05-13 15.07.18

I was in a small town called Cherryfield in Maine when this story came to my head. There’s a small cemetry not far from the place I stayed with a mother and her son. It was the month of April. I was cold, and I was lost as to what direction I was taking, or where to go. I was two months away from leaving the U.S., and waiting on several literary agents whom I’d sent query letters regarding my novel, ‘The Rabbit’s Man’, and I was in such hurry to hear from them. Of course, they all turned me down (figures), but this simple story got me bleeding inside.

* * * * *

The old man got up from bed at the crack of dawn. He glanced out his window, at the grey overcast sky that hung over the valley and knew that in time it was going to rain. He lit a lamp as he then made his way towards the kitchen to fix himself some hot water on the stove. A couple of minutes later, when it felt ready, he carried the steaming kettle into the bathroom and poured a good measure of it into a bucket of half-filled water so as to bath with, while the rest he poured into a bailer, with which he then used to shave himself.

Finished with having his bath and cleaning up himself, he was in his room dressing up when again he glanced out his window and his eyes stopped at the elm tree which stood on a grassless knoll, a hundred and something meters from where the pig pen was situated. But it wasn’t the tree that caught his attention, but the two headstones situated beside each other under one of its thick branches. It had been a while since last time he went up there to pay his respect. Yesterday, he’d finally gotten a reason to do just that today. He went to his table and picked up the brown envelope upon which he’d dropped his hat last night.

Best get this over and done with, he thought to himself as he wore on his boots and jacket, donned his hat, and then made his way towards the doorway and from there stepped out of his home, stopping first to inhale his first breath of outside air for the day, before making his way up the knoll towards the tree.

A cold roving wind sprung up unannounced and he pressed a hand down on his hat to stop the wind from taking it off his head till he came to a halt before the headstones. The inscribed name on the first headstone by his left bore that of his wife Marilyn, who’d departed some months ago. She’d had a long running battle with cancer and had inevitably lost out in the end. The other was of their son Daniel, twenty-three years old. He’d gone to fight the Iraqis during the second Gulf incident, and had lost his life when he and his buddies drove over a land mine somewhere outside the neighbourhood of Tikrit. It had been for a good cause, the marine General had informed him at his son’s funeral. Cynically he’d asked himself, wasn’t that the same thing they had told them thirty years back in Vietnam?

He came and knelt before their headstones and muttered sombrely, “I miss you.”

In a way, he could have been speaking to both.

“I’ll start with you, Marilyn,” he went on. “I got a call from you sister the other day. She told me that the bank’s about to foreclosure on their home. She said that Herb hasn’t been around the house much ” the guy’s still living in his cups ever since he got kicked off his last job. She asked how I was holding up, you know, taking care of the farm and everything. Told her I was doing alright. Though it’s been hard ever since you left me down here. Really, really hard. I can’t seem able to think straight sometimes. Every morning I come awake, your face is the first thing that pops into my head. I miss you dearly, Marilyn. You just don’t know how much.”

His eyes were watering up. He raised a hand to his face and wiped  tears off before they could fall, and then turned his attention to the headstone of his son.

“Hey there, Danny. How you doing, my boy? Hope you’re up there with one of those angels. I’ll bet they’ve got lady angels up there, too. Make sure you catch yourself a fine one, you hear.” He stopped and then took out the brown envelope from his jacket pocket. His hands fumbled out the letter that was inside while he went on talking. “By the way, I got this letter at the post office in town the day before. It’s from Angie. You remember her, don’t you ” that fine gal of yours whom you used to sneak up into your room. Yeah, I’ll bet you think I didn’t know about that, don’t you. Anyway, she wrote, saying that she recently got married. Of course, she apologised for not telling me about it earlier. She says she still misses you and still thinks about you. Here, I’ll leave the letter here for you to read whenever you want.”

He laid the pages of the letter before his son’s headstone and placed a little rock over it to stop the wind from blowing them away. The man stepped back and sniffed once, and then twice again.

“Anyway . . . it was nice talking to you both. I know it’s been a while since last time I came by to see you two. Hope you’ll forgive me for it. Alright . . . I better head on back and take care of the farm. I’ll . . . I come by some other time and talk to you both later. You two take care of each other and say a little prayer for me.”

The old man turned around and quickly shuffled back down to the farm, not wanting his wife and son’s spirit to see his crying eyes. That just would be bad luck.

High above his head, thunder began to roar across the grey sky unchallenged.

 

Child No More

child slaveWhen does a child learn to become an adult? When a monster seduces a child into becoming a monster like him, and that child thus assumes the life and mode of living as the monster, do we ever get to recall past moments when the child was nothing but a child? How do we feel when that happens?

Child No More

Blindfolded, his gaolers led him along a narrow corridor through a part of the building he’d never been in before. He moved with hesitant bare feet while hands continuously pushed him forward.

“Move, move I say,” someone yelled into his ear. “The master don’t like being kept waiting. War is on, you know, so move!”

His gaolers pushed him into a large room and made him to stop in the centre. The silence around him was deafening. He stood there frightened; he felt like running but with the blindfold around his eyes knew he wouldn’t get anywhere far.

Then came the sound of boots walking towards him – the master’s boots, no doubt. The fear in him was now overwhelming; his lips, every part of him trembled with what was going to happen. The boots came to a halt before him; from behind his fold his eyes took in the dark shadow of the Devil standing before him.

“Hey there child,” the Devil said to him, “you want to be one of my angels, yes? Nod your head if yes or die.”

His head rose and fell down in a sharp nod.

“All right. I want to give you something. Raise your right hand up.”

The boy obeyed, spreading his fingers wide as the Devil dropped something a little heavy into his palm. This thing was metal and cold – dead cold.

“Here’s what I want you to do,” the Devil came round to his side and whispered seductively into his ear. “I want you to wrap your fingers round that thing, put your finger and feel the trigger. Yes, that’s it. Bring your other hand to hold it … yes, just like that. Now raise it forward in front of you.”

The boy did as he was told, holding the gun with both hands stretched in front of him, his shaking finger touching the trigger.

“The safety’s off, child. There’s a target standing five feet away from you. Now what I want you to do is squeeze back on that trigger. Do that for me, and then you’ll become one of my angels.”

The boy shook his head. “N-n-no … I c-can’t … can’t”

“Do it, child,” the Devil yelled into his ear, making him jump a little. “DO IT NOW!”

He shook his head again, feeling tears slip from under his blindfold. “No … no … I can’t …”

Then he felt something cold press against the side of his head as the Devil cocked his gun. “You either pull that trigger now, or I’m gonna blow your tiny head away. That what you want? I ask again, is that what you want?”

“No, no … no,” the boy cried out while tears watered his eyes. “Please master, don’t kill me.”

“You don’t want me to kill you, then go ahead and pull that trigger. PULL THAT TRIGGER, CHILD – PULL IT NOW! DO IT, I SAY!”

And right then he did.

KA-BLAM!

The gun bucked in his hand and again he screamed out from the sound of the gunshot, the way it bounced in his ear. He then heard the sound of something falling to the ground in front of him. He felt the Devil clap a hand on his shoulder, screeching harsh laughter above the boy’s head as he then untied the blindfold from behind his eyes, giving the boy back his sight.

There was a wide stain of splattered blood on the wall in front of him; lying haphazardly on the floor under the stained wall was the body of a dead man who as well had a blindfold over both his eyes and lips, and also his hands were tied behind his back. The boy hesitatingly approached the dead body, coming to kneel before it as he then took off both blindfolds off the dead man’s face. The gun momentarily fell from his hand and his eyes came wide open with heart-racing shock at the realisation of who the dead person was.

“Papa!” the child cried out.

 

Tale of a Night Avenger Pt. 2

Man-In-Black-Shadow-WallpaperHere I am, continuing with the second excerpt from my yet unfinished work: ‘The Night Avenger: A Toji Oguavor Mystery‘. If you haven’t read the first excerpt, I suggest you do. https://philoyok.wordpress.com/2013/11/27/tale-of-a-night-avenger/

* * * * *

Through a wide foyer and down a short flight of stairs into the living room. There were six persons seated pressed against each other on a long sofa, all looking like accident victims with long sad faces. The rookie officer watching over them rose to his feet as Samuel and Toji entered the room. Of the six people seated across, two were men while the others were females. There was Chief Alan Barry dressed in an undershirt and native outfit, in his mid-fifties, seated by the foot of the sofa, with his wife clinging to his arm, looking distraught with teary eyes. Two of the other women with them were their daughters, whilst the others were house servants, all of whom had been indoors when the alleged incident occurred. Toji noticed the stains of blood on Chief Alan’s undershirt and on his arm. He stood a few feet away from them while the young detective first conferred with the rookie officer before addressing Chief Alan.

“Good evening, Chief Barry,” said Samuel, then displaying his detective badge. His voice was firm at the same time solicitous. “My name is Detective Samuel Ejun,” he half turned to indicate Toji. “This here is Senior Detective Toji Oguavor. We’re here to look into the matter surrounding what happened here in your home.”

He stopped and waited for Chief Alan to say something, but the man remained mum except switching his eyes back and forth between Samuel and Toji. Toji saw the apparent fear in his eyes, like he knew he was in deep trouble already but couldn’t gauge the extent. Such was the irony of politicians and why Toji never stopped being disgusted by them. They always assumed because they wined and dined with the governor or any other important big-wig in the society that they same ‘Get-Out-of-Jail-Free’ clout extended toward them whenever they went and did something stupid. His eyes went to observing Samuel. He stood facing the elderly couple with his hands held in front of him like a priest delivering bad news. Toji could just picture him wearing a black frock and imagined he was going to announce that the couple bow their heads while he prays for the deceased. Still he was doing a fine job of everything so far.

When Samuel waited and he didn’t say anything, he turned first to look at Toji before returning to him. “Chief Alan, has my officer here explained to you the grievance of what’s before you?”

It was then that Chief Alan’s lips came alive with a mumble: “It was an accident . . . an accident.”

“My husband speaks the truth,” the wife chipped in; her voice was raspy like one who’d been crying for a long time. “The stupid girl . . . she tried to murder my husband.”

“That remains to be seen, ma’am,” said Samuel. “We’ll have the right answers once we’ve taken your husband’s statement down at the station.”

Toji conferred with the office to lead him to the body.

They left the living room and the officer led him down the centre hallway toward the back door beside the kitchen entrance. The officer led him under the downpour through a garden trail that led to the Boys Quarter building. There were four apartments there, and one of it belonged to the deceased. The officer had been wise enough to make the door with a crime-scene yellow tape.

Toji broke the tape and entered the apartment.

It was a two-room affair, with the second room acting as a bathroom/toilet. A bed occupied half the space of the first room; there was splatters of blood on the wall and the bed too carried evidence of blood. Toji took out a handkerchief from his pocket to shield his nose against the pungent smell of blood and death.

The body laid on the floor with a bed sheet draped over it. Toji came to his knees and pulled the sheet aside to get a good look at the deceased.

Her eyes were open and stared past him in shock at the ceiling fan above his head. Blood had poured out of her nostrils and caked her upper lip. Toji pulled the rest of the sheet away from her to see the rest of her anatomy. The kitchen knife stuck out five inches below her sternum; blood had encircled the sport around her blouse where the knife remained embedded on her flesh. He remembered back in the car, Samuel had mentioned that the girl was sixteen. She looked more like a fourteen to him. Hard to imagine that less than three hours ago she’d been full of life, had whatever hopes and dreams ahead of her. Now that as gone. Snuffed out of her by the knife in her flesh.

Toji saw she had something enclosed in one of her fists. He knew he ought not be doing it, and he couldn’t help taking a look at the door in case anyone was there waiting on him before reaching toward the girl’s hand with the handkerchief still in his hand. He managed to pry her fingers open and saw she was clutching a rosary.

No more prayers for you, little girl.

Toji rose to his feet. He draped the cloth back over her.

There were a set of books positioned against the wall at the head section of the bed behind the pillows. Toji carefully stepped over the corpse to go examine the books. He found text books on Biology, Chemistry, and several romance novels with the covers torn off. He flipped through one of the romance books and stumbled on a folded note inside.

Just then he heard approaching footsteps. He palmed the note and made like he was checking the books again when First-Class Detective Samuel Ejun walked past the door. He had a pitiful look on his face as he gazed down at the corpse. Toji heard his sniffle.

“Anything new from the couple?” he asked.

Samuel looked up, as if then remembering where he was and that he wasn’t alone. “Uh, yeah, I got some details. The deceased’s name was Ronke. She has been under their employ going five months now. The Chief’s wife said she was the one that brought her from the village to come stay with them. They took care of her education while she looked after the little one in the house.”

“What did the husband, Chief Alan, say happened?”

Samuel pulled out a jotter pad from his pocket and consulted it before speaking. “According to the first officers’ statement, he said the girl had been acting pretty erratic lately. She’d been keeping late nights and sneaking out of the compound however she can. He came by here to check on her when he realized she hadn’t made breakfast for his little daughter. He said she was waving the knife at him, threatening him with it. He tried to fight her off. There was a struggle, and somehow the knife ended up in her.” He closed his pad and returned it to his pocket. “Though his words were jumbled up, I could barely make sense what he was saying when I told him back what he’d said.”

“You haven’t read him his rights, have you?”

“No, I haven’t.” He looked sceptical. “Should I go back and do that now?”

“Has he talked about getting himself a lawyer?”

Samuel shook his head. “So far all he’s being saying over and over again is that it was an accident.”

Toji smirked. “That must have been some accident. To think that a frail sixteen year old like her,” he indicated at the girl’s corpse with the stub of his shoe, “could take down a heavyweight like him. I’ll believe that if the coroner makes that assumption. Though I doubt it.”

He was silent for a moment, contemplating.

“So, you don’t think I should return and read him his rights?” asked Samuel.

“No, don’t do that. Do that now, and you risk getting anything out of him. His lawyer would allow you any inch to him if Chief Alan lets him know. Best take him to the Charnel House and sweat him in the executive suite.”

The Charnel House was the street name for the Cape City Federal Criminal Investigation building, and the executive suite was the row of interrogation rooms where Toji and his fellow detectives conducted their sweaty questionings to whoever was unfortunate to spend the night or even an hour as a suspect in whatever crime had brought them there. some of them were lucky to leave the interrogation rooms with nothing but a slap to their wrists, told to return back to the world and sin no more. The unfortunate ones sooner or later broke down and cried, knowing what awaited them once they left that room was a nightmare in purgatory they would never forget.

“Only sixteen,” Samuel murmured, gazing down at the covered corpse. “My God. She’s a year older than my youngest sister.”

Toji looked at his hand and saw he still had the note hidden in his handkerchief. He threw it into his pocket and wiped sweat off his brow.

“Be thankful she’s not your sister. Too many in Cape City don’t live to see twenty.”