I don’t even remember when I slept off. It was one of those nights when a tyrannical NEPA, a hot night and a long day came together to rob me of my will to stay awake. Not even my ever-wily mistress, Insomnia, was able to withstand the force of that trio.
So, one minute, I was typing out a response to a friend in a Whatsapp chatversation, and the next minute –
I was blinking awake into a whole new consciousness.
I was in the passenger seat of a car. My immediate younger brother, Meme, was behind the wheel. In the backseat were my other brother, Chisom, and a young female I did not recognize. She was coffee-coloured, good looking, with the littlest hat perched on top of her tight, black curls.
“If you keep driving forward,” she was saying with the patented cheeriness of a professional guide, as we drove through electronic gates that had glided open, “you will be getting into what we like to call here at National Park — the Animal Kingdom.”
“The Animal Kingdom?” I echoed.
“But we’ve been driving past caged animals all morning,” Meme said drily as he steered the car.
We were in a zoo. The realization came to me with the automaticity that is only possible in dreams. It didn’t feel at all like I’d simply dropped right into the middle of a motorized tour around a zoo. I was instantly aware that my brothers and I had been in the zoo all morning, under the guidance of the beautiful lady in the backseat.
However, the location of the zoo, if we were even in Nigeria, and who the woman was were unknowns. Clearly, dreams don’t give you everything.
So I turned to the window to observe my environment. The road we were on twisted ahead and vanished behind deciduous trees. We drove down, the car snaking through a valley. The trees soon thinned, giving way to a panorama that was so unexpected, I almost gasped out loud. There was a bridge just up ahead, which towered above a torrential gush of water. The river poured furiously along, its waves crashing together to produce foamy gusts and an angry roar that reached upward to the bottom of the bridge. There were hectares of green hills and gently rolling fields of manicured grass dotted here and there by small cottages. It was such a picturesque sight, the type you see in the Ladybird children’s books.
“It’s beautiful,” I sighed.
“It is, isn’t it?” the tour guide said with some pride.
“So why is it called the Animal Kingdom?” Meme asked.
“Because in this section of the park, unlike the other places we’ve been through, the animals are unbound, un-caged, brought up to wander freely in their habitat.”
I whirled around to face her just as my brother slammed the brakes.
“You mean to tell me we’re driving into a den of lions?” he rasped.
“And bears and tigers and leopards and elephants,” Chisom added, staring at the woman with disbelief.
She didn’t seem affected by our apprehension. She let out a small, unperturbed laugh and said, “Not to worry, sirs. The animals you’re about to observe are certainly not dangerous. They have been brought up and groomed not to be predatory with our visitors.”
“What do the carnivores feed on?” Chisom asked.
“The lions and tigers – do you feed them or do they hunt other animals for food, you know, natural habitat and all?”
“The Animal Kingdom is a close but controlled adaptation of the jungle –”
“So they hunt then,” Chisom interrupted her caustically.
The guide’s smile stiffened around the edges. “Yes, they hunt.”
“So how have they been brought up and groomed” – he dropped finger quotes around the four words – “not to attack humans but to hunt and attack other animals?”
“Perhaps a switch you guys installed in their heads,” I intoned sarcastically, “green for peace and love for all humans, and red for all-round danger.”
The guide gave another sunny laugh, one that was a marginally poor imitation of the other laughs she’d been giving. “Sirs, I can assure you that you are in no danger. I’ve been a tour guide for five years, bringing visitors to the Animal Kingdom, and we’ve never had an incident.”
“First time for everything though,” Meme said as he resumed driving.
“Perish that thought,” I forbade him.
He responded with a chuckle.
We were on the bridge, nearly halfway across it, when the most curious sight appeared several yards in front of us. From the distance, it looked like a huge ball of cloud volleying down the meadow toward the bridge. As it wheeled forward, it was accompanied by the thunderous sound of feet pounding the ground, the kind made by a thousand horses hoofing their way furiously across a battlefield. Chunks of dirt and tufts of unearthed grass were sent flying as the ball crushed down on its path, rolling speedily forward.
“What is that?” I heard Chisom say right behind me. He had leaned forward to grasp the headrest of my seat and I could feel the warm rush of his startled breathing.
Nobody said anything. The tour guide didn’t answer. Meme had stopped driving. We all just sat there in the car, staring through the windshield as the ball-like mass drew closer.
Then my eyes widened when I got a closer glimpse.
“Wait, isn’t that…”
“Is that a…”
“Oh my God, what is that…”
The sight defied every likelihood, the only way a dream could. Held together in the volley was a horde of animals, lots of them, big and small, beasts of prey and herbivores alike — lions, hyenas, antelopes, zebras, jackals, bears, buffalos, rabbits, weasels, tigers, kangaroos, ostriches, mongooses, boars, warthogs, polecats, raccoons, the lot of them.
The sphere trundled forward, held in place by a gossamer-like shroud that was so thin, we could see very clearly the animals getting tossed about within its circumference. And the animals were wild. Fangs bared, claws snatching about, bodies writhing, canines sinking in furry skin, and eyes wild with terror or rage. As the sphere rolled forward, the animals kept vanishing at the bottom and reappearing at the top, their shrieks and snarls phalanxing all around us.
The bridge began to rattle violently as the ball rolled onto it and onward.
“Drive…” I said in a hoarse voice.
My brother didn’t move. We were all held motionless in our seats, staring ahead at the approaching portent.
Then it happened. The shroud ripped, and whinnying wildly, a zebra dropped through the tear, a crazily-whirling body, into the river below. Just before it hit the foamy cascade, a snout rose from the currents. It was yawning open as it rose, to reveal enormous, jagged teeth that gleamed in the light of the morning. Gimlet eyes peered greedily above the powerful jaws seconds before the zebra dropped into the open mouth. The shark promptly snapped its jaw shut, trapping part of the zebra between its teeth and causing a spray of blood to spurt from its snout.
“Oh my God!” somebody gasped in the car.
But our troubles had just begun.
The rip in the shroud began zigzagging over the rest of the force field until the sphere collapsed, causing the animals in it to drop down. Most of them dropped down to the pulsating river, falling under the attack of the frenzy of sharks that had begun to surge forward. Those that dropped on the solid ground of the bridge, still snarling and screeching, continued pounding forward –
“Get us out of here!”
Before the words were entirely out of my mouth, my brother has pulled the gear into full reverse and jammed down with his foot. The car leaped backward so sharply, we jackknifed forward in our seats. The engine growled in protest and the tires spun madly as he floored it, sending the car in a speedy reverse that immediately made us targets. Some of the beasts bounded after us, their feet flying over the ground as they gave chase.
“Drive! Drive! Drive!”
The car kept speeding backward, zipping past the trees we’d admired minutes ago.
“We just have to get to the gate!” our tour guide panted. “Just beyond the gate, and it will automatically close. It will never let any of the animals through!”
Meme kept his foot down on the pedal and his eyes on the back. The car fishtailed a bit, drawing gasps from us, but he quickly righted the wheel and maintained our reverse getaway.
“God, please help us! Please help us!”
“The gate – just get to the gate –!”
“Shut up, lady! This is all your fault!”
The electronic gates loomed behind us. Sensing our approach, it had begun to glide open.
“Oh God, yes! Drive faster!”
Then our good fortune took a nosedive.
The engine began to cough and splutter, causing the car to jerk and decelerate.
“What is happening?” I choked out as I stared in horror at the pack of beasts that were starting to gain on us.
“No time!” Meme shouted. “It’s time to run!” He was already pushing his door open while the car was still in motion.
The rest of us tumbled out of the car and took to our heels. The gate was just there, open, beckoning. The wind whipped past my ears as I ran, watching as one brother stayed in the lead and the second overtook me. I was out of shape; my chest was clenching painfully and my breathing was laboured, but the surge of adrenaline I felt kept my feet pumping forward.
“Wait, please…!” someone cried behind me.
I turned my head around to see the tour guide tottering after me on her stilettos.
“Lose your shoes, goddamnit!” I screamed at her, my eyes widening with alarm at the sight of how close our beastly pursuers were.
She kicked off her heels with frantic sobs, and still struggled to gain momentum against the impediment that was her thigh-hugging skirt.
“Wait for me, please…!” Her cry was cracked by a sob.
I faced forward again and kept running.
“Wait for – Aarrgh!”
A blood-curdling scream rent the air and caused me to turn my head around again. A tawny cat had pounced on her, knocking her to the ground. She kicked out with her legs, knocking the lion back and attempted to get back on her feet. But another cat flanked her and lashed out with its clawed paw, sending her flying sideways. Her scream was choked as the lion that’d first attacked her leapt forward, its great paw smashing down on her torso. It clawed back fabric, skin and muscles, and blood sprouted.
“Oh my God! Aarrgghh!” The woman was shrieking madly now as another feline joined the two in mauling her.
Her screams wobbled and faded into gurgles as the beasts clawed the life out of her, snarling and growling over her mangled body.
“Oh God!” I gasped.
The shock of what I was witnessing caused a surge of nausea to crash through my insides. My stomach heaved and my steps faltered as bile moved swiftly up my throat.
“Uche, hurry! Run!”
“Don’t look back! Run!”
I looked ahead. My brothers were on the other side, and the gate had begun its glide back to its jamb.
I kicked up some more speed. Desperation grasped my heart. I was not going to end up like that woman!
That was the call of warning I heard before I felt a weight drop on me from above. I was knocked to the ground as the weight slid off me. It was scaly and slimy, and dreadful realization had begun to crush my heart as I stared up into the rapidly-rising neck of the huge serpent before me. Beady eyes gleamed maliciously, and a hiss escaped its snout as it reared up, ready to strike.
A second passed – a second during which time appeared to slow, condensed by molasses, retarding the sequence of motions, and emphasizing the approach of the inevitability.
Then the second passed.
And the serpent’s head swooped down.
Involuntarily, I shut my eyes and shrunk my body into a fetal position and –
Woke up with a tumble to the floor and the ‘Blood of Jesus’ on my lips!
I am @Walter_Ude on twitter