Eketi Ette told me that I would pay her a tidy sum for making her the one to determine who the winner for the ‘Tell A story’ writing contest would be (Click HERE TO READ). Her reason was that I put her through an internal confliction at having to pick from the array of beautiful pieces posted in the comment section. I read, and I was relieved I didn’t have to do it myself.
I wanted a winner, but she plaintively asked: “Are you sure you want just one?” Eventually, I had to concede to two. The two of them have been picked, and should subsequently reach me either through Facebook or via email with their numbers and network of choice for the airtime recharge promised.
They are Sibbyl Whyte and Chiedozie Dike. And below are the stories they told.
By Sibbyl Whyte
Bent over on all fours, you hear the footsteps recede and the door grunt to a close, locking you off again, from the outside. Ignoring the sparks of pain shooting through your body, you crawl towards the light, slime leaking down your thighs. Dull light streams in through the dust coated window netting and ear pressed against the wall collect the sounds from beyond. The bark of orders, the reports of a gun going off, the lusty cheers which announce the death of someone or something. The pain is a stab through the anus as you try to sit against the wall. You should know by now, that your body rebels against sitting down every time the door opens -then closes. Teeth clenched, you ride the wave of pain and drag yourself up. Being erect is a relief or something close and you realize it doesn’t hurt as much as it did in the beginning. In the beginning, you curled into a ball after each ordeal and cried yourself to sleep, praying not to awaken. These days, there are no tears to shed having dried up like the ball of hope lodged in your heart that has shriveled into nothingness, emptiness.
You look out into the clearing beneath the dogonyaro tree where the sun plays hide and seek, its rays darting here and there amidst the fluttery canopy of leaves. There in the shade, dozens of men stand on prayer mats and face the sun, palms opened to receive Allah’s blessings. They stand, bow – forehead on the ground, buttocks lifted upwards – stand and stand again, finally rolling up the mats to stack them around the tree. The gathering breaks into groups and disperse, leaving the space free for the band of boys that congregate beneath, led by the man called Shittu.
This is the moment you have been waiting for. Under Shittu’s command the boys arrange themselves and begin to practice, wielding their machetes this way and that, flushing under the hot sun. Something is about to happen, you can see it in the hurried movements of men and the way they form a scattered circle around the boys, cheering them on. You wish that you can be out there with them, soaking up the kolanut-stained approving smiles of the older men; wish that you do not look the way you do.
Soon, Shittu picks out one of the boys and whispers to him, pointing at a stack of guns on the ground. The boy walks away from the training and you watch him approach, rifle slung across his chest. Something about the walk, right shoulder dipping downwards and the knees knocking against one another stirs your mind till a name pushes past the fog of memories. Sani! You stand on your toes – in spite of the pain and strain to catch a clearer glimpse but all you see is a flowery shirt flapping out of sight as he goes beyond your visual periphery.
Sani. You mumble it like a prayer, as if in doing so, he will materialize before you, an apparition of protection. If he were here with you, you would not feel so afraid whenever the door opened but then, you do not wish this fate on him. A rifle is more fitting on him you think, as memories engulf you .
Sani who first started calling you Amina after he wrapped your sister’s hijab on your head and said, “Wallahi, Ahmed resembul girl.” Boy by mistake, someone had called out then, saying that Allah turned you into a boy because your mother cried for one after having had six girls. Sani who was so fond of you, he beat up anyone who wasn’t family that dared to make you cry. You remember how much he hated secondary school but only joined for two reasons; you and the free lunch and made your classmates stop laughing at your stutter when he broke Gambo’s nose. Always, your father wished you had half his strength to be useful in the farm and your mother called him son even though he had his own mother. Sani who was plucking mangoes for you when two men jumped out of the bush and ordered you both to follow them, rifles prodding your backs. He had kicked the man who slapped you when you started to cry and cursed and scratched till he was held down. The angry man had cocked his gun and aimed at Sani’s head before someone called out from the bush and said, “Kai! no kill am, that one I strong well-well.” Sani who held and told you not to cry since he was with you when the truck drove away, carrying you and other boys far from the place you called home. Sani who would not let you go when a bearded man in white jalabia pointed at you and ordered you to come out of the line of frightened boys, urine trickling down your legs. Sani whom you saw through your tears, crying for the first time when two men wrenched you from his grip and dropped you at the feet of the bearded man whom you would later come to know as Alhaji.
You sigh, inhaling dust motes swirling in the air like your sorrow and it is then you notice the fly fluttering above you, caught in a spider’s web. You stand on tiptoe and try to cut the strands of the web so the fly can escape but your fingers do not reach that high. You search for the spider and catch it scurrying beneath the lone glass pane in the window to slip into a cobwebbed crevice. A bike zooms past, drawing your attention outside where you notice one boy undress, pulling his caftan above his head. Alhaji walks into the clearing and you watch him wrap something onto the boy’s chest but you can’t see clearly since he has his back to you. A key turns in the lock and you stiffen against the window, eyes closed. The clatter of plates tells you it is your food arriving even before a voice says so and you exhale, tension finally thawing when the door locks again. You open your eyes just in time to see the boy climb onto the bike amidst applause but the scene unfolding outside no longer holds your interest.
Today you do not rush immediately to the plate, perhaps it is the thought of Sani still being alive and around. For a moment the image of the rifle around his fifteen year old neck and the effortless way he carried it flashes through your mind and you smile, thinking how childish the wooden pistols you both played with at home must seem to him now. You wonder -as you walk towards lunch- if he has killed anyone yet. You wonder if he knows you are here. You wonder…
It’s been three days since you saw Sani walk past and you have started to think that maybe he is dead and what you saw was his ghost or someone else you just wanted to be him. More people have invaded your body too than you care to count. Alhaji must have given them permission because in the beginning, you belonged solely to him. You remember the first guard who used to serve your meals and how his head had split open from Alhaji’s bullet when he was caught with his hand on your penis. You fear that maybe they can sense your death coming and want to make sure you serve your purpose till the last breath. These days, you have lesser control over your bowels and fevers attack nightly, you pray for death when a new day finds you still breathing.
You are lying in a puddle of excrement, shorts pooled at your ankles when the door opens, but you do not move not till hands lift you to a cleaner spot and begin to wipe you clean with a wet rag. You are past caring because in the last dream you had, you were sinking in the river, a skeleton wearing a hijab. You know death is near.
When the voice orders you to bend over, you assume the pose on all fours, waiting. Nothing happens after a zip slides open and trouser hits the floor; all you feel is wet hands on your back.
Knee dan, chuk am insai dia! The voice orders and you hear heavy footfalls approach, flashlight beaming. Hol am like dis! Wet hands grip your pelvic bones that jut out and you feel no pain when a penis slides in and slips out because it is smaller than all that have gone through.
You remember what Alhaji said the first night he tore through you. He had said you should be proud to be the vessel through which he would be kept pure enough to continue with the mission. You wonder if this new initiate has become pure having dipped himself in you. Sannu, you hear the voice say as warm liquid spurts and trickles down your thighs and soon they are both laughing. It is the sound that triggers your memory and you utter the name that has been on your tongue for days.
Sani? It is a question that cuts off the laughter you know to be his, having heard it for the past thirteen years of your life.
“Eh, Amina,” he answers just before the other voice orders him to leave the room. For the first time since you were wrenched from your brother’s grip, you laugh. A harsh sound that sends you into a coughing fit as the door closes, leaving you with only a spider for company. Curled into a ball, you wonder if you are the fly trapped in its web. You wonder too, if you are dead or alive.
THE DARK ROOM
By Chiedozié Dike
Victoria Island, 1965
There’s something ethereally artful about a silhouette, this silhouette; the coordination of light and shade throwing into profile the face of this man I do not know, his figure, the shape of him, enlivened by shadow and cast on a backdrop of yellow light spilling through a crack in the door from an adjoining room. I can see his face, and in my head it the semblance of a Grecian god of whom odes are composed and incense offered, the sort of face I found carved in stone all over Italy on a hard-won summer-holiday in my last semester at Cornell last year; the venerated profile of the alpha-male.
I stand at my window, the generously-wide picture-window of my new apartment in one of the most-recently completed high-rise tenements in Victoria Island, which I could only barely afford with an advance on my salary, and I watch, framed by curtains sewn, hand-embroidered and parceled to Lagos from Port-Harcourt by my mother as a house-warming gift; enthralled by this faceless stranger, his profile thrown in relief by the light that threatens to overwhelm the dark room where he stands, doing god-knows-what with hands that are swallowed by the darkness, his silhouette visible through the drape-less window that faces my apartment from across a cobblestoned road.
I have been standing on this very spot for half an hour or so, watching this stranger who is, as far as I know, unaware he has an audience; wondering what he’d feel like, imagining how his lips would taste, and if they would fill my mouth. I think of his strong hands –hands that I have never seen –on my breasts, moulding them, kneading my nipples; I think of holding my fingers to his chest, feeling his pulse, tracing the lines of his perfect face, a face that, though formless in my head, takes on the essence of every last man I have ever desired. I want this stranger, I think with sudden ferocity; I want him in my bed tonight, now!
You must think me crazy, or perhaps, a whore: a woman of neither virtue nor morals; and to all that, I would say: yes. I am a liberated woman, a self-conscious atheist whose allegiances and virtues are only to a secular state. I am very much different from the young naive girl from Aba who set out to America five years ago for an Ivy League education, and I am aware of this in the way I am aware of my womanhood, of the curves of my body and the lingering eyes of men; most especially, of the effect it has on me: knowing how my body affects a man, that his eyes linger because I am desirable, and as such, powerful. I am very much aware of this change in myself, an absolute mutation, like say a butterfly larvae morphing into a carrion bird, and I am more aware that I am hardly the same person anymore. Perhaps that’s the reason I have been putting off a visit to Port-Harcourt, where my family now lives, for fear that all those who knew me would hardly recognise me, and worse yet, that I may remember what I had been like and feel ashamed of who I have become. But in this instant, it is stimulating, and even to some degree, liberating, to watch this stranger’s profile from across the road in what is fast becoming an after-work past-time –I have been watching him this way, every night, for the past two weeks –and I try now to piece his life together, the life of this man I have never met; to create an eclectic personality for the flexibly-defined face existing in my head.
What does he do in that dark room every night? I wonder. Hmmm…. Work? In a dark room? Why would anyone work in a dark room? Could be he’s a spy, I think with an internal laugh, my love for Leon Uris’ spy-thrillers having the better of me, but this is a little game going on in my head and I see it through, half-heartedly mulling: yes, it could be he’s a spy for the threatening Republic of Biafra, sent to the nation’s capital on a reconnaissance mission. Or maybe he’s a spy-handler…
This is my imagination running wild and the idea of it is positively ludicrous, but the human mind is a tricky thing, you see, and without realising it, I have already begun seriously considering the possibility. There has been an increasing air of tension in the country for the past year, what with the agitation of Colonel Odimegwu Ojukwu and his underlings for the secession of the south-eastern part of Nigeria to form the self-determined Republic of Biafra, the purpose of which, I honestly can’t wrap my head around. But this lack of understanding and flat-out irritation with the idea, I must admit, isn’t so much informed by a bird-eye’s view as it is by my self-preservation: I mean, what would such a new republic mean for me and the professional roots I am already setting down in Lagos; what would the new Biafran state hold for an investigative journalist other than bogus promises, and irrelevance? Who would care for scandal when they have a new life to build? Who would, for their sanity, disbelieve a government that has sworn to take them to the promised land, a land for which they would have given up everything and would rather make work or die trying, even if it means living in denial, because otherwise what recourse would they have; failed by their Moses, to whom would they run?
But it’s all nonsense, I think now with severity; this rubbish about him being a spy-handler. I try to imagine it now, a black man with a Yoruba accent in a fedora and overcoat, silver-pistol holstered at his hip, pocketing a telegram and tapping out messages in Morse code. Needless to say, this is a very laughable image. And then it hits me: he is photographer! That has to be it! He spends his evenings in the dark room developing his films. Oh, how could I have missed it!
I rush into my bedroom and throw open my wardrobe, thinking what to wear of all my dresses. Nothing seems good enough: they either seem too godmother-ish or too maternal or too formal or too slutty or solely night-club appropriate, and I fling out dress after dress, creating a heap on my bed and a mess around it, until my eyes fall on it: a yellow crepe dress I bought on a whim at a department store on my birthday last year and have never worn. It’s perfect! Somewhere between informal and homey, not too low-cut, revealing just enough above the décolletage and never more fitting for an occasion as it is now.
If you are wondering what I am doing and why the attendant urgency…well, I am going to seduce this absolute stranger from across the road, of whom I have only seen a silhouette in the past two weeks, and the realisation that he is a photographer proffers my opening. The thought of it, what I am about do, leaves me with a surge of something potent and dizzying in the pit of my stomach, the sort of sensation I get when I push the needle on my car’s speedometer till it feels like it has a mind of its own, or when I’d give blow-jobs in alleyways to middle-aged white men I’d met in bars who mostly had pale circles where their wedding rings should have been. I might have graduated Cornell with a degree in Investigative Journalism, but what I really learnt in school was that a woman can have as much sex as a man, can objectify as much as she is objectified, can give as much as she takes, and be unashamed about it. A woman can own her sexuality and not be prudish or squeamish about it, refusing to settle into the double-standards of society that dictate different rules for women from men, and while some folks may describe me as a feminist, I am not corny enough to imagine that the manner in which any one woman chooses to conduct herself and live her life can bear on the destiny of womenfolk all over the world. To be honest, I’m not much interested in the feminist agenda, which is largely unheard of it in these parts, except in ways in which it might directly affect me, in ways in which it might work like a battering ram on the glass-ceiling, sending shards like icicles downwards to pummel undeserving men who would otherwise be promoted over a better woman. Beyond this, I am not self-deluding enough to presume I am any more than a little girl who’d gotten caught up in the dazzling suction force of American culture in the 60’s: drugs, boys, sex, and disco. I am nobody’s role model; hell, I wouldn’t even want my daughter to take after me –or want a daughter for that matter. In the words of Richard Allbright, a white colleague of mine at the Daily Tribune and one of my casual boyfriends, I am a “man-eater”; Richard who burst into tears when in response to his declarations of love for me, I had casually informed him that I only slept with him because I fancied his accent. Ours has been a somewhat strained professional relationship since, but I think his description of me is a tad too melodramatic. Calling me a femme fatale should be closer to the truth.
I check my made-up face in the mirror, comb out my Afro-do, trace the smudges of lipstick around my lips, and then splashing on some cologne head out of my flat and across the road, the sharp clacking of my stilettos on the terrazzo stairs an accompanying beat for this crazy, little adventure I am embarking on. My mother would have a heart attack if she knew.
Fifth-floor, eastside of the building, third flat to my right off the main stairwell; check! I knock at the door, and cupping a palm around my mouth, test my breath: smells like Listerine.
The door swings open reluctantly and a dark man is standing before me, clinging guardedly to the door. ‘Yes?’
I feel disappointment settle like a stone in the pit of my stomach, stunned, disillusionment hitting me like the in-step of a military-boot to my crotch. This isn’t at all the face of my imagination! This is neither the face of a god nor anywhere near it. This is an unremarkable, tribal-marked face I wouldn’t deign to kiss at my horniest.
I can turn back right now and walk away to go drown in my bath-tub, but I don’t know if it’s the shock of a let-down unprepared for or the force of habit: my cultivated persona of aggression around men, or perhaps a desire to save face, that propels me to gently push this stranger aside and let myself into his flat. ‘It is not gentlemanly to leave a lady in the hallway’ I state tersely. ‘Didn’t your mother teach you that?’ The last bit I say in a milky tone I’ve known men to always read self-serving meanings into.
‘Who are you, and what do you want?’ He snaps. He doesn’t sound like he’s in the mood for games.
‘I was told you’re a photographer and I need a photograph of me taken.’
‘I am not a photographer’ he says, ‘so could you please just leave…’
‘What is that then?’ I hurl back, feeling insulted, motioning to a chunky Polaroid camera discarded unceremoniously on a coffee table, as I do, taking in the room, noting the objects lying around.
He doesn’t respond at first, but right now, my battered confidence and certainty of sex appeal are the furthest things on my mind; my investigative-journalist antennas are buzzing, noting that something is terribly off about this room that has discarded in corners, school bags and lunch-boxes, and yet holds no pictures of any one child on its walls.
‘I don’t owe you any explanation’ he gives off again in that hostile tone, and even more severely says: ‘Please leave now.’
‘Okay’ I say and make to go, thinking to say something sassy, something demeaning, but overwhelmed by the chill creeping up my spine. Something is going on in here, I decide, something evil…and I have to find out what. He is holding the door wide for me to leave, but instead of walking towards him and out of it, I turn and make a dash for the dark room, the room in which I’ve watched this man from my flat for the past two weeks, and once in, I preternaturally find the light-switch and slap on the lights and my heart starts to thunder in my chest, threatening to burst through.
On the walls of this room, a kitchenette, are hundreds of pictures, pictures of little children, both male and female, in several phases and poses of nudity; photos of little faces bloodied beyond recognition and caught on camera in the unmistakable grimace of death. In the sink, and plastered on the white-tiled walls, are streaks and splatters of blood, and what looks alarmingly like a human-eye. I feel my head swell to dizzying proportions; my eyes falling on a rolled-up, bloody tarp hurdled at a ninety-degree angle. It takes a little over a second to take all of this in, you see, and overwhelmed by an uneven mixture of fright and rage at the scene that’s crystal-clear in its ramifications, I whirl around to face the man where he’s standing, my no-longer-faceless muse of the past weeks, who is still by the door, unmoving.
‘You sick, sick bastard!’ I scream and make towards him, tears fogging my vision. ‘I would make sure you’re arrested and you rot in jail for the rest of your miserable life! You are going to be diced and chopped and hung from an electric cable till you bleed out, you’ll see!’
I don’t know why I think he would let me go, that I would walk out of the flat and away to fetch the police, that he would recognise my superior Ivy League education, and the fact that I am of the elite class, and wouldn’t dare to touch me; but I am honestly surprised when he slams the door shut before I reach it, locking it and pocketing the key.
It takes one look at his deadpan face, their bottomless eyes, to realise what he’s going to do to me, and with this realisation comes a self-preserving desperation amplified by the certainty of death. I turn and I try to run, even as his hands yank me backwards and settle like a vice around my neck.
For the briefest second, I see my younger self and she’s shaking her head slowly, dismally, as if to say: this didn’t have to be your destiny; you didn’t have to gag and shackle me; you didn’t have to be a bad girl…
You could have been across the road now, curled up in bed, alive, asleep… If only you’d been a good girl, you wouldn’t be sleeping forever…
At least, you die pretty, love… You die pretty…