Maryann chased me as I ran right into the thicket at our backyard, short of breath, seeking refuge in the stream that ended the stretch of wood and begun a rocky bay which extended furthermore westward into the tiny hillocks that characterized our village, and then finally to the Ochango River. She had awoken me that morning, quite bizarrely, with the thirst for a good running, and as I’m wont to doing whenever I’m around her, I obliged. She didn’t need to utter a word. She had tiptoed into my small dank room so that I wouldn’t hear her coming in, and screamed at the top of her lungs, “ọsọ mee.” That was the chant used by our local masquerades to scare children away from their more violent dance displays. The kids would take to their heels, hearts racing, because of the stories their parents had told them of how the masquerades would cut off your arm or leg and attach it to their ekpo – their masks – and it will take on a life of its own and begin dancing to the drums of the undead, the unsettling choruses that put a spring to their dance steps, and with each dance movement made by the detached body part, a full day in the life of its original owner is taken away, unless the owner is ogbanje. It is said the ogbanje can resist this curse because it is the reincarnation of a vengeful trickster spirit, and so, knows all the hidden ways to tamper with the will of the sprits behind each masquerade. Overtime, bringing a child suspected to be an ogbanje to the chief masquerade spirit, even after the igba afa has been done, had become the surefire way to truly determine if such child is an ogbanje. If the detached body part dances but the child goes on to live beyond four moons, then it is confirmed. If the body part does not dance at all, then the situation is worse– the child must be handed over to the fertility goddess, Ala, for sacrifice so that all the ogbanje has stolen from the family will be restored.
I knew the little bush behind our compound like the back of my hands. If I didn’t, no one could. Father had said we would not stay more than a month in the village since leaving the city– a month to let him “reboot”, he said, find a new, better paying job. It has been six years since, and life’s hard knocks had sat him down on a bench, provided him with a decrepit DIY grinder, and has blessed him with villagers with corn and beans and breadfruit to grind. It was good business; a hundred times worse than the accountant job he lost at his ex-girlfriend’s husband’s law firm in Lekki, but no one else had the genius to start such up in the village until him, so it paid enough to keep the family alive. When he had thought he lost everything, he had gained the grinder, and a remastered love for the omenaala of his people– something he had once sworn and given up for a Deacon position at the church in Lekki. Mother was a spectator to all of this. She wasn’t always. When Father lost his job, she lost her voice, and her pride. She had turned herself into a resentful doormat, except when it came to me. This is why I knew she was behind the window watching Maryann and I as we dashed into the thicket. I could feel her eyes burning into my back, but I ignored it. Maryann was special to me in a way I probably hadn’t figured out yet, and putting the last four days she had been staying with us into account, I could tell Mother didn’t fancy this.
The seeping red of the morning sun cast strange colours on the yellowed leaves about falling off, and even stranger colours on the mishmash of dried foliage, earth, thorns, and earthworms beneath my feet. I could only cast millisecond glimpses at the bursting forth of nature’s morning as my pace picked up. Maryann’s shrill laughter wasn’t doing her pursuing any good. It announced her position, as well as where she would go next. That last bit only one trained in professional tracking could decipher, and I could. When I had begun picking up on what’s what and where’s where in that little forest about the time we arrived, I was quite overwhelmed and impressed with myself. I could now boldly slight at my brother who had the opinion that I was good for nothing. The sad thing is that I had totally believed him from cradle till arrival at the village. For my brother, the revelation that the forests were my forte maddened him and filled him with jealousy that he invented a new name for me – “Tarzanness”, you know, because I’m a girl. I was glad he chose a proud character; he could easily have gone with “Georgina of the Jungle” or “Mowglina” or something. I believe he hates this village with all his essence. He was too self-righteous to allow himself show it; Father and Mother’s hero he was, first in every class, straight-A’s super-achiever. Over here, he was Father’s apprentice, grinder-blade-sharpening-extraordinaire. It was all like I had petitioned fate, and she heard, and brought us here, removed all the joy, content and gusto of my family and handed to me. I had been looked down on too long to feign empathetic village underachiever with them. I grabbed fate’s gift with both hands and never let go. This is why I became the consultant hider-of-items-in-the-forest, finder-of-lost-items-in-the-forest, farmer, animal-whisperer of every single family in the village, and they paid me handsomely for my services. Mother now looked to me for feeding money. It is a weird dynamic, believe me; but one I reveled in. One of such families that paid me was Maryann’s. She was brash, harsh, and overtly insulting when I first bumped into her while she was bringing her father hot morning tea, spilling the beverage all over her Christmas dress. She had long since warmed up to me, and I don’t know what I would do if I ever lost her.
I was heading for the bay with my run. That was our bet– if I could reach the mouth of The Ochango before she catches me, then she would do my hair for a full month. Otherwise, I would do her hair, wash her Sunday gowns – her family attended church – and manicure her fingernails till they could split a palm kernel. All the attachments to my task was included by me. Call me cocksure, but I knew there was no way in frozen sheol that Maryann would outrun me. I knew the turf, was one with all the meanders and antelope traps I set, fathomed the weight of each soil I stepped on and could tell which could confidently carry my weight and which couldn’t, and most of all, I was faster and quietly stealthy like a quietly stealthy monkey. Maryann had had some time in the little forest too, so I wasn’t afraid she’d touch the wrong herb and get poisoned or go the way of a trap, but I was worried. I was worried about her, about how I had become so responsive to her. We weren’t just attached at the hip, our cord had thickened.
“Don’t slow down on my account!” Maryann bellowed from behind. I wasn’t slowing down. If anything, I had reached the tic-tac-toe rocks I had laid down for hopping on. One hop equaled three strides. I saw the red beam of the sun advancing steadily into the heart of the forest now. The exit was near. The run must have lasted five minutes; one from my window to the forest’s entrance, and four the rest of the way through.
“Seriously, I expected you to be faster. So, your mouth making is just mouth making?” Maryann panted and spoke in between inhalations– foolish, foolish move dear. Conserve your air. I had assumed her talkativeness wore off whenever her heart beat faster than usual. It had worked that day my nose brushed against hers and she accidentally dropped her oranges on the wicker basket of rubbish she was holding. She had giggled and smiled at me. I was trapped, and didn’t want that smile to ever go away, so I reached out with my grime-covered hands and rubbed her cheeks twice before regaining composure. The words “sorry” were exchanged and my stomach did jumping-jacks. It wasn’t hunger. I warned myself to cease being too quick to act out the first thoughts in my head. Think before, as Father would advise me. Haste was my one attribute I hadn’t figured out how to put under my control. I was always fast. So, for Maryann to shout disappointedly about my slowing down in a race to Ochango when I was on my hopping stones, something awry must have been afoot.
I did slow down now and turn back. Was it all antics? Had she learnt to use her words deceitfully because she had found out how much I worry about her? But her voice, it did sound worried. She really did believe I was slowing down.
“Nene, why have you stopped? Nene?” Nene is my name, but Maryann was not talking to me. She was not even in sight. I turned around and headed back to her. I was a little frightened Maryann had begun hallucinating. There surely were leaves in that forest that could induce that. She knew better than to touch their sap.
The smell of dawn saturated the forest and the distant domestic cocks were beginning to quieten. The dew-covered vegetation wet my face as I wove my way back to Maryann. I didn’t mind it, it was good for my skin, I suppose. The wetness got into my eyes as I got closer to the repeated screaming of my name. My heart could beat out of my chest about now. People told stories of how insanity is brewed in places like this, but this was my place, and it wouldn’t be allowed. I finally caught a quarter glance at the milk-coloured nightdress Maryann wore. That nightdress always swept the floor as she moved. I don’t know why she wears those things. When it came to fashion, Maryann shuts me completely out, shunning what she refers to as my fashion in-adeptness. Fashion inept people don’t go around dusting the floor with their clothes at least. Perhaps it was the undulation of the little clearing where her feet were planted, but the nightdress hung far above the ground as I advanced and got a clearer look at things. The hem of the clothing must have been at my shoulder height. Was she climbing a tree? I cleaned off the rest of the dew covering my eyes and looked again, and horror struck me from tip to toe.
Maryann’s head was cocked to the side, and her face was bluing. The three long and heavy hair extensions that made her so ravishing were meticulously wound round her long neck and connected at the tip to a fat twine that extended from a tall tree behind her. Her feet were limp already but her torso was still vibrating from the suspension. She was suffering, and I was too numb to move or even shed a tear. Air began leaving my lungs quickly and my breathing grew shallower and raspy. The horrid image planted itself on my eyes and I couldn’t take notice of any other thing except Maryann dying, grasping at the cold morning winds and clutching for some salvation. She was trying to move her hands, she was. She couldn’t. When I forcefully saw myself to the floor, the jerk of the fall activated my voice, and I screamed. My mouth was the vent for the kaleidoscope of emotions that had overtaken me all at once. I pushed out confusion, anger, shock, and loss from them. They were leaving, but didn’t seem to stop leaving. There was more and more and more where they came from, and it frustrated me. There had to be some other means to let them out so that they can carry out their exodus quickly and leave me be. Maybe my clothes were a hindrance. I began to rent them, piece after piece, after piece, shriek after yell, after cry. No one would come. There was no saviour. No explanation. No redemption for me, or Maryann, or the subterranean creatures that spectated now.
Then I heard a giggle. A sly, evil, silent laughter that came from behind Maryann’s flaccid body. The voice was so familiar it returned a portion of reason back to me when I thought nothing could ever again. The figure that owned it stepped out from behind Maryann. How could I not have seen its legs behind her? The figure’s arms peeked out, then it’s right leg, left leg, and finally, the rest of it. She was a strikingly beautiful young girl, perhaps seventeen years old, an evident dimple on her left cheek, eyebrows longer than everyone else’s, slim, jet black toned skin, the breasts of an average twenty year old, and dirty brown cornrows for crown. She wore a white satin nightshift, with a less white one-piece undergarment, no slippers, and palms more callused than most boys’. She giggled with that same tremendously familiar note, deep and a bit throaty, but treble enough to not be mistaken for a male’s. Seeing her enraptured me, and almost made me forget the hung form of my heartthrob right beside her. She was ghostly and appeared more than moved, and that alone differentiated her from me. It was like looking at a mirror, but beholding an image that by mere appearance, was affirmatively wiser, more cunning, and in perfect sync with terrible darkness. “Miss me?” she said, and ever so slowly made a gesture with her right forefinger running across her neck. As she did so, Maryann’s head began tearing from the rest of her body, gradually, fastidiously, with the sound of every torn muscle and shred bone resonating through the entire forest, ambience given by the loud, malevolent laughter the figure’s giggle had evolved into. When the rest of Maryann dropped to the floor, my heart finally gave in, and the pendent asphyxiation found its way. Everything blackened and all sounds faded to magical silence.
My nose wriggled from an awful smell and that returned me to the land of the conscious. I had this nebulous sensation of glee and peace and wondered if I was in heaven. Maybe I should open my eyes. I did and couldn’t see a thing. A feeling of claustrophobia was in my gullet, and I swallowed hard to tuck away the knee-curdling dread that enclosed spaces impose upon me. But I was in an enclosed space. I could tell because the small of my back leaned against the long edge of a protruding plank and the back of my head leaned against another. It was not difficult to surmise that that was a shelf. I reached back with my elbows and instead of the feel of hard paper, the softness of wool and the jaggedness of denim mixed together to remind those elbows of a time, a time long lost, where parading as a mean girl and delighting in being an emo teen whose sole companion was her Blackberry phone and two equally mean girls as posse, where woolen coats on top of leather tank tops and denim shorts was my defense against the horrifying feeling of uselessness placed upon me by Father and my brother, Ikedi. The shelf was actually a wardrobe. I was in a closet.
I quickly lifted myself off the floor I was lying on and dived for where I perceived the door was. Mid-dive, I was pulled back to the ground by tethers about my wrists. I now realize my wrists were together. The noisy rattling of chains brought me to full attention now. I still could not see a thing. Falling back to the floor, loud clangs of iron bucket and a wooden stick gave me a start and I shifted quickly back into the shelf. I heard sounds of movement from both outside and inside the closet. Then I felt something run quickly over and across both my bare feet. Another adrenaline-sponsored jerk of my feet towards me to avoid the vermin or whatever that was, and just like my hands, the feet were pulled back to its position by tethers around them. My hands and feet were chained down to the floorboards.
Where was I? How did I get here? What happened before I –? I remembered Maryann. My chest gave one long automatic heave in response to the shudder that coursed through me. And then, I broke down. I couldn’t control myself. Tears ran down both cheeks in rivulets. Only those chains kept me from curling up into a ball and wishing I was dead. I couldn’t tell if I was still in my torn up clothes. I couldn’t tell anything in fact. A crippling feeling of helplessness took hold of me and it only made me cry more. I wasn’t one to cry before, but then, I wasn’t one to be in the situation I was in, for reasons completely oblivious to me. I kept at my unabashed display of despair for what seemed like hours, and for all the while, I seemed not to be getting anywhere with anything. I was lying down again, unable to free myself of my holds, pool of tears mixed with snort under my face, a family of rats running around the whole place chasing the occasional cockroach, mosquitoes feasting at my bare feet, with a feeling of familiarity with the closet I couldn’t shake off.
I disturbed the night, or morning, or day, whichever, some more. That feeling of familiarity arrived again. A rat ascended my right leg. I shook it off. It returned. I kicked the air the best I could and it fell away. Then it returned again and initiated an advance towards my stomach. Another climbed on, then another, then another. It was an orderly march towards my stomach. I was shaking, and forced my eyes shut, anticipating the pain of a thousand bites of rodent. But it was not the rodents alone. A good number of cockroaches flew to my exposed arms, landed, and started their own advance to my face. I was in hell. And hell was not done with me. A heavy living animal climbed up to my pelvis and stood there. I dared not attempt a look at it. Its furry tail brushed against my nose, then it got off. The rats and cockroaches reached their destinations and just stayed there, unmoved, active with inactivity. I didn’t know if there was any higher form of trepidation than what I felt now. My eyes opened on their own.
I beheld crystal blue, kite-shaped, glowing pupils. They gave dim light to the closet and around the face that owned the lights– a furry face with golden whiskers and sharp-to-the-point canine sets. It smiled, the frightening cat. Then sat on its tail, placed its hands on its face and tore its mouth wide open. The mouth’s size kept expanding and expanding, until a head emanated through it. Peristaltic movements of the feline’s entire body kept bringing the head – which was now human – more and more out to surface, and to being. When the entire head was out, bald and all, with a very sharp movement, the head turned to me, screaming with a shrill that broke glasses I didn’t know were on top of the shelf behind me, “Maryann!”
I screamed back and tried and failed to scuffle away. I tried closing my eyes but they wouldn’t budge. I turned away from the horrific sight, only to have my eyes turned back to it.
“Do you miss me? Do you miss me? Do you miss me?” The cat-borne head of that same mirror image figure that killed Maryann used that question as a weapon to torment my soul. Each ‘do you miss me?’ louder than the last till the floors under me began shaking. I never stopped screaming. Then the all-too-known aroma of Mother’s oha soup sifted in through the space under the closet door. The figure turned to the aroma, and returned to me. “Hungry? I’ve got just the thing for you to eat. I hear brothers taste good in harmattan.” Then that sonorous guffaw. My screams, punctuated by coughs now, grew. Then the closet’s door opened and Mother’s face, with the worry of the entire village drawn across it, glared at me.
I felt relief. Salvation, maybe? But definitely relief. “Mother, mom, where am I? Why am I chained? Maryann, she – she –” I couldn’t bring myself to say it, or say the truth. “Mom?” She didn’t hear a word of anything I said. Then I realized why – I wasn’t speaking. My mouths were moving, but no words. I could hear myself faintly, but when I faced mother, I was mute as a swan on a bad day.
“Use your words, Chinenye,” Mother said to me and closed the door to the closet. I heard the sound of locks, and then of shoes retreating from me until I heard them no more. I understood things now. I should have listened to Maryann’s mother. She called my mom a witch; that she had siphoned all the good in my family to enrich her coven and she had a secret life as a billionaire at night times far from the village. I, of course, took grave offense at the words when they were uttered. But now I knew I had been blind and foolish. Mother did this to me. She killed Maryann. She locked me up. She’s tormenting me. I assumed her shutting the world out since things went belly up for us was a show of weakness and cowardice. Now I knew it was cowardice translated into wickedness and escapism played out by locking her own daughter up– the one good thing going for her in this wretched village. She was evil. She would watch Maryann and I from the corner of her eyes with antipathy and a devious desire to do her in, consequences be damned. I had seen it. It was there. Now, she has succeeded, and she’s enjoying it. Fate gave me this life. I had clenched it with two fists. I was not letting go. Not without a fight. Just she wait till I get out of this dungeon she has kept me in. She’d learn how to indeed rob one of their happiness. When the grinder goes missing, and I lie about the forest not producing anything useful anymore and use all the money the villagers give me to buy new clothes and expensive shoes, and then finally talk her down about her inane proclivity for languor and incompetence, she’d have no option than to run away. I’ll lure her to the river. Ochango will do the rest.
“Yessss, yess. She needs to go. I suggested Ikedi, but she needs attention first.”
And Ikedi. High and mighty and lofty, and mama’s and papa’s boy. Condescending prick. With all his pilfered grades and report card lies, you’d think he’ll try to actually be smart. The poor boy’s brain is as dead as a doornail. Even the clichéd expression used to describe the deadness of his thinking faculty is deader. How dead he is. Tarzanness my smelly foot. Diabolic kid will appear nice, but his intentions can drive one straight to their grave. Drop fucking dead boy. Maybe I should just release him from his sugar-tongued woefully-ironical existence.
“You are speaking my language dearie. Releasssse them all.”
The oha soup aroma moved my uvula and my tongue left my soft palate. These tiny movements hacked me away from my subconscious. What had I been thinking? No, that was not me. I couldn’t ever hurt my family so. No. It’s the evil mirror image. It’s not me.
“But it is dearie,” the cat-borne mirror image head figure replied my thoughts.
“Get away!” I shouted at it. “get away,” I continued. For some reason, it adhered. It was gone; and all that came with it– the piercing cold, the rats on my stomach, the cockroaches on my face, the stench of fear and intoxicating darkness. “Get away,” I continued, returning to my tears. My eyes couldn’t produce more now and the pool on the floor had seeped into whatever light material cloth I was wearing. I cried dry tears and repeated “get away” to no one in particular, until I fell asleep.
“Who are you?” “Miss me?” “Remember. Who are you?” I had fooled myself into believing that when hell comes, it has time for recess. The divine holiness of its torment meant I was a goner. Day after day, the figure visited, in crueler, more immaculately grotesque forms, never repeating one entrance, not once. One unique thing I noticed with its incessant unwelcomes was that each cute animal it sullies or wild animal it mounts for each presentation was female. I couldn’t tell why I noticed that, but it mattered somehow. Mother had made it clear she was the one that tied me up. She didn’t use her words – which was about the only intelligible sentence she could now make – to show this. She didn’t need to. She fed me, once every day. Sometimes, when she’d pity me, she’d prepare oha soup with eba, at other times, perhaps if Father had annoyed her that day, she’d simply boil yam and present it with palm oil, pepper and salt all mixed together in one plastic plate. She’d unlock the chains on my hands for me to eat, then lock me back up. Five times I tried to knock her unconscious, pick up the keys and escape, but she always saw it coming. Funny enough, I never once heard Father’s voice from outside. Ikedi’s I later began hearing. The first day he came close to the closet, he spoke with loud tones, and sounded surprised at something. After then, that sinister carriage mother bore enveloped him too, and when she wasn’t around, I could tell Ikedi was. He never opened the door though. Maybe he was too scared, or ashamed, or biding his time. We never got along as siblings, not for one day.
The first day I heard a strange gruff male voice that sounded like he ate too much palm kernels in his youth, that was the day I finally let in the ire that the figure – who I’d now grown accustomed to seeing, even scheduling its visits – had been encouraging me to. I was livid that day. Mother was seeing another man. She had grown tired of Father, and Ikedi was in support. Who knew where Father was now, or what he was doing? He must have given up searching for me. I was in there for months. The tally marks I begun marking on my third day in the closet kept me sane to some degree, and showed that it took four thirty-day months and five days for Mother to finally show her true colours, her infidelity.
Day 126 in the closet, and I resolved to ask my artistically hellish visitor one question. That same question it had been bothering me with since the start of our relationship. “Who are you?”
“Is that really what you want to know?” It questioned back. It wasn’t what I wanted to know.
“What do you want from me?” I asked. “No, no. Try again. Look deeper within you.”
“H–H–” The words were there. “Use your words,” the figure prompted, mimicking Mother’s voice to the last timbre. I flipped. Those three words were enough to unlock the brooding evil I had been keeping at bay inside.
“How do I kill my mother and brother?” It smiled a beautiful smile. “There you go. You are ready now. All we have to do now is be quiet. I will not be visiting for five days. On the fifth day, we’ll have so much fun.”
For five days, I did not scream out of terror anymore. I did not make as much as a pip. I accepted my daily meals quietly, hiding my face away from my mother less she beholds the green clouds of evil cavorting at the tip of my eyes.
“It is five days, Olanne, you can open the door now.” The closet door opens up. My face is to the floor. The hair that had grown from everywhere in my body hid my exposed breasts and thighs. My rags were now loin cloth. I was unchained, and weak, exhausted, and trying to remember how to walk, I was carried out to what looked like the insides of a one-room shack smack in the middle of a forest I had been to and dined in with Maryann. There wasn’t much inside. The kitchen was the pantry was the parlour was the bedroom. The curtain-covered lavatory was by the opposite side of my closet.
“You must know this about the ogbanje,” Mother’s Lover, who as I could now tell was in a complete creepy chief priest regalia, started, “they don’t admit to their evil ways easily. If you did not listen to me and sedate her after she killed that her girlfriend, keeping her under lock and key for these months, then this exorcism would not work.”
He pulled out his many charms from his bag, as an unexpected visitor banged the door open, startling both Mother and Ikedi. It was the chief masquerade and he had an axe, headed straight for me. Mother jumped in front of him begging, Ikedi cowered and hid behind a dusty torn settee. I heard a whisper in my ears. “It’s time.”
“That girl there belongs to Ala,” the stalwart masquerade bellowed. “Our ancestor’s spirits led us here. She belongs to us.”
“Right, you are,” I picked up with a voice so firm and mature and not mine, but mine at the same time, from a time I couldn’t remember. “But it is not me you’re looking for. Who you seek is in this very room.” The mystery I exuded was an intoxicatingly sweet sensation.
“We shall see about that,” came the masquerade. He ordered to other lesser masquerades behind him to grab me. I was having fun. I let them. They separated my arms, kept me spread-eagled and lay me on the bare sandy cement floor. Mother intermittently tugged on both of them telling them to not kill me, and they successfully shrugged her off with one free hand all the time. Their leader came close while the aghast chief priest and nauseated Ikedi watched. He kneeled on one foot and lifted his axe. I turned to my mother, extended my smile, and asked, “will you tell them, or shall I?”
“Tell them what?” the chief priest and Ikedi asked in unison. “The incident…the one I told you happened in Lekki?” Mother faced both of them.
“Yes, where Nene’s ogbanje spirit killed your husband’s ex-girlfriend’s entire family causing the ex-girlfriend to sack him, and you guys returned here; the reason for the exorcism, what about it?” This was news to Ikedi. Mother lost her words.
I laughed, heartily. “Mother, use your words.” She couldn’t. She was too afraid. Too ashamed to admit her faux pas, her weak attempts at self-exoneration. “I’ll help you, Mother.”
I turned to the man with the axe aloft. “Remember the last time you actually did cut off a child’s hand? Ninety years ago today? That was my mother. She lived beyond four moons. Her parents hid this truth and sought after a witch to grow her another arm and cloak her from my peering eyes. But no one hides from me. She eventually gave birth. She found a way to make sure the first was a boy. She tied her womb after that. I still came. She had always suspected I would. She killed off that entire family in Lekki that night so that her husband would hate me and his family and go back to her girlfriend. She never accounted for the purest of human feelings backfiring on her. Loss. That is why she is always so distant, afraid and confused here in the village, her birthplace. She couldn’t help out with any work here because, well, her fake arm was deteriorating and the stench was showing. She was constantly looking behind her shoulders for signs of me. She went as far as killing my new loving apprentice Maryann, projecting herself as me. It was well-crafted, I’ll give you that, Mother, or shall I say, Olanne, my dear old apprentice.”
Recognition hit the chief masquerade now. “Ala!” he screamed, and bowed. The other two did same. Then I went beserk. By the time I was done freeing myself from my shackles, Olanne and her son were lifeless on the floor, the spirits she had stolen danced around me, the chief priest had scampered. My rags were gone. I am the goddess of fertility and of all that grows. I was clothed with green. It was fresh. I was fresh. I was back.
And, I decided to chronicle my latest adventure. It had to have a personal feel to it.