A neighborhood crowd had gathered in the small room. At first, the gathering resembled a church congregation without a preacher. As a matter of fact, they could be mistaken for prayer warriors who, filled with the spirit of Pentecost, were heaven-bent on chasing away principalities. On second thought, maybe it was indeed a congregation of sorts with an unlikely preacher and maybe the prayer was the growing sound of voices seeking to know why. So, they asked the doctor again.
The doctor said the child was just sleeping. And the crowd asked how a person, a child for that matter, who was not dead could just sleep without waking up for several days. The voices rose into a din. Now, this crowd had no resemblance whatsoever to the beatific disciples who spoke in spirit-filled tongues. This one sounded like a bunch of urchins having a wild night party. In that same moment the doctor experienced a plunge into a nightmarish trance where the voices had turned into the mocking laughter of unborn babies. He broke into profuse sweat for a few seconds which stretched into the abysmal tunnel of his soul. A few minutes of struggle helped bring back his composure and he was somewhat offended at himself. How could he live with these people, these discordant voices, how could he allow himself be treated like he was a nobody living with these unknown citizens in ghetto squalor? The doctor had become very angry, so he bellowed in spite of the noise: “She is just sleeping!” The crowd was surprised into silence by the doctor’s new voice which brought calm only for a few minutes. Then his anger dissipated through the silence and his voice became soft again. He begged the crowd to be as calm as the child’s parents who sat on a faded wooden bench in grave sorrow. At this, someone replied that when sorrow takes away speech from the bereaved, those who were not must become their tongues. “You do not allow sorrow steal their souls too.” Now becoming irritable, the doctor asked: “What are you talking about, why are you talking about such abysmal sorrow, why make such nihilistic projections?” No one paid any attention to his “big grammar.” Let him impress himself, they thought.
Tears began to drip from the child’s mother’s eyes. Her heart weighed down on her like a huge rock. So excruciating was the pain that she could not immediately connect with her surroundings. She felt a strong pull towards death, for although her husband held her hands, all she saw was perfect emptiness. Was this what someone from the past meant when she referred to life as a bloody farting world?
The voices were rising again. Another person asked the doctor to prove that she was just sleeping. The doctor, now incapable of being angry, for he was tired out of his mind, managed to say that the child’s pulse was still beating and that she would sooner die of suffocation than the strange sleep. He said she needed more air than the crowd were allowing. This clearly offended a few people who reminded the doctor that the neighborhood was a big family.
The child’s mother felt she was the one in a strange sleep. She felt that, maybe, they were all stupid children in a visibly stupid drama on a stage for clowns. She began to wipe her tears with the edge of her wrapper. Her husband whispered into her ears, but she neither heard nor understood the words. Even her husband did not remember what it was that he had whispered; was it sorry, take heart or seed of my heart cool down… he had no recollection. A few hours before the gathering, grief had driven him to a shop where he already owed a considerable sum of money, but given the dire situation the shop owner did not hesitate to give him a full bottle of his home-made brew. He could not begin to imagine being in his shoes. He remembered when his wife was going to have their tenth child. The obstetrician had told him his wife was safer going under the knife. Knife? His heart cut as a shudder ran through his body. The shudder turned into a whimper as he imagined thousands of knives cutting through his body and his pleasure stick. When his wife and baby came out alive from under the knife, he had given a huge thanksgiving at high mass two Sundays later. The way the shop owner saw it, death was better than such a long sleep. Was God playing a joke with their emotion? So he said “do not worry about money now, just drink, drink down the pain,” he had advised. And that was exactly what the child’s father did. Not that he needed any encouragement. Even in happier times, he was a known drunk. He finished the content of the bottle in no time, but he did not feel drunk. In happier times he would have sung his infamous unsweetened song about how old river Thames flowed along without knowing or caring that it was flowing. In happier times he would have most probably fallen into a gutter, floating through distant dreams that had briefly become reachable in his drunken stupor. Then he would wake up, a little disoriented, but still hang-over happy. He would get home singing and jeering at his wife, blaming her for thwarting him out of his destiny.
Anyway, that whole bottle of local brew did nothing but remove him from the immediate situation. He let his mind wander aimlessly and shamelessly. He imagined that such a loyal, even if sometimes pretentious crowd would not have mattered if he was, say, a big oga or five-star politician who was enjoying the loyalty and praise of his supporters. But, no, it was a sad reality unfolding in a room, a room that could well be a baby’s crib — yes it was that small. It was definitely not a hospital room. His child was just lying on a make-shift bed with no tubes or wires attached anywhere. There was no electricity, just the flickering light from a candle that was burning away so fast. This was what his life had come to — shadows, voices and a crowd that was like a plaque of judgment on the wall. The sheer pity…the sheer frustration…in spite of his apathy he was glad for the miracle brew and even blessed the otherwise stingy shop owner, because if it were not for the drink, he thought, he would have made a mourning woman of himself. He would have rolled and trashed around on the floor like a new widow trying to make a jump for her husband’s grave. Not that he would have done any of that, for his child — truth be told — looked absolutely peaceful that he would not have minded trading places with her. Well, he would have trashed around to mourn himself for he thought wildly that he had died on the very first day he was born.
Drained by grief, the child’s parents surrendered to the unfathomable sorrow that hovered about the room and even beyond. It felt like they were participating in their own wake. A long line had formed and one after the other the child’s pulse was being checked. The way the crowd approached the matter, it was impossible to tell if they knew what they were looking for. No matter, they displayed an attitude of utter seriousness. All the while the grieving parents looked on like disembodied aliens who were lost in astral travel.
A few weeks ago when the child’s body burned like a firestorm, the mother made the child take one and half tablet of Paracetamol, although another woman had suggested that Phensic would have been better. The one and half tablet had no effect whatsoever. Two days later she had gone to the local chemist who mixed several tablets and liquid medicine together and carefully wrote down the dosage instructions on a piece of paper. The mixture did seem to work for a day or two before the situation got out of hand. The child’s skin color which was like brown cocoa changed to charcoal and the hair on the child’s hair grew into a tangle, as if the hair was plaiting itself. Much later, the child’s eyes could not be kept open for even a minute. At first, the numerous advisers thought the shutting eyes was a good sign. A good rest was the best medicine they reasoned. When, however, the eyes seemed endlessly shut, someone suggested that it must be a case of having been bitten by tsetse fly which invariably caused sleeping sickness. Many people nodded in agreement because the neighborhood had all the right properties to breed dorti. Everyone contributed something because it was no longer a matter for the parents alone. Someone brought shea butter and the creeping weed known as nanafiri in some parts of the country. Another brought snake oil and cat’s drooping. A lot more stuff followed: nti-oke, oshe-dudu, palm-kernel oil and even ashes as well as camwood to restore skin tone. The mother who by that time had begun to lose her mind administered all the offerings and the already stuffy room began to smell of so many things, which if piled together would equal to the smell of stale death.
After almost everyone in the crowd had checked the child’s pulse, some of them still expressed doubts about the child’s status of being or un-being. A woman lamented, we no know if the pikin dey alaif or not. The doctor reminded them that blood had been drawn in order to carry out tests that will show what the problem really was. Someone wanted to know if blood still flowed in the child’s vein and another answered that given the doctor’s observation, the child was sleeping not dying. This new issue was about to cause another round of agitation when two women waded into the matter. They suddenly began to share akara and puff-puff as if a soundless bell had called for an intermission. The aggrieved parents refused to partake. Now, this crowd knew that the heartbroken parents had not eaten a good meal since the strange ordeal began, so most of them launched into different stories about death, pain and despair. The last person reminded everyone of the recent plane crash in which four children, all by the same mother, perished. In one day, she emphasized. Another woman pointed out that it was not in one day, but in one single moment. In one single moment, a woman who was probably way deep in her menopause lost four teenagers. After the time modification from a day to a moment, the original narrator of that story concluded that only God can solve the mysteries that He created and as for pain and sorrow every house has seen it and every soul must feel it.
Everyone agreed that it was well said and a spontaneous prayer erupted with almost everyone invoking and binding. Concurring with a sigh of agreement, the child’s father reached out for the snack. That single gesture changed the mood immediately. Power was suddenly restored, but as shouts of jubilation rose, the area was once again plunged into total blackout. But the snack mood persisted and light talk began to float around while the young teens who had heard the call of the generators sought a way to escape. There was going to be an all-night dance session at Jump-I-Jump discotheque. They were not willing to just give up on the night, certainly not because of an inconsequential abiku. One by one, they escaped into the night that had become noisier than day. The generators collectively coughed out epileptic fumes that gave the night a smoky feel.
Snack time over, the inquisition resumed, but this time the neighborhood doctor said nothing. His silence angered a short middle aged woman who swore that if anything happened to the child she would personally have the doctor arrested. Some people in the crowd took the woman’s words with a pinch of salt. It was common knowledge that she had thrown herself at the doctor when he came to live in the area. A lot of women had actually thrown themselves at the doctor and he had thrown them all back like bouncing balls. The women left him alone, but the middle aged woman persisted because she felt that no man could resist the beauty of her treasured charms. Nevertheless, their voices grew once again into a din until a soft baby voice waded into the din, she is just sleeping, the three-year old girl said. She is in fact flying in and out of time. She will be fine when she stops flying. The child stopped abruptly as if she had not spoken a word. The really weird thing was that she had never spoken a word in her life. Her parents were in fact coming to the conclusion that she had been born with some strange defect. Everyone became silent. Even the grief-stricken parents flinched from their graveness. Someone let out a scream shouting, wonda no go end o, wonda no go end o. Then the same woman who had threatened the doctor with arrest asked the child how she could know such a thing and how she could be sure of knowing. The child, oblivious of logic and doubt, said: Because she is sitting right on her mother’s shoulder with a bright smiling light. She is in fact dancing in the moon and poking the eye of the night. She will come back to us when she stops flying.
Image: Dan Buck