Fiction

Death and a Fistful of Earth: Fiction by Ozimede Sunny Ekhalume

Image: "thöR via Flickr

Image: “thöR via Flickr

A bird had built an intricate nest by my window. A dim-witted bird that had left all places possible on planet earth to nest by my windowsill. Two white thumbnail size eggs lay atop fluffy little feathers in the nest of dry grass blades and twigs. It was raining and I needed to shut the window if I didn’t want my kitchen flooded. The bird had taken advantage of my rarely using the kitchen.

I had been roused from my dreams by the patter of raindrops on the stone-coated roof, and the wheezing of the wind as it rustled between the walls of buildings. I ruminated on what to do. Fling the nest away? Call a pastor for prayers…? By chance, this was the work of some enemy. Or let the nest of two eggs be? I chose the last option even if it meant my kitchen would be flooded. But I pondered over what a bird nesting by one’s window boded.

I found out later in the day that the fatuous culprit was a beige dove.

I had had a dream of an out of body experience where I floated above my bed. I had seen my body hunched up in a foetal position on the bed, in my cream pyjamas, with my hands clasped between my thighs. Eyes shut and mouth half open. I had seen myself and my room from a bird’s-eye view. As I took in the view of the room, I heard the drone of rain outside. My soul descended and entered into my limp body with a thump. I had woken up giddy. The walls seemed to be spinning. I felt like a child who had been whirled round and round by his father and then dropped on his back.

Was this what death meant? Was death a mere separation of the body from the soul? Or was it annihilation of both? If the soul survived physical death, where did it go? Heaven or hell? Endless drifting across the universe? Or reincarnation in another form? The concept of death had haunted me since the incident that happened over two years ago when job applicants were stampeded to death at the NIS nationwide interview. The aftermath had changed my life and turned me to a “vagabond ghost.”

There was a fable about death popularized by Nollywood of Yoruba genre. It was a form of re-incarnation. Not the rebirth of a soul but the re-emergence of a dead person – not as a ghost – in a far away land. Such a person lived a new life looking exactly the way he was before his death. I had watched a Nollywood home video where a man, with a harem of wives and a horde of children, died and was found years later living the same polygamous life in another city! As the myth went, such a person would disappear if he was found out by people from his previous existence and would reappear yet in another city where he was not known. The remedy to breaking this cycle was for whoever ran into him to throw a fistful of earth at him before he disappeared. That sand thrown at him bound him permanently to Mother Earth until he had fulfilled his days. This form of re-incarnation happened to people who died before their time, and they being lovers of life and its pleasures, would rather continue to live than go to the final abode of the dead. Some sort of hedonists who didn’t want to be short-changed on their allotted time on planet earth. This myth, as absurd as it was, had believers.

***

Idleness was killing me. To keep fit, I trekked to most places I went rather than take a transport. On my way to lunch in the late afternoon, the sun was scorching. It seemed angry at the benevolence of the rain that fell in the morning. The feel of the sun on my skin was akin to what you felt when you scratched the itch of athlete’s foot between the webs of your toes – slightly painful but pleasurable. So pleasurable that if you were not careful you could peel off your skin.

Across the river, an elderly woman – who should be enjoying her retirement – launched a dugout canoe into the water. With her was a child of about two, probably her grandchild. From a distance, I could not make out if the child was male or female. The child, in a multicolour singlet and brown underpants, clutched and sucked hungrily at a mango. Both stood in the canoe as the woman steered it into the water with a long dry bamboo. The child gazed into the murky water without an iota of fear. Scum and water hyacinth floated across the river. The grandmother had a scarf tied underneath the broad-brimmed straw hat with which she shielded herself from the sun. She wore a red gown on which she tied a wrapper made of ankara material by her waist. Near her feet lay two buckets to keep the catch. On one side of the canoe sprawled some bric-a-brac. At the other end lay a tyre to balance the weight in the canoe. She was probably a grandmother whose wayward daughter or son had abandoned the child to her without sending money for the upkeep. Perhaps, a son or a daughter who had willed themselves to drugs or strange lovers that had made them forget their roots. Rather than starve, grandma had chosen to embark on a trade reserved mostly for young men. If the canoe capsized, the two of them had no chance of survival.

I popped a tablet of Tom Tom sweet in my mouth and rolled it around my tongue. I crushed the tablet and pulverized with my teeth to derive utmost pleasure. I hated to suck my sweets. I savoured the crunchy sound as I crushed.  I strolled past a bevy of young ladies, obviously the University students. One stood out. She wore skin-tight red pants and fiddled with the bulge of her crotch as they all waited by the bus stop chatting.

Soon, I was at my usual food joint. The inscription in red letters by the doorpost, Amala Intanasona, was faded. The place was a shack of plywood. The food was prepared behind the shack and then taken in to be served to customers. I ducked my head by the low doorpost. Inside was dingy but the good food made up for this. Iya Sikira, the proprietress, sat across the counter. She was a portly woman with the physique of a sumo wrestler. She had filled-out cheeks and bulging eyes. Her neck was squashed between her small head and broad shoulders. When she spoke, it was as though the fat in her neck obstructed her speech. I sat at my usual corner, close to the window so I could get fresh air. Wisps of smoke from the hearth outside found their way into the shack. There were four tables, each sat six people. All tables were filled except mine. Patrons sweated and fanned themselves with cardboards, hand fans or handkerchiefs. I caught a whiff of simmering stew. While I waited to be served, two familiar faces breezed in. Jolly friends. One was lanky and the other short and stout – their friendship seemed a paradox. They were not accompanied by “small small girls” today.  I knew only the name of the short one, or rather his nickname. By virtue of his patronage, Iya Sikira and her girls called him Customer, the only person they so addressed. Everyone who frequented this joint knew him. Customer and his friend were notorious for their love for orishirishi, offal, from goat – liver, kidney, heart, intestine, stomach, tongue, testicles. Customer was particularly fond of goat testicles. I had wondered what was special about the testicles and had ordered them once. When I popped them in my mouth, they felt mushy like ripe pawpaw. They were tasteless. Later, I got to know that Customer – like so many men around – did not take to eating buck testicles for the taste but for the perceived benefit. They considered them aphrodisiac. Customer was said to have two wives and also dated the “small small girls” in town. So, he needed a pep to keep up with his women. Customer was in his middle age. That age when men needed a validation of their sexual prowess and attractiveness to the female. I knew; I studied psychology. That age when men chased girls young enough to be their children. Girls, who they saw as performance enablers for their waning libido. When it came to their wives, men of that age were plagued by that thing that bred contempt – familiarity. So, they went in search of novelty – young and fresh blood. The newer their women the greater the kick they got. In the process, some of them ended up with apoplexy. These were men in the throes of mid-age crisis. That period of life when men were haunted by the fear of impending old age – when wrinkles and doddering would make them inactive and unattractive. When their most prized possession would be nothing more than a mere pissing appendage. Customer was one of those men – I gleaned this from his conversations – who believed sleeping with young girls, especially virgins, renewed their blood and sexual prowess, made them younger and added years to their lives. They didn’t realise they might be carving their own coffins.

“Customer, Customer. Welcome,” the proprietress said in a gruff voice.

“Thank you, Iya Sikira. How market?”

“We thank God o.” Waving to the lanky man, she said, “Oga, I dey greet o.”

The lanky man replied with a grunt. They both took their seats at my table. Though we had met here several times, they greeted me with a cavalier mien.

“Make we bring the usual?” the proprietress asked as one of his girls came to clear the table of empty cups and plates.

“Yes, yes,” Customer answered.

I was half-way through my meal when their order landed. “The usual” consisted of four mounds of amala each with a combination of ewedu and gbegiri soup topped with goat meat stew. Served separately in a large plate were goat entrails which had, of course, testicles. Customer mopped sweat from his brow with a dirty white handkerchief. He and his friend – after washing their hands in the bowl provided – cut, kneaded and gobbled down dollops after dollops of amala rolled in a mixture of ewedu, gbegiri and goat meat stew. They licked their fingers and smacked their lips. Customer’s phone rang. It vibrated against the wooden table where it lay, emitting a loud ringtone of Phyno’s Connect. He picked and answered the phone with his free hand. He shouted into the handset between mouthfuls, “Shola peperembe, I’m at Amala International. I’m eating amala and buck bollocks. I will call you back when I’m done. Okay, okay.” He ended the call, belched and continued his meal. I finished my food, paid and left.

***

Palm wine was a culture in Ile-Ife. Unlike most urban cities, one could still find a palm wine joint here. I headed to one of such located under a mahogany tree by a bush part. The tree served as a shade under which plastic chairs and tables were placed in the open. On the tree at eye level was a board with the inscription, Palmi Tappa. Below it was written, Pay Before Safice. The business had learnt its lessons from those who were too drunk to pay after service or who couldn’t remember the number of mugs they had taken, and others who were plainly dubious. This place was run by a man called Oba. Near the tree was a shack made of palm frond from where the palm wine was prepared. I went into the shack to greet Oba. He, his wife and two children hunched over gourds and basins of fresh palm wine. They poured the drinks from the gourds into basins and then skimmed off the scum of filthy froth, insects, flies and twigs. After, they sieved the drink through a funnel into the gourds ready to be served to customers. I returned to the open shade and took a seat beside a young man who was pensive over his mug of palm wine. Looked like a man trying to drown his sorrows in alcohol. Maybe he had lost his job or lover. I greeted people sitting at the table. Two, including the young man, responded drunkenly. Others were too drunk to care. One of Oba’s children brought my order in a white mug. She was a girl of about twenty-one. The mug was filled to the brim with the white froth running over.  As she stooped to place it on the table, her breasts popped out of her plunging neckline revealing a fleshy cleavage. She caught me ogling and pulled up her blouse. She hissed at me. It was funny how women took umbrage at men who stared at their exposed body part. I thought if you didn’t want to be leered at, you wouldn’t expose it. What was a man supposed to do when a woman deliberately exposed her body? Close his eyes and say the Hail Mary or look into the sky and count the stars? But then this happened every time – the popping out of breasts followed by the hissing. Maybe she didn’t take offence. Perhaps, her own way of flirting. I developed a love for palm wine in my undergraduate days in this town, a rub-off from my friends who were members of the Palm Wine Drinkers Club. I took a swig and then placed a flat wooden cover on my mug to keep the flies away. Flies loved palm wine like Russians loved vodka. They knew a good brew when they saw one. I used a folded newspaper to swat at two drunken flies mating mid-air. A fly dived into the mug of the brooding man. He used his middle finger to pick it out and flicked it off. The fly landed on my side of the table, almost on top of my mug cover. Immediately, another fly plunged into his cup. This time, he didn’t bother. He took a swig and munched, then washed down with another draught. I got up and went behind the shack to pee. I shut my eyes as I let out a spurt of pee. I didn’t like to rush peeing. I liked to shut my eyes and savour the pleasure of the process. The longer I held my pee the more pleasurable the letting out. My urine was warm and frothy. It stank of palm wine. It was amazing how our bodies processed our intakes. I remembered when we had gone drinking during break time in my secondary school days. We were found out because the sweat of one of us smelled of alcohol. I remembered also one of my friends then, Jiga, who said his semen was thicker and milkier during masturbation, when he had taken a lot of palm wine. I knew also how nursing mothers were hounded into drinking palm wine so that their breast milk would flow enough for the suckling baby. Some women used this as an excuse to binge on palm wine, breeding infant alcoholics. Done, I flicked off the trickles vigorously, tucked in and zipped up. I came back to my seat, had two more mugs and headed home.

I could feel myself staggering. I knew I was tipsy but not drunk. By now it was getting dark. Ahead, a woman sat across the sidewalk blocking the passage. That madwoman you couldn’t catch dead without a pen and a paper. I got off the sidewalk to pass through. The woman fastened a torch to the left side of her head with a scarf. She focused the light from it on a notebook resting on her lap. She scribbled away furiously on the notebook as though compelled by some forces. As if something fatal would happen if she didn’t carry out this assignment, this mission to save humanity from The Terminator. She was oblivious to the commotion of traffic around her, unmindful of the hot dusty evening air. She wiped sweat off her forehead and smeared it on her gown.

In front of Faaji guest house, a man and a woman tore at each other. A small crowd gathered around them.  Above them on the wall was a mural – a caricature of an erect penis with a hammer head. Flying insects flickered around the floodlight above the drawing. Beneath the drawing was inscribed For Weak Penis Call 0_125277203. The second digit was blurred. Even if the numbers were complete, who needed a weak penis? The man had negotiated a “short time” romp with the woman for a sum. Done, he refused to pay the agreed sum in full. His reason – the woman did not disclose to him that she was bald down there. Since she did not offer the full complement of the menu, why should he pay the agreed sum in full? The drunk argued. The woman was smallish with boyish hips; skimpily dressed in a red top and black miniskirt. She tugged at the man’s waistband with one hand and pulled at his thick and dirty dreadlocks with the other. Some in the crowd tried to help resolve the matter.

“I gave you what you wanted. Didn’t I?” She fluttered her fake eyelashes as she spoke.

“No, you didn’t. You are bald down there like the head of a vulture. No hair. You didn’t disclose that during our negotiation. I didn’t enjoy you,” he slurred.

“How dare you say you didn’t enjoy me.” She was infuriated. “Didn’t you moan, wiggle, jerk and scream Beyoncé?” She wiggled and jerked her body to demonstrate.

“I screamed Beyoncé, yes. But not your name. Are you Beyoncé? I’m paying no dime above what I have already given you.”

“You must pay o.” She resorted to taunts, “Hmmm, you this one-minute performer.” She turned up her nose, “You call yourself a man with that stump? Hmmm. Possessor of a pint-sized prick.”

“Liar! Ashewo,” the man raged. He raised his hand to slap her but a bespectacled youth held him back. This enraged him further and he hurled curses at the youth.

The youth sneered at him, “Olosi! O r’obo, o tun nbere irun. Shio!” and hissed, “When you offer a hungry man cake and he is done and full, he asks, ‘What about the icing?’”

To prove the woman a liar, the drunk made to draw down his trousers and whip out his organ. “She is lying. I’m a big man. Let me show you the thing. See for yourself and judge.” But the crowd deterred him with shouts of No! Not necessary. We believe you. One man in the crowd zipped him back up.

I moved on. I didn’t want to hear forbidden things any further. Moreover, nightfall was fast approaching. If the drunk had been a good student of history, he’d have known that no commercial sex worker had ever allowed such to pass without putting up a bitter fight. It was a battle he was unlikely to win.

I ambled past three men who stood by the roadside smoking and chatting. They had probably come out of a bar to take fresh air. Then from behind a voice called to me, a voice that sounded familiar, “Jide! Is that not Jide?” I looked back and saw known faces staring at me. Three of them, childhood friends from Lagos. For a moment, I forgot myself and warmed up to embrace them. “Hey, guys! Long time. What are you doing here in Ile-Ife?” They drew back. I saw fear and surprise etched on their faces. I was confused. “Aren’t you supposed to be dead?” Ejiro said, backing up. Idara and Oghie took to their heels shouting, “Ghost! Ghost!” Ejiro made to follow after them but came back. He stooped, scooped a fistful of earth and threw at me.

***

Dave was a hustler who loved to gain financial benefits from people’s fortune or misfortune. He was like the brewery that made money when people were happy and made more when they were sad – men celebrated with alcohol and drowned their sorrows with it, too. Dave was a bum of a neighbour. But he was generous at buying you a beer or two when he had money. But you were sure to pay back with double when he was down. It was Dave who sold the idea of faking my death to me. I had been a graduate without a job for over five years. Then the infamous NIS job opportunity came up. My younger brothers – two of them – and I had been invited for the job interview after we had successfully applied online for a fee of N1,000 each. So sad that the government demanded application fees from jobless graduates. The government raked in millions of naira through this. I later learnt that the money had been embezzled by the then Minister of Internal Affairs, Chief Agbalowomeri – The Have Who Steals from the Have-Nots. It seemed to me that civil servants and government officials were in a daring competition of who could steal the most, who could be the most criminally inventive, who could make the most brazen heist. And there was no fear of punitive repercussion. All the elements for crime to thrive were entrenched in the system – the will for malfeasance, the opportunity, and the weak and corrupted structures that allowed criminals to evade justice. In Nigeria, it was considered stupidity for an erstwhile poor public servant to retire rich. Public servants were expected to retire stupendously wealthy. There was no incentive to not be corrupt. Rather it attracted dire consequences. Ribadu, the former EFCC boss would tell you.

On the day of the interview, there were stampedes due to poor crowd management.  Thousands of people had applied for a few openings. It was like throwing a handful of grains of corn at a large brood of starving chickens in a pen. Over twenty people, including a pregnant woman, died at different interview centres nationwide. My brothers and I were lucky to escape with our lives. While they sustained minor injuries and were discharged from the hospital same day, I had a fractured tibia and was hospitalized. The following day, the newspaper headlines screamed and dripped blood. The Sunday Gist headline read: “Immigration Recruitment Tragedy: Deaths In Minna, Kano, Benin, Abuja, Port Harcourt.” In the days that followed, the media and human right lawyers mounted pressure on the government to compensate families of the dead. This was where Dave came in. When he visited me at the hospital, he brought out a folded newspaper from his rucksack and spread the front page on my lap. I lay on my back on the bed propped up by a pillow. My right leg was in a cast. Dave showed me a portion he had highlighted with a marker. The light from the fluorescent bulb hanging from the ceiling reflected on the skin of his clean-shaven head. He read out as he ran his forefinger across the lines:

“The Minister for Internal Affairs, Chief Agbalowomeri, yesterday, announced compensation for the families of those that lost their loved ones at the last NIS interview. To that effect, he has directed the NIS to give automatic employment to two members of each family of those that died…”

“In another development, a human rights lawyer, Mr. Femo Falana, who felt the compensation was not adequate, has sued the government asking for additional compensation of fifty million Naira to be paid to each family of the victims…”

My eyes caught another headline by the masthead and I picked up the paper to read. It was the story of a young man who had severed his own penis. He had been in a session of fasting and prayer. But persistent erection would not allow him to concentrate, desecrating the hallowed session. And since the Bible said if your right hand offended you, cut it off, he had sliced off his penis. What a crazy fanatic. The idiot failed to realise that the culprit was the brain, not the penis. He didn’t know that a man’s most potent sex organ was the brain. Too late, he had become an amputee. His regrets could not remedy the situation.

Dave had become impatient and brought me back to the NIS compensation story. He leaned across the bed and said, “If you had died at that interview, your brothers would get automatic employment. Not only that, if Femo Falana wins the case against the government, you and your family will be millionaires.” He stroked his goatee. “I can arrange your death on paper.”

In ordinary times, I was not a man inclined to crime. Here I was jobless for over five years post-graduation. My brothers were jobless, too. My father had not received his monthly pension for over thirty-six months after twenty-five years of meritorious service. Our house rent had long been overdue and we might be thrown out of the house any moment. Corruption had turned Nigeria into a near dystopian state. What broke me was when Dave said, “Think of your family. Nigeria is not worth making a sacrifice for. Our leaders are callous. Consider this as our own share of the national cake. Your family makes money, I get my own cut.”

 

***

The plan was for me to get out of sight. So, I didn’t return home after leaving the hospital. Dave lodged me in a cheap-and-cheerful hotel out of town. While there, he arranged my death certificate. The same hospital where I had been treated and discharged issued a certificate that stated that I had died of injuries I sustained. He also arranged an international passport for me under a new name. These were things you could get in the open market if you knew your way around and you had the money. Later, I left for Accra to start a new life under my newly acquired name. My final destination was the USA, whenever I was able to raise money and get a visa. People were made to believe I had died. Only Dave, my brothers and my parents knew the truth.

My family with the assistance of Dave filed all the necessary documents for compensation. The government kept its promise; my brothers were employed at the NIS. The deal we had – Dave, my brothers and I – was that my brothers would keep only fifty percent of their monthly salaries, the other halves would go to Dave and me. This arrangement was to last for five years.

Accra was boring. It lacked the boisterousness of Lagos. And I didn’t like their food – not spicy enough. A year after, I sneaked back to Nigeria. But not to Lagos. I relocated to Ile-Ife where I had done my undergraduate program hoping I would not be found out. I felt the city was safe enough for me, for us. Dave did not like this. He threatened subtly he could “wake me up from the death” if I didn’t go back to Accra. It was dreadful to be obligated to someone this way. But I put my foot down. I knew he wouldn’t do that, he also stood to lose.

***

Here I was in Ile-Ife managing my boredom and incognito life, and hoping that Femo Falana would win his case against the government, until this foul luck when a bird nested by my window  this morning, and in the evening I ran into Ejiro, Idara and Oghie.

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Image: “thöR via Flickr

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2 Comments

  • This story would reverberate in my mind for a long time. It’s a vivid capture of Nigeria as I know it too, even though I’ve yet to visit the west – our system has made potent the most ridiculous fetishes and we’ve turned religion into madness while keeping faith alongside moral bankruptcy. Well done, sir! Thanks for this.

  • Social realism at its peak. The ordering of the plot is catchy.

    The eye for minute details enhances the richness in the tale.

    Expansive use of vocabulary.

    I want to read more of your works. WhatsApp: 08125351685