Fiction

Fading Pictures: Fiction by Obinna Udenwe

knife

Image: Ryk Neethling via Flickr

We can only do a little to change our present situation. A little. Nothing more. But then the present is better than the past. We can never change the past; they’ve vanished, gone into inexistence. We only reminisce over it, think it through, glory in our successes and achievements. And have regrets – perhaps wish, only wish we could have done better, this way or that way. But no matter what we think, the past is never retrievable. That is why it is the past. They fade everyday like a painted picture inside a book or a drawer. If we’d done regrettable deeds in the past like I’ve done, we can never redo them. They live to haunt us, both physically and emotionally.

I have made a mistake. It is haunting me. It has landed me in this truck – the black truck of the penitentiary. My hands bound in chains to my legs. I cannot just raise my body or move. My teeth shaky in my mouth. I can’t even open my mouth to shout. If I do, who will hear me?

We are driving through the expressway. I could give everything to see where we are. I could do anything to see the trees running against the truck, but I am sprawled on the floor of this van – Black Maria… That’s the name we called it when we were kids and they would drive past our street conveying prisoners to God-knows-where. The windows of the van are stationed far above me, close to the roof. A tall man would have to stand on toes to be able to look out of it, but a chained man? He is hopeless. I am hopeless. Where they take me to, I do not know, but what I am sure of is that it is to a high security prison somewhere known only to the men in front of the van.

A lot bother me. They prick my conscience. The most profound is why I had to kill my mother. I have asked myself severally. I want to be sure that it was her that I murdered.

I think about my girlfriend, Ola. The last time we were together was five days before I killed my mother. We were in her room in town. She had finished preparing cat-fish porridge with some Irish potatoes and plenty fresh pepper. She had served me a bottle of Carol Rosie. It was my birthday and she’d said she would spoil me. After I had devoured her excellent and mouth watery meal and savoured her wine till the last drop ran down my throat like rain running through channels, she’d stood and to my surprise, removed her polo and dropped it on my head.

“Do not touch it.”

“What are you doing? I can’t see you.”

“I don’t want you to see me.”

I’d swallowed saliva several times until there was none left in my mouth. She came to me and removed the veil. I had never known darkness in my life. I had never known loneliness. The few seconds or a minute it took her to strip herself had made me so restless and impatient that my manhood couldn’t stop nodding. It threatened to burst out of my trousers. What I saw when she unveiled me was striking. She’d always limited our intimacy to kisses. But she was giving me the greatest birthday gift any man could dream of – the opportunity to drink in her well of pleasures, the chance to take her virginity along with me when I leave her room.

I killed my mother five days after.

It is now a fortnight after that and the memories are fading. I wonder why they fade so fast. I am finding it difficult picturing my mother. She was a very dark woman. She had two small tribal marks on both cheeks announcing her Tiv tribe. The day I killed her, I recall she had her hair braided. It was beautifully done by Ola four days before the day I killed my mother, the day after Ola gave me the birthday gift, six days before I killed Ola too.

But there is another memory that is stronger and more disturbing. It is threatening to tear my heart apart. The day I killed my mother, she was sitting on her bed very early in the morning. She was studying the bible when I entered. It was the time of the day when the Muezzin calls for prayers. I knew it was time for prayers, but I had to do that duty before prayers. The first light of the day had just begun to penetrate the room.

“You didn’t knock,” she had said.

“Do I need to knock?”

“What has brought you in here this early morning?”

“You are reading this book again, Ma?”

“It is the Holy Bible.”

“That book is not holy—”

“I have told you never to say that in this house. This is my home. As long as you live here you are subject to my dictates and decisions. You do as I say. And you don’t convert to any other religion. You are a Christian, just like me… just like your father before he joined his ancestors.”

I’d approached her. My dagger safely hidden in my trousers. My masbaha was in my pocket. I needed to finish what I had to do in time before my morning solat.

“You do not believe in the true God,” I’d informed. “So do not turn me to your ways.”

“What has happened to you? Since you returned from the North, you have been like this… what did they do to you?”

“I am fine… no one did anything to me. I have seen the light—”

“The light you saw is that which leads a son to slap his mother? The light that makes you not to greet me, your mother? The one that makes you hate your neighbours and fight them? No… no. Even the religion you have chosen for yourself is not like that. Islam that I know is not like that. No religion can teach a son to hate his mother. To slap and beat his mother.”

“You are an unbeliever. A mushrik. I have nothing to do with you!”

“You have nothing to do with your own mother? That fed you with her breasts for months… that carried you in her womb for nine months amidst pains and sickness and great suffering?” She had touched her breasts and her stomach as she spoke. “What have they done to you? Which radical group did you join? Which of them initiated and bewitched you?”

“I am bewitched?”

“Yes!” She stood, “Now get out of my room. I don’t know what you have come to do here this morning. Or have you come to beat your mother again?” She had pushed me.

I had blinked twice and said, loudly, “I have come to ask that you give me the whole documents of the properties my father left behind. The money he left behind.”

“What do you need them for? I have asked you several times what you need them for.” There were tears in her eyes. “They belong to you. I am an elderly woman. I have nothing to do with them. But I cannot give them to you now—”

“If they belong to me give them to me!” My heart was bitter.

“Why must I do so?” Her breath covered my face. Her spits were on my face.

“Because the money is for a greater cause. Whatever I have must be used in the struggle—”

“What struggle, Jide?”

“The struggle to liberate the religion from hostile forces. Against unbelievers like you. Against apostates and the world that suppress the religion of God.”

“Have you joined a terrorist organization?”

Then I’d slapped her. She fell on the floor. I loomed large over her. “Where are the properties that belong to me?”

“You will have to kill me! My husband’s wealth, all he left behind cannot be used to sponsor evil!”

I’d hit her head on the floor. She struggled. But I did not care, why would I care? What is the life of one individual compared to thousands, no, millions, that my strife would save? The life of an unbeliever is not a life. It is disgusting before God.

Blood gushed from her head as I strangled her.

“Don’t make me do this.”

“Please!” She was choking.

“Where are the documents?”

“They are… with Ola—”

“Ola? Why?”

“Ola.”

Why did she give them to Ola? I was sure that Shaitan had taken hold of her body and controlled her head. What was my inheritance, the properties that belonged to God, for His cause, doing in the possession of a mere woman? But it didn’t matter. I had the information I wanted, she’d stood in the way of the cause and must be eliminated. The order had been clear. Her place belonged to hell, for if she was allowed to live, she would do more harm. So I drew my dagger blessed by an apostle of God, and stabbed her in the throat and twisted it this way and that way till she died. But she was repeating a word as she died. I can’t remember what now. It is part of the fading memories.

In the van, blood has started oozing from the chains on my arm. Each time I adjust my body it gets tighter. The officers in the front are chatting happily. Only God knows what they are discussing – about me? About the crimes I’d committed? They may not understand. They mock me, but I don’t care, they don’t know my plans. I will have the final laugh. No one knows my ways, just like no one knows the ways of the Almighty. The mujahedeen can never be left to suffer. He can never be put to shame. My plans are in my head, in the heads of those that conceived it. I wait. My time is coming. Soon I will be out of these chains. I wait. I force myself to laugh aloud. Laughter cannot even come. Has it become my enemy too?

My mind travels back to another fading picture; I cannot see Ola’s face clearly now. She was a little devil, sired by Shaitan himself. I wonder why I’d told her I loved her. How could she die without telling me where the documents are? Where the bank cheques and the land, and property deeds are? Why did mother give them to Ola? Was it because she knew that Ola would never reveal them? Because Ola was a very stubborn young lady? Did mother know that her death was imminent? I struggle with the chains – they make noise as they clatter on the floor of the van.

I rustle my memory for the one word mother kept repeating before she died, but it seems to have faded away entirely.

I wait. The memories come in snippets to me. I wonder if I am going mad. Why is it becoming difficult to remember things? The morning that I killed mother I sat beside her body and wiped my dagger on her Ankara wrapper. It was a good dagger – the apostle of God had said so. I sat and phoned Ola. She had gone for the weekend. She couldn’t return till the next day. I told her it was a matter of urgency. I think I began to lose my mind that morning after I killed mother, because Ola had told me she was travelling. Why didn’t I remember?

I had to wait. I had to keep vigil. I sat in the room and said my prayers. All my prayers. I did not miss any. I sat through the morning and listened to the activities outside. I sat through to the afternoon till the air conditioner made me feel cold. I turned it off and on. I tried as much as possible not to look at mother’s body. Then in the evening one or two flies began to find their ways into mother’s room. In the night I had a nightmare. I cannot recall what it was. It is part of the fading pictures. But I slept and woke, slept and woke till it was morning.

The day I killed Ola.

She’d returned in the afternoon and came to the house as soon as she could. I’d opened the door for her and she’d stepped in, happily. She’d hugged me before I pushed her into the room, drawing my dagger.

“Jesus, Jide! Have you gone mad?”

Sheeeeh!” My index finger placed on my mouth shut her up.

“Something is smelling in here? Is it you?”

“Move!”

“Stop this joke, please,” she said calmly. She turned and called my mother, “Mami!”

I slapped her. “Just move.” I followed her.

Mami!” she called again. She was already sobbing. I pushed her into the room. She staggered.

“What happened?”

I stared at her. A grin on my face.

“Did armed robbers attack Mami?”

“I killed her.”

“Oh my God! Oh my God!” She ran away from me, backing the wall. Her cupped palms covered her mouth.

“I will kill you too.”

“Jesus, Jide? What has happened to you? Why did you kill Mami?”

“You have in your possession some things that don’t belong to you.”

“What?”

“She gave you documents that belonged to me.”

“Jesus!”

I approached her. She backed away till her back hit the wall. “Jesus!”

“Don’t mention that name again!” I slapped her.

“What have I done to you? I loved you.”

I slapped her again. “Where are the papers and all the things she gave you?”

“She gave me nothing.”

“You lie to me!” I slapped her hard. She fell on the floor. I was on top of her. She was fragile and weak yet she struggled.

“Where are they?”

“You killed your mother because of that… those papers.”

“Where are they?”

The dagger was on her throat.

“Wait! Please… don’t… don’t… kill me!”

“Where are my documents?”

“They are in… my room… in an envelope… under… my bed.”

I wanted to ask her why my mother gave them to her. I knew both of them weren’t in good terms. She’d disapproved of Ola. I knew they had been conspiring against me. I stabbed her in the throat. She died faster than my mother. Both of them lay there, their heads opposite each other. I stared at her body. Then at my mother’s smelly body. I cleaned my dagger on her short skirt. How could she wear that? It is a sin. I walked away from the room. I swooned, out of hunger and weariness.

I had forgotten that I didn’t have her key when I got to her apartment which was not very far from ours – we lived in the same street. I walked back and retrieved it from her pocket. Then I searched everywhere in her apartment. Everywhere.

I was walking back to the apartment when some boys surrounded me. They were carrying clubs and sticks and machetes. They wrestled me to the ground. The heavens roared in my head. My eyes saw figures, their silhouettes, their legs as tiny as mosquitoes. My body felt agonistic blows that shred my flesh and my blood pumped out and wet the road like a baby’s urine wets the bed. I cannot recall what else happened and how they happened. Now I am here.

We must be getting close to the rendezvous now I think. The sun hits the van and the floor is hot and scorches my legs. I am only in boxer shots. My upper body has wounds that are serving as home for flies of all kinds. I endure, for victory will be mine at last.

*****

My father was a medical doctor that owned a big hospital and some rental apartments. He was rich and once served as the president of the Rotary Club. He died of food poisoning. I do not know who poisoned him. The doctors confirmed that his food had been poisoned. His only surviving brother blamed it on his political opponents. Mother cried that he warned him not to join politics. Mother sold the hospital to father’s friend, who was a Director in the hospital. There was a lot of money which was paid into an account which both of us are signatories to. We had vowed not to touch the money until I was ready to start a business with it. That was before I went for the compulsory one year National Youth Service in Adamawa, before I embraced the religion of light.

Ola and I had known each other some months before I left for the one year National Service. I didn’t return home till after eight months. Mother was worried. Perhaps she’d become friends with Ola during that period. She was always going to ask her if she had heard from me – otherwise, why would she give her the documents or was she lying? Was Ola lying to me too?

When I returned home, Ola was all over me. She said she’d waited for me, that she was still a virgin and was ready to do anything for me. I felt indifferent. I wasn’t attached to her anymore. I pretended to love her. One could shield the thoughts and plans in the heart. After all, shielding is a strategy for the mujahedeen.

*****

The first bullet hit the rear tire of the van. It skids and veers off into the bush. The second bullet hit one of the front tires and forces it to hit a small palm tree. I wish I can see what is happening.

Allahu Akbar!”

“Allahu Akbar!”

I can hear my brothers shouting praises to God. Another gunshot sounds from the van. It must be one of the prison officers returning fire. I was surprised when there wasn’t any escort following the van that was transporting me to the prison facility. They thought I was not of any worth to anyone. They had judged wrongly. For I have brothers who can never abandon a brother in the hands of the infidels. It is a sin to abandon a brother who is striving in the prescribed way. The Kalashnikov sounds several times and hit the body of the van. Several rifle sounds thunder and break the silence of the express. I can hear screeches from vehicles as they make u-turns. Several gunshots break the key that imprisoned me in the god-forsaken van. I see the face of Malik.

“Brother!” I scream.

“Ibrahim!” he calls me my name. The one known only to brothers who are chosen to fight for God. The name which mother and Ola and those street boys do not know I bear.

“Thank you for coming for me!”

Malik and Usman jump into the van, and using massive pliers break the chain and help me to my feet.

“You look dead!” he shouts, so that I could hear him amidst the gunshots.

“No one can break my spirit!”

I see two of the prison officers on the grassy ground; blood covers their chests and stomach. The driver’s head is on the Black Maria’s steering wheel, blood sipping out of the back of his head.

“Let us go!” Salah screams. We run off into the bushes. We run non-stop for over twenty-five minutes. My legs fail me several times but brothers help me to my feet. We emerge at an intersection. There are two Hilux trucks waiting. We are six, plus the drivers in the trucks. I rush and open the door to one of the trucks.

“Halt!” Salah screams. I do. I am bent over, breathing very hard. My throat is parched. I open my mouth to let in air but the air I breathe hurt my throat. My stomach is filled with worms that bite and suck out my energy. I could give anything for a drop of water and some milk.

“What is it? We need to get out of here!” Malik informs.

“Wait. Where are the documents?”

“Okay. Ibrahim. Where are the documents?”

“The documents?”

“Yes, the documents.”

Haba, the documents? We have a problem. I couldn’t get anything. My mother—”

“What?” Malik shouts.

“Yes. I don’t know where they are.”

“So you killed them? Two women, we heard. Just women, yet they overpowered you. They outwitted you?” Salah asks. The others stare at me in disbelief. Their eyes register hatred and disappointment and betrayal. They think I am lying.

“Why are you lying to us, Ibrahim!”

“I am not lying!” I scream back with all the energy left in me. I explain what happened.

“This is madness!” Salah screams. He paces about. His head is shaved. His beard is long. His eyes are sunken and reddish. His face has cuts, making him look deadly. All of them are wearing army fatigues. Mine must be in the truck.

“I am not lying. It is the truth. I don’t know what happened…” Salah paces up and down the road. The drivers poke out their heads from the truck in frustration. It is dangerous waiting by the road like this and we know it.

“Come, Malik.” Salah and Malik walk away and whisper to each other. When they are done and turn to me. I see that Malik’s eyes have turned white and sinister.

“What? Malik?” I begin to walk back.

“Where are you going to?” he asks.

“Don’t do this, Malik!”

“Why did you betray us?”

“I didn’t, Malik… believe me, Malik.” He points his rifle at me. I turn and dive into the bush. The first shot miss me by the whisker. I run. The second and third and fourth bullets hit my back, my ribs, and my buttocks.

They are all around me now. I cannot see their faces clearly but they are talking. I think they are saying that they shouldn’t have trusted me.

“You are an apostate! We should have known that you would betray the cause like this.” I think this is what I hear them saying. I cannot see the face of Malik, my friend. Both of us had served in the same school as teachers, before we were recruited. I cannot hear what he is saying but I think a gun is pointing at my stomach. My mind drifts to mother, to Ola. What was it that mother said before she died. Just one word, I cannot remember. Two words.

Then as the sound of the gunshot reach my ears before the bullet open up my bowel, the memories return. Mother had said “My Love.’”

Yes. I am sure now, that was what she had said through the clenched teeth of a mouth filled with blood. They were the words that took her breath away.

—————–

Image: The Murder Weapon by Ryk Neethling

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