Fiction

Noonday: Fiction by Jennifer N. Mbunabo

The unparalleled beauty of the Lakeview hotel in Bagauda was consistently drummed into my ears by Joanna, my best friend of twenty years. She had just got back from a writing workshop there and was bursting with vigor from the first day she landed at the airport.

She said it is a natural habitat for writers who want to escape from the boisterous humdrum of Kano city. It would take you away from the jam-packed buses carrying human beings and chickens, the nauseating smell of chicken poop, raw meat and stale odors reeking from soaked armpits which make you unable to breathe in the pure air outside or note down the expanse of vegetation, or the rigor with which the young Fulani drover whips the herd grazing, the shimmer of the red dried pepper spread out on the tarred road, the abokis in their jalabiya beckoning on customers to buy their basket of onions and water melons, the women in their abaya and pashmina shawl wrapped around their heads and necks hawking bottles of kunu, or your miraculous save from the impending collision of your bus and a wonky bicycle with rubber kettles swinging at its side, or the mairuwas wheeling their gallons of water for sale.

She said the myriad towering trees, the chirping birds of different species, the whispering winds and the babbling lake beside the Chalet in Lakeview Hotel would engage you in a conversation and the heat from the day would elude you. She said the uncut lawns and overgrown grasses beside the lake and behind your Chalet, breeding mosquitoes, scorpions and snakes would remind you of the heat from the day and you would write and overcome the writer’s block. Nature has its good and bad sides and without them both, we would have no experience to put down as writers and artists. Having heard so much of the Lakeview Hotel, I transported myself there.

I am sitting, cross-legged, on a fluffy armchair listening to the winds whisper to me as I scribble down the first ten lines of my poem. The freezing gust gushes in from the open windows and tingle my nose. I sneeze a curtly laugh because Joanna had been right about the magic here. I have not felt this sudden surge of energy and inspiration in a long time because of the writers’ block.

The gurgling of water interrupts my uncanny scribbling. The lake is close by but I feel the gurgle isn’t from there. I listen again, dropping my pen and notepad on an antique table. It does not stop. Maybe it is from my roommate’s toilet. But I hear it again and I jump to my feet. I slink to the door and place my right ear against it. The noise increases and without waiting for my heart to stop pounding, I push open the door. Water is splashing from the toilet bowl and so I crane my neck to see inside.

There is a black bird flapping its wings, perhaps struggling to get out. I take in successive breaths and quickly shut the door. My mind whirls around undecided about what to do. I lope to the arm chair, pick up my note pad and pen and dash for the main door. I am about to step foot outside on the glistening elephant grass when I realize I am only in a spaghetti top and a wrapper tied across my chest. Of course I cannot go out in that so I speedily wear a sweat shirt over my spaghetti and thrust my feet in my shorts, all the while I’m thinking of what to do if this bird jumps out and pecks at my eyes or nose.

The noise in the toilet amplifies and at every sound I panic. I cannot imagine what it is doing. I take the key and run out to the field opposite my chalet. There are white chairs resting on the trunk of the trees and I sit on one and wonder about the bird. An American man in shorts and a long sleeve walks across the snaked, muddy path between the lawns. He waves at me and jumps over a puddle somewhere. I wave back.

He is Mr. Beans and he is here on tour and also to relax from his difficult divorce battle in Georgia. We met on this chair one evening when I came out to look at the stars in their numbers, waiting for one to fall. We both had heard at different times that stars fall here at night. We started to talk about our experiences almost every night when we met and it had developed into a sudden friendship, like that of father and daughter. We met afterwards in the Tchad hall where we watched Nollywood movies and chewed boiled groundnuts and sometimes boiled and roasted corn with a kunu or zobo drink. We had spent so much time together and it was becoming easy to see behind the obscurity of friendship. I see the warmth and subtle glow in his eyes akin to mine when we are together holding hands. How will I tell Joanna that I came to this place to fall in love with a divorced old man? Not that old but in his 50’s. She would find it ludicrous that I did not find a black or younger man. He walks up to me and smacks my cheek. He tells me he is on his way to Tchad Hall to watch a drama and asks if I will come. I tell him I might, that I am just taking in all of nature. He smiles and says he will keep a seat for me. Then he walks away, stamping his sneakers on the spiky grass. The warm feeling is gone and replaced with a sudden weariness because his white beards remind me of my uncle in the village, my older sister’s phone call yesterday and the bird in my toilet.

My uncle is gray haired not as a result of old age but of wickedness, I think. Whenever there is a struggle for land, he is in the middle of it and often found to be the main culprit, selling a parcel of land to five different families. In the end, trouble breaks out because the families claim ownership of the land, each showing receipts given by my Uncle. The matter is usually taken to court or the Ogwa for the elders in council to decide upon and before the final verdict is given, paramount heads of four out of the five families die mysteriously, either in their sleep, or falling from a Palm tree, or from a snake bite or swelling in the body. The other family head is saved because he offered more money to uncle and at the end, the land belongs to him. The surviving children of the deceased would fail to pursue the matter any further because of fear of imminent death.

Uncle’s open allegiance to a shrine and his declaration of war to anyone that opposed him is known throughout the village. And No one dared confront him. He goes to morning mass as does everyone in the compound, rushing and running in the still darkness of dawn with his walking stick which, to me, I think he has no use for. And after the mass, on his way back, maybe for the next ten minutes, he would reply ‘God bless you’ to every greeting. But after that moment he would reply the greeting with a snort and sometimes a drawl, giving the recipient a baleful gaze after inquiring whose family he or she is from. His daughters that have come of age to be married still live in his house because men are scared of him and even the ones who are bold enough to court his daughters in secret lose their boldness on the day of the Introduction. His daughters have often been called ‘nnaganu’ father will marry, in hushed tones in the markets and town meetings because the hope of marriage is dim. It is likened to a candle light swaying in the wind, which might be blown out at any minute. My sister and I spoke over the phone the previous day and she told me Uncle threatened to deal with her. Matter of fact, he had reported her to the god of his shrine where he worshipped because she did not kneel down to greet him in the morning. And to further add insult to the injury, my sister refused to apologize and told him his wickedness made him undeserving of her greetings. This development overwhelmed me last night because it only means that I should be prepared for this war that might consume us both. The reason is because she and I are the only children mother bore save for the child that died in her womb the moment she also died. So if my sister was under some form of attack, so was I. Could this bird have been sent from Uncle? In spite of the civilization and religion, many facts give me reason to believe that these things happen, after all people indulge in fetishism.

The last time I travelled to the village – to my mother’s compound, my grandmother confirmed my reason to believe the existence of these things. She is not as gray-haired as her son – uncle. In fact she has no gray hair; perhaps, it is the consequence of the constant dyeing. Her youthful look and energy belied her eighty years. And despite her innumerable consumption of kaikai, hot gin and cigarette, her back still stands straight, neither crouched nor slouched and her rangy waist wriggles as she takes elegant and matching strides on barefoot like one going for a battle, from one festive season to another. The only thing that reveals her age is her sagging breasts like banana peels hanging down, loose on her wrapper that is tied across her stretched and folding belly. That humid morning when she saw me for the second time in eighteen years she held me close and wept, intermittently wiping her tears with her wrapper and when she became sober she said that on the day my mother died, a chicken was slit by the throat and kept in front of the house with its legs tied with a red cloth and blood gushing from its throat. And they never found out who was responsible for it.

So I have a black bird in my room and I do not know what to do. If I call Joanna she will laugh and say it is an ordinary bird that I have nothing to be afraid of. I am not even with my phone to begin with. She does not believe in the supernatural. I ponder on my father’s words. He had always told me to be prayerful. He knows nothing of what my sister told me, but coincidentally, I’d rather not call it a coincidence, he called the previous day saying “We fight not against flesh and blood but against principalities and powers. Be a prayer machine like Elijah.”

I know within me that if I’d found myself in this situation years back, I would not hve been this scared. I would have prayed my way out of it with the practical faith of pulling the bird by its wing out of the toilet bowl. But those years are far gone now. The harsh realities of life took those years away. I have become more of a realist, moved by what I see and not so much faith in the supernatural creator. And even with that somewhere inside of me, I know I need to be more conscious of the things I don’t see, the invisible, than the things I see, the visible.

I am still sitting on the chair, unsure of what to do. The clock ticks, the seconds tick, the minutes tick, and I am still sitting. Maybe by the time I get in, the bird would be drowned and then I would never have to use the toilet again. Maybe the bird was sent to deposit an evil substance, I just don’t know. I look upwards to the sky and hope to find some answers or assurances. Is my mother watching from above? Is her spirit too gentle to fight and help me?

I have heard stories of spirits who did not leave the earth till they carried out their revenge on those who tried to harm their children and those who caused their premature death. An instance of a deceased’s revenge transpired in Kogi. A young man in his mid twenties visited his octogenarian grandmother in the village, having recently clinched a million naira contract with an oil firm in the city. After spending a week in the village and only a day left to his departure, he was found cold and rotten on his bed. The family was thrown into mourning and they cried for revenge. On the day of his burial, while laid upward in the white satin upholstery in his coffin, with cotton wool stuck in his nostrils and ears, a long whip was placed in his left hand and a cutlass on the right hand. His aged grandmother, with her varicose hands gripping the edge of the coffin, cried and pleaded with him, to avenge his death and flog whoever was responsible. They did not have to wait for long because as soon as the undertakers in their black attires and cheerful faces lifted the coffin on their shoulders they lost control of the coffin for it directed them by swaying and swerving to the sides of the road, taking a different direction, far from the route to his dug out grave and led them to the deceased uncle’s house. And once they were in his room, it stopped dancing and became still. By this time there was already a crowd. A fraction of the mob entered the room and pushed the uncle out asking him to confess but he refused. Then all of a sudden, as if a whistle was blown to commence a marathon race, he started running.

The crowd pursued, cheering and chanting ’Confess! Confess!’ He stopped midway between the upheaval of dust that swirled about him, and started to titter. He jumped about in a circle, lifting one leg up and pushing out his buttocks, then like a ballet dancer threw his hands in an upward motion to his nape and veered from left to right. He continued, jumping and crying, pleading with an imaginary person to discontinue the whipping. His fair back ripened with welts across it, extending to his waist. The welts were visible to the crowd but the person flogging him was unseen. But the crowd knew it was the dead man’s spirit taking his revenge. It did not take long before his uncle confessed and convulsed to death. I wonder why my mother wasn’t given a whip and cutlass. Maybe it was because the persons that buried her were the ones that killed her on that bed while she bled to death in labor. Maybe the person that predominantly took charge of the ceremony tied her spirit. So now who is going to help me pull the bird out? I have no idea.

I feel the rush of wind behind my back and it pushes me down from the chairs. I stand up. “Who is there?” I hear nothing. I want to bend down to look because I have heard that spirits walk with their heads down but I also heard that if you bend down to look you are likely going to be knocked and that could cause instant madness. I do not want to go insane so I don’t bend. I hear my door shake. I think someone is pushing it from behind. I keep still and listen. It sounds more like a knock. I rub my thighs slowly and tell myself it is not real. I hear a sharp scream. It sounds like a whistle. I hear some hissing. The night curtain is drawing. I hear the whistle and the hissing again.

Grandmother once told me that it is a taboo to blow a whistle at night because it invites snakes. I did not blow any whistle, so someone else must have. The person is calling the snake to attack me. I shudder and close my eyes. I hear the hissing nearer and nearer till I feel a soft breeze on my toes like someone or something is blowing air through a small opening on my toe. Maybe it is the snake. I feel something crawling up on me. It rests on me like a feather, then a sting. It feels like a mosquito bite. I want to slap my toe as I am wont to do, but I am too scared. I feel the feather and then the sting.   “Dear lord!” I hit my hand on my leg and open my eyes to the illuminated room, with pink wallpapers and my heat-drenched spaghetti top. Joanna is sitting adjacent to me, her fingers on her laptop and her widened eyes on me. “What is it?” She punches a key.

“Where am I?” I exhale.

“That’s a stupid question”.

“I know, but I’m serious. What town or city is this?”

She lets out a laugh and fixes her gaze on her laptop. “We are in Lagos”

I swallow and nod, looking around and acknowledging the familiarity of the room. “Did I tell you anything about Mr. Beans, the American I met at the Lakeview hotel?”

“You are indeed crazy. When did you travel to kano? Do you even know the way? I was just telling you about the place when you fell asleep.”

“Oh. Okay. What about a black bird?”

“Just shut up and go back to sleep or take a shower. You are sweating like mad.”

I look at my drenched top and my palm. I look further and see smeared blood beneath a mashed black insect. It is a mosquito alright and I was having a nightmare, only this time it is at noonday.

——–

Image: The lookout by Paul

Please leave a comment...

*