Fiction

Pilate’s Hands: A Short Story by Ahmed Maiwada

Every Friday, when the sun folded the shadows directly beneath objects under its scotching brilliance, the adults in Zaria would have their hearts in their mouths until sundown. Activities of the spirits that often spilled into the real world characterised that period. Azumi became victim one Friday. She kept four goblins and sacrificed the blood of two-legged creatures to them. The blood of birds was the usual. On that Friday in the evening, however, the goblins demanded for human blood.

She knew of the goblins new taste during her walk around town with them inside her goatskin handbag. It was four hours after the Friday prayer. Young men and nubile girls made rings around circus groups in the open field outside Gayan City Gate, watching performances with ploughs, weapons, fire, and wild beasts.

Azumi waddled around the circus rings when she caught sight of the small, furry head of one of the goblins, squeezing its way through the crack in the zipper of her handbag. She waddled quickly from the rings and hid behind the trunk of a giant silk-cotton tree where she fully unzipped the handbag.

“What is the matter, Sultan?” she asked the restless male goblin inside her handbag.

“The snake charmer…” Sultan meowed.

Azumi giggled and said, “Don’t worry, my king. He won’t charm your tail.”

She reached into the handbag, caught the goblin’s tail and then wiggled the black, furry snakehead.

“The snake charmer…!” Sultan meowed unremittingly.

“What is the problem?” she asked.

“We shall have the snake charmer for supper!”

“What?” Azumi trembled visibly, like a drenched goat. She laboured over to the protruding roots of the silk-cotton tree and sat down with the handbag on her lap.

“Sultan,” she cajoled, looking into the goblin’s fire eyes through the open mouth of her handbag. “I am not prepared for this surprise.”

“We are not in breach of covenant,” Sultan meowed. “We only asked for two-legs.”

“You asked for two-legs with a difference,” she protested. “Suppose I succeed in trapping him for you, how will I dispose of his corpse? The stench of dead birds in my compound has already aroused suspicion.”

“You know the consequences of breaching the covenant,” Sultan meowed with finality.

Sultan withdrew its head into the shadows of the handbag. The others did likewise.

“You’re asking me to jump into fire, Sultan,” she appealed. “Do you plan to destroy me, your good host?”

There was no response from the goblins.

“Look, when I needed riches I did so for good reason,” she spoke into the handbag. “Allah is my witness on that. I wanted it to train an orphan in the Whiteman’s school, which is a noble cause. The world is such a cold place. Nobody could offer me help. My fried egg business fetched too lean a profit to even feed the two of us.” She paused and sighed. Then she looked into the grassy ditch at the foot of the city wall, which towered high before her and said, “Allah is my witness that I do not need all the money you vomit in my barns every Friday midnight. I wanted just enough. But nobody could assist me. I had no option than to seek you. But you gave me much more than I need. I don’t need any more from you, please, Sultan,” she spoke into the handbag. “Will that help for your change of demand? I want us all to live in peace. Let us cut down all these excesses.”

Azumi’s tears flowed during a spell of silence between the goblins and her. Behind the tree trunk that granted her cover, discordant drumbeats rose and fell from the circus rings whose crowds roared and cheered.

“My provisions ran out after three days,” Azumi reflected aloud. “I said, ‘Azumi, if you should die in this backwoods nobody would ever see your corpse save the wild beasts and birds.’ I shook my empty sack. I felt my depressed stomach and evaluated my chances. Survival was unthinkable. I had walked day and night. I had no idea of how far I had gone, except that I knew I had long left the domain of mankind.

“I staggered across the backwoods until I slumped in the shade of a tamarind tree, where I slipped out of consciousness until Allah sent a cool breeze across the backwoods to revive me. Praises be to Him and His Prophet, the son of Amina. The shadows had lengthened. Ants and wild flies had begun to swarm my body in hungry processions. My first thought was of Nasser, the poor orphan, whose father died of injuries from a bull’s horns and whose mother married a non-native and left him behind.

“I knew that at eighty-three years old I stood with one foot on earth and the other in the grave. Still it had never felt so close to quitting the room of the world as I felt then, when I laid inside the shade, gradually dying. The perfume in my sack floated on the vagrant breeze and filled my nostrils, luring you from your hideouts over to me, until much later, when I hung on a shoestring breath on the scales of life and death.

“I felt your soft, warm, furry bodies rubbing against my limbs. I sat up with a gasp…”

Azumi laughed with a distant look in her tearful eyes. She said, “Where the energy came from I still can’t say. But there you were before my very eyes, the objects of my sojourn: four jet-black goblins in all your glory, snuggling against my legs.

“Perhaps I must repeat that you have been worthy acquisition to me. Nasser has a Chopper bicycle, new sets of clothes and many books. I have not been an unworthy host either; I have kept my part of the covenant. I keep poultry for your sake; you drank chicken blood three times daily. Where did I go wrong that you want to put me in trouble with the people of Zaria?”

She paused and peered into the open mouth of her handbag until she saw the jet-black furs inside. They were unmoving.

“Sultan,” she called. “Did I miss any warning that you gave me before on a certain wrong I committed? Is there no way we can agree, at least for today, that you accept the usual birds? Then I can give you all you ask for anytime after you give me good notice.”

Sultan looked up with his ember eyes and meowed, “You are losing time.”

Azumi became conscious of the waning atmospheric light and of the dwindled drumming in the open field behind the tree and her. The circus was thinning away!

About fifteen years ago, she had stood at five feet and four inches tall. She had walked erect. Forty years ago, she had had a smooth, supple, brown skin. Now she had a concrete arc for a backbone. Her skin had thinned; it bore worm-courses of wrinkles. Her eyes had reddened like those of a drunken leper.

Yet, she thought she had retained her bags of tricks from puberty, as she had retained a panting habit from childhood.

In the field behind her, the snake charmer was done with his performance. He and his boys were packing the snakes into sacks when Azumi waddled across toward him. Her steps became more disinclined the closer she got to the wiry young man that stood at just about five feet tall, but with big, bushy hair and tiny, deep eyes. His skin was light brown. He had dark tattoos of lizards on his temples. He had a python tattoo on his chest, from persistent navel pains at the age of seven. His arms and legs bore tattoos of snakes. He wore no clothes except shorts.

The snake charmer’s fantastic story was famous throughout Zaria City. Azumi might have heard the original version, which he told himself as many times as he had listeners. She might have heard an exaggerated one.

“It happened that a British tourist desired two handbags of python skins,” he narrated to his listeners. “Alhaji Shawai, the bag maker commissioned me for the skins. Therefore, I went hunting in the backwoods. I was gone for three days without coming across any cave or hole in the ground, the rocks or the trees with some promise. At a point, I wondered whether I had hunted all the pythons in the backwoods during my past expeditions.

“The sun was overhead as I roamed about, sometimes singing, sometimes blowing my horn, sometimes prodding into the bushes with my staff for signs of the prey. My dogs would sniff the ground or crisscross me now and then, often lagging behind to dig into rabbit holes before sprinting after me. Occasionally, they chased insects and small games.

“At last I saw a fading trail on the sand, emerging from a thicket I had just passed. I followed it carefully to its end – a grove of baobab trees, on a barren platform of red earth. The trees stood still, tall, thick, belted, brown and naked, as they do all dry seasons. The complete absence of birds on the trees portended danger. My dogs would not climb unto the platform with me. They stalled outside, barking about things they saw with their superior sights.

“I stalked through the grove, my eyes set on the trail that led me to the trunk of the tallest baobab. It stood high into the silver sky, hoisted on gigantic roots spread like a spider’s legs all around its holed, robust trunk. I concentrated on the widest hole that ogled at me from the middle of the trunk. It was a classical abode of pythons.

“I stood there for a moment, studying. Then I crept backwards until my heels knocked against another baobab trunk where I set down my load and prepared for my task.

“Back before the python hole and chewing my herbs, I felt for my leather bands of charms around my biceps. With my dogs quiet, the backwoods became a graveyard of a sort. With the support of my hands against the tree trunk, I dropped my right leg carefully into the dark hole. My twenty-inch butchers’ knife was already flat on my thigh.

“I waited for about thirty minutes before I felt the first cool, wet, nervous nudge under my foot. The sleeping giant had awakened. The sucking process began soon and I twisted the charm on my right arm in order to neutralise the python’s charms, otherwise it could send me to a deep sleep and then swallow me whole.

“My leg gradually slid into the python’s tight, warm and slimy stomach, till its wet lips were at my knees. Some pythons would twist, break off and swallow at that point before continuing. A good hunter should sense that danger soon enough or risk a foot, or even his life. My prey was a big one that would not stop at a foot. Therefore, I waited still until the sucking reached up to my hip.

“With my right arm around the wooden handle of my knife, I regarded the python’s red and unblinking eyes for a moment. Then I raised the knife and pushed the blade down to my ankle, ripping the reptile apart. I jumped out of the hole, pulling out a part of my kill with me.

“I turned toward my dogs, raised my hands and shouted. The backwoods echoed. They barked. I shouted again, calling them, each by his or her name. I sprinted over to my load, fished out my horn and began to blow it.

I took only two steps after I was done, when an unnatural voice said, ‘Stop there!’ I knew by instinct who spoke. The knowledge helped my nerves. I froze, rapidly whispering some chants.

“‘Can I walk now?’ I asked the voice.

“‘Go ask your mother,’ the voice replied. ‘Until you do that, be warned of my babies sleeping close to your feet.’

“I knew then that I was in trouble. I am not the scholar my father wanted me to be. The only chants I knew and recited had proved impotent.

“‘I ask you in the name of Allah to guide me,” I pleaded. ‘I have no eyes to see your children.’

I received no response.

“‘Mother…? What do you advice? How do I walk, to the left or right?’

“If the earth spoke then the voice answered me. I could not stay rooted on the spot forever. ‘I’m stepping to my right so I hurt anybody.’

“The confirmation I needed never came. My muscles were already aching.

“I had just taken two steps to the left when an angry whimper blared under my foot. I jumped backward. Another voice screamed. Suddenly, an inestimable number of screaming infants’ throats surrounded me.

“The next thing I knew was a savage grip around my wrist with what seemed like a pair of encrusted arms.

“‘You strong-headed mortal!’

“I flew through hot, dry air in a moment, before slamming flat to the ground – the last I ever knew before the light shut out.”

Hayatu’s mother told the rest of his tale to Hajiya Goshi when the middle-aged, fleshy, lissom Bori priestess examined Hayatu in her dark, round and bare private mudroom spread with only straw mats. Hayatu’s mother took him to her in chains when nobody could treat him at home.

Sitting in the dark mudroom with the priestess and an old, slender and mumbling musician, she said, “He was found in the backwoods by hunters and brought back home to me in this condition. Since then, he often exploded with violence, foaming at the mouth and screeching like the eagle. Five men couldn’t hold him down. He recognises no one. He remembers nothing. He neither eats nor drinks.”

Hajiya Goshi asked, “Has he ever exhibited these symptoms in the past?”

“Not at all,” Hayatu’s mother replied. “He has been about the most intelligent of my children; one of the most stable. His birth was a normal one.”

“Well,” said Hajiya Goshi, looking away from the patient, her eyes grey and mystical. “He has had an encounter with the Hidden Folks. We’ll inquire on what they need.”

She ordered Hayatu’s chains taken off. She asked her musician to play the various tunes of spirits with his garaya.

This process lasted over five hours. The musician strummed over fifty tunes. As the music flowed, Hayatu sneezed; rolled on the ground; galloped around in the room; threw himself down on the hard floor. He also spoke in different languages and voices. Finally, he slumped into a deep sleep.

Hajiya Goshi said, “He is carrying over forty spirits on his head right now. They have all agreed to leave, except the Fulani Princess, who wants to marry him and be his shield and sword. We will provide for the exit of the others and then solemnise his marriage to the Princess. Thereafter, whatever he touches shall become gold. He shall, however sacrifice a ram to his spirit wife once every month to renew his love vows.”

Azumi, the goblin keeper, knew that story, and she recognised Hayatu when she inched closer to him in the field outside the Gayan City Gate. She knew that the goblins inside her handbag, who wanted his blood, were spirits as well as the Fulani Princess he wedded. The knowledge spurred on her disinclined feet.

Spirit and spirit do agree over a mere mortal.

“Oh, servant of Allah,” she cried before the snake charmer. “Have compassion on a poor old woman and come to her aid. There is a wild snake under my bed. It has chased me out of my room a whole week today. Come at once and help a poor soul.”

Hayatu arrived at Azumi’s quiet compound right on her heels, bearing cotton sack and steel torchlight. Azumi welcomed him, her maudlin mood unchanged.

“I can see you rear chickens,” Hayatu observed immediately.

“Yes,” she chuckled. “That is my trade. What about it?”

“Good reason for snakes to visit,” he replied.

Hayatu unlocked her room’s wooden door, slid quietly into the dark interior and shut the door after him.

Azumi waddled forward. She replaced the padlock on the door with a trembling hand. She walked a few yards from the room. She raised her two hands to heaven, saying, “Allah, you know that I would not kill any human being on my own.”

A few minutes passed. She imagined the snake charmer inside the room, holding his torch in his teeth and carefully closing in on the dark, triangular hole under her mud bed. She imagined him crouching gingerly, aiming his sack and torch into the hole, but then, suddenly the razor claws and teeth of her goblins tore into his neck and shoulders. She imagined the shooting pipes of blood.

Suddenly, she heard the sounds of objects butting incoherently against the walls inside her room. The butting sounds mixed with sounds from throats that were not of humans: a blend of meows, screeches, screams, howls, yodels, and many more beastly noises.

Within five minutes, Azumi thought she saw four jet-black whirlwinds escaping through her thatch roof into the atmosphere, at irregular intervals. When the fourth whirlwind escaped just a single voice screeching and screaming in a confused manner remained.

The screeching became a howl. The howl shot up, like a cannon ball, with the entire thatch roof of her room.

She was gazing at the flying roof when she saw the snake charmer flying out from beneath it and zooming off toward the setting sun.

The roof was like one whose sky scraping walls beneath had melted. It hurtled toward the earth in a free fall, its black dust, spider webs and debris spilling off and coming down with it.

Azumi had taken just a step backward when the roof met her. The earth around her exploded with a resounding boom. A thick cloud of dust issued from beneath it into the darkening atmosphere. A voice calling for help also issued from beneath the roof, until it faded off by the seconds.

It was finished.

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