Fiction

Play, for Me: A Short Story by Haku Jackson

mmuo
Image: Envato Market (cropped)
[*]

 

The morning continues as the night was; cold and devoid of dialogue. The dewy grasses soak the front and sides of my leather sandals as I walk. Adanma marches through the grass, uncaring of the dew, grass, even the very earth itself. Things like that, it seemed, had become irrelevant to her a long time ago. I walk behind her, carrying the bundled up pots, bowls, wrapper and sleeping mat. Adanma, with a curt wave of her hand, had denied me from carrying hers and strapped them to her back also, as we walk out of the forest.

The humid air begins to thin out as the sun appears in all its grandeur and severity, and soon a film of sweat covers my face and arms, lightly soaking through my inner vest. Adanma has since taken off her ram skin cloak and tied it round her waist. I walk behind, doing my best to ignore her and failing miserably. She glances back once and I choose that moment to suddenly find a far-off tree alluring. She doesn’t look back again.

As expected, we leave the confines of the forest well into the morning. The earth slopes downward as we keep walking, and Adanma brings out her map to ascertain we have come out at the right point. By the map, the village is still almost a hundred kilometres from the forest. Adanma sets down her load and turns to me.

“Kunle, this is where we part ways,” she says.

I blink. “Why?”

“You can speak now, that’s good,” she says, her tone varnished with dryness. “I see my actions yesterday made you uncomfortable. I’m not that same girl anymore, Kunle. People change in seven years. You can make peace with that or leave.”

“You still haven’t told me what happened.” My voice is a little louder than I intend. “You disappeared. For seven years! I thought you were killed in the riots! I mourned you, Ada! I left the village because of your death. Now you return after all this time with a strange… power that can only be described as diabolical. What happened to you?”

“Is that what you think I am?” she asks. “Diabolical?”

I walk forward, still holding eye contact, and take her hands in mine. “Ada. Please, talk to me. You may have changed, but I’m still that same Kunle you knew. Your friend. Please just… talk.”

And we stand there like that for seconds that seem eternal, looking each other in the eyes. I look, hoping to see the Adanma I grew up knowing; the carefree little girl who would sneak out of her house and meet me in my parents’ backyard so that we could spin our okoso shells against the other’s; that girl that mixed sand, water and leaves in an empty tin can, cooking ‘soup’ with me. I sought for that little girl that would hoot loudly, put a finger to her eye and stick out her tongue whenever she played a successful prank on me. I looked for the girl whose caramel skin and bushy auburn hair were the highlight of most of my childhood memories; that girl I loved in secret.

That was several years ago and that girl was long dead.

The person I see in those eyes isn’t the Adanma from my childhood. In fact, the person in there isn’t even Adanma at all. It is someone much darker… and primordial. If there is still a vestige of the girl I knew, she is drowning in the sea of black inside. The person looking at me doesn’t even think of those childhood memories anymore. I look at Adanma, not seeing her and it almost breaks me.

She gently pulls her hands out from mine and picks up her bundle, strapping it to her back once more. Her eyes finally hold a hint of something. Something faintly nostalgic. “Kunle, you’re the only dear person I have left. Mama is dead. So is Ijeoma. But if you can’t look past what happened yesterday then please, for the sake of what we had, just leave now. I can’t stand you looking at me like a monster.” And with that, she turns and begins marching downhill. I stand there, watching my childhood friend as she lithely makes the descent to the open grasslands below.

I didn’t recover someone precious to me after so many years, only to lose her right in front of me and worse, by her own undoing. I can reach her. I can unfetter her from the pernicious darkness.

I have to.

I follow her downhill.

 

[**]

 

I look back as I walk down the slope and see Kunle where I left him. He is still standing there, head bent down and hands on the straps of his pack. It is with a bittersweet feeling of satisfaction and disappointment that I see he will not follow me and it is an equal measure of another bittersweet brew of gratitude and dismay when he looks forward and begins marching downhill in my direction. He still maintains some distance behind although he walks within earshot.

The hours drag on as we walk, still in that taut silence. My knees throb and my calves protest the extended strain they are being subjected to and I can only wonder if Kunle fares any better, with the greater load he carries. Some part of my conscience tugs at me for making him go through all this for my own desires and I duly shut that part out. Kunle had decided, of his own will, to still accompany me and so he had to manage. My neck and arms sting from the fury of the afternoon sun and I have to constantly wipe sweat from my face and eyes. I can’t care about the heat just yet. There are more pressing matters than the need for shelter.

Ebenkeudo. It translates loosely to Place of Peace.

There used to be a time Ebenkeudo was the only home I knew: when it was my happy place. There were the mornings I would sit in the backyard of our house with Mama and help her wash bitterleaf. I would rub the wet leaves between my palms, washing them until the water in the bucket became a deep green. Mama would say, “Ada, are your hands made of pap? Scrub that thing well so that it won’t be too bitter.” I would laugh and rub the bitterleaf clumps between my palms with mock vigour. No matter how I scrubbed the bitterleaf, the soup always came out delicious. Sometimes, I would escort Mama to the market on some late evenings, when the village would be bubbling with quaint nostalgia: people chattering, walking to and fro, the pervading smell of grasses and moist earth; children playing by the roadside, the market women shouting at customers; chickens and goats walking around looking for food.

Those days seem like another life ago.

High noon passes, and the heat wanes slightly, just enough to know that it has reduced. After walking for several minutes still, I see a tree wide enough and as Kunle and I draw closer, I notice the fruits—some reddish orange, some yellow—hanging from it. A mango tree. In the savannah? Strange.

With a loud sigh, Kunle sets down his burden and sits in the bower. Setting my things down also, I pluck the nearest mango before sitting on the grass and resting against the tree’s trunk. I am suspicious of it—a mango tree this far in the savannah is… unexpected. But my wariness fades, and I peel off the mango skin with my teeth, savouring that sweet, juicy taste as my tongue brushes the underside. As the sugary taste of the fruit explodes in my mouth, I turn to Kunle. He is lying on the grass now, peeling the skin off one of the mangoes he plucked. He sucks in a breath as he bites into the fruit and exhales as he chews. The look on his face makes me want to eternally bless the mangoes and once again, I feel a sharp remorse for putting him through this unnecessary hardship. He has always looked after me since we were children and he has no reason to be with me on this peregrination. He still tries his best to look after me now, even after all those years.

But where was he when I needed someone most?

When I forgot the meaning of time? He was never there those times I would cry till there were no tears left to fall. Or when I would scream until my voice was gone and my throat, hoarse. He was not there when I saw the things that human eyes should not. Where was he when all these happened?

I force down the welling irrational anger and take breaths. There was nothing Kunle could have known to do for me from the land of the living. Even now, he still has no inkling that I have not been a part of this world for the years I had been gone.

Under the shade of the mango tree, looking out at the stretch of bushes and occasional candelabra trees, I suddenly feel so small and inconsequential. I now feel indescribably grateful for the little comforts of the land of the living. I can eat a fruit now. I can feel the wind in my hair. I can smell the soft, pleasant tang of the hanging fruits above. I can sweat.

I quickly put a hand to my right eye to erase the tear before it can find its way down my cheeks. I clench my jaw and look in the direction of where Ebenkeudo is supposed to be. My former home. My former love.

Ijeoma.

I wipe my eye a second time as the thought of her name brings back vivid memories, clear as steel and piercing, like a spear. All those times in the astral plane, it wasn’t my will to go on that kept me. It wasn’t even the thought of my mother or Kunle. It was the memories I have of Ijeoma. It was the memories of her boyish smile, her stubborn spirit and her feathery lips that I fell back on at my lowest points in the realm.

Those memories were far easier to focus on than the ones where her face was matted in blood, her teeth in pieces on the red soil and machete wounds crisscrossing her mahogany skin as her house was set ablaze. Her recent memories were only of fire, blood and death.

Dark memories like those attracted much darker things in the astral plane.

So instead, when I could scream no more, I held on to the memories of her bubbling voice. When I could feel neither wind nor heat, I focused on her heavy embraces and our light kisses. In the face of Ijeoma, somehow, even my mother became secondary.

If I did not feel the red soil of the village under my feet and see the fire‐blackened walls of Ijeoma’s house, I would never be free. My happiness began in the village and I must find that closure there as well.

There was no escaping it.

A grunt escapes Kunle, pulling me from my thoughts. He is sprawled on the grass now, belly sated from multiple mangoes. In that moment, with his eyes closed, he looks like the boy I used to run around with in my childhood. I can’t push him that much.

“We’ll rest here till the sun goes down,” I finally say.

He opens his eyes, looking intently at me for a few seconds. New instincts from my time in the realm of spirits make me retain eye contact. Then he gives a small nod and turns his body the other way.

I slowly return my gaze to Ebenkeudo’s direction. Three or four more days at most. I counted them down like they would be my last.

 

[*]

 

Though I noticed the symptoms two nights before, I had refused to do anything, expecting it to limit itself to just a sore throat and a bitter tongue. But now as I wake to the dozing form of Adanma’s body against the tree, I can’t stop the shivers that course in waves through my body. The illness has set in deeply and my fever is approaching its peak. Though the wind is minimal, I quiver like a dry leaf in the harmattan wind. With chattering teeth, I seek for my wrapper but as I draw it from beneath my bundle, I upset a pot and it tumbles down on the other items. The noise pulls Adanma from sleep instantly and if I were healthier, I may have been more concerned with the unnatural alertness in her eyes as she woke.

“Kunle.” No trace of sleep is evident in her voice. “You are shaking.”

“I think I have the mosquito’s kiss,” I manage to stutter, pulling the wrapper close around me.

She still looks at me, her face an emotional blank before she curses softly and stands up. She removes something from her bundle, tucks it behind her and dons her cloak. She makes her way from under the tree, exposing herself to the deep, darkening blue of the cloudy evening sky.

“Where are you going?” I raise my head.

She favours her back through the cloak and I know what it is she has taken. If it were possible to add a shudder to my already shaking body, it had just happened. She glances back at me once, and then looks back in the direction we came from. “You need medicine. I’m going to get dogonyaro. I noticed a tree as we were coming.”

“Is it far?”

“Let me worry about that,” she says, and begins walking.

“Ada.”

She stops and looks at me again. No words pass between us but somehow, I feel she already knows what I cannot put in words. She turns and continues on her way.

I pull the wrapper tighter around me and take a deep breath. Another shudder runs through me, the illness seeming to mock me. I close my eyes as the sickness marches through my body like it is the original owner and I, the illness. I force myself back to sleep.

I am roused about three minutes later and I open my eyes to see Adanma kneeling beside me. For the first time, I can make out visibly, the look of worry and concern etched in her features. “I found it. Come to the fire,” she speaks softly.

I frown and with effort, turn the other way to see a fire set up already, with a pot hanging over it. It is now I realise I must have been asleep for hours. The darkness of the sky suggests midnight or just past. I stand up slowly, Adanma helping me to walk to the pot and its boiling contents. I sit some distance away as she takes the pot off the fire, and places it in front of me, furious steam rising endlessly from it.

“Put your face above the pot.” She gets her wrapper.

I sniffle and stare into the pot. The dogonyaro leaves are floating in the boiling water and the smell of the leaves pervades the steam. I lower my face further to the rushing steam. Adanma uses her wrapper and covers my head, the ends of it falling to the ground around the pot, sealing me in with the steam.

I must have been like that for almost half an hour before Adanma takes the wrapper off and I raise my head. Sweat pours in huge drops from my face and the upper part of my buba is thoroughly drenched. But my breathing has steadied slightly and none need tell me that my shaking has significantly subsided.

“You still have to drink this.” She hands me a cup of the bark and leaves extracts.

I down it in one swift gulp, not letting myself feel the harsh taste of the warm brew. “Thank you.”

She sets about clearing the place, moving the pots and feeding the fire. I spread my wrapper on the grass and lie down, staring into the thick branches of the mango tree.

Minutes later, she is sitting on her wrapper staring into the flames. She looks down to something in her hands and she remains like that for some moments before she speaks, face still down. “May I play for you?”

I swiftly turn to her. She raises her head. Her brown eyes are imploring and when she speaks, her voice is just barely above a whisper. “Please,” she says. “It is one of the few things I am holding on to. I have not played in a long while.”

I do not miss the emphasis on ‘played’ because if we are to look at things technically, she had played.

The evening before.

My heart starts beating harder. “Won’t the… they,” I sputter, and make circling gestures with my left index finger.

“No,” Adanma says quickly, shaking her head. “I’m not calling them.”

It takes a while. It takes a while for me to understand how much playing means to her, grounds her. Her eyes tell me she is… lost. Slowly, I nod my consent.

She gives a small smile and brings the item in her hands to her lips.

Her flute.

The short ivory‐coloured instrument is simply riveting. Tiny circular embossments run in a spiral around the body of the flute, passing below each hole before coming to a stop at the instrument’s end. Symbols are engraved at select points on the flute’s body, connected to each other by twisting grooves.  One does not need a medicine man to tell them that the instrument is carved from bone.

But they may need one to know that it is human bone.

She sets it to her lips, closes her eyes and plays.

There is no adequate way to explain the sounds that come from that instrument. When she begins playing, it is as if the silence of the night subtly becomes the melodies of the flute; as if silence is slowly transformed into the musical sounds of the instrument—a strange and surreal alchemy. As she increases in volume, I feel like I am submerged in a sea of sounds, and swirling symphonies. Adanma’s music speaks of unspeakable loss and horrendous grief. It also suffuses the air with a strange urgency and a sense of justice. The way her music manages to convey other powerful emotions is nothing short of unearthly. It is one of the most beautiful and mesmerizing things I’ve ever experienced.

She increases the tempo and that ambience of urgency increases, suddenly making me want to get up and right all the wrongs in the world. Adanma, eyes still closed, sways softly as she plays. As her melody approaches its climax, I force myself to sit up, not wanting to miss whatever it is the end seems to promise. The climax arrives, the tempo at a stunning high. I can’t help it. I sharply inhale as the peak is achieved. Then it is all over and Adanma raises her mouth from the flute and opens her eyes. For the first few seconds, I can honestly swear I forget what the act of speaking is.

“That was… beautiful,” I manage to utter. And even the word ‘beautiful’ feels gravely inadequate.

Adanma grins. An actual grin, and as I am still reeling from that vibrant display of joy from her, she bursts out laughing.

This is a night of beautiful melodies.

She keeps laughing. “You need to see your expression.”

I can’t hold myself and I also start laughing. And we laugh together, like we are kids back in the village, laughing over a successful prank played on our mates. And for that moment, in front of a fire under a mango tree, in the middle of the grasslands under a moonless late-night sky, I have my childhood friend back.

 

[**]

 

Kunle and I stop less than a kilometre from the village. The old mud walls of Ebenkeudo appear to be more brown than orange in the light of the late afternoon. The walls exude an aura of silent pride, like a forgotten sentinel: worn down but still standing. The space between us and the village is covered in short, stiff grasses with evidence of grazing visible.

“Finally.” Kunle comes to stand beside me. It’s been two days since the night of his fever and he is almost in perfect health.

The memories of Ijeoma become a vivid re-enactment in my head and I kneel down there in the grass, fighting the welling tears. She had been innocent.

She had been killed simply because she was an Osu.

Ebenkeudo was relatively peaceful before the internal strife in the igwe’s household, when his sons began fighting for his throne, even as their father still lived. The igwe consequently ordered the execution of all four sons. Five market days later, the igwe himself was assassinated by people rumoured to be of the Osu caste in retaliation for bringing death to his own sons. Chaos came swiftly after, as the village was left without a ruler. The mob went after all known members of the caste. I had just enough time to see the machete to my mother’s neck for attempting to help Ijeoma escape. Ijeoma’s death had been much more gruesome. I’d stood in the chaos, shocked silent, as a man struck her face with a monstrous stick. The others had followed quickly with their own strikes, each trying to outdo the previous person.

They’d set her house ablaze and tossed both the bodies of Ijeoma and my mother inside.

And through all that, I simply stood still, staring. It wasn’t until the chaos moved to another part of the village that I became ambulant. The tears had run silently as I’d shuffled in a daze towards everything I had, now destroyed. I sat down there on the ground, watching the flames subside. Nightfall had fallen when I crawled into the blackened walls of a place that…

The familiar smell of mint and thyme was replaced by the potent odour of burnt wood and immortal smoke. I couldn’t look at the bodies.

I. Could. Not.

I’d crawled to a corner of the house, far from the roasted things that were once pillars in my life. It was near the point of a complete breakdown that I had felt it. Something calling out. Not to me, but to whomever could answer it.

I had unconsciously turned to the pile of ash and burnt wood where the intricate flute lay, somehow untainted or scorched by the flames. It seemed to have had a certain gleam to the length of its ivory body. Ijeoma had been teaching me to play the flute, but that flute was not the one she carried around, though I had definitely seen it with her. Once. After our first fight as lovers.

I’d crawled towards the instrument, enthralled by it. I couldn’t help it. The flute called out. And I answered. I’d held it up and played.

And then I’d fallen into an abyss that had suddenly appeared beneath and around me.

I’d fallen into a place where I would spend up to seven tortuous years. A place only the ancestors, dead and unborn should be.

The wild depths of the astral plane.

“Ada, are you alright?”

Kunle’s soft voice rips me away from the dark recollections. He places a hand on my shoulder and I see the distress on his face and the worry in his eyes. “Kunle, please wait here for me.”

“What?” he asks. “Why?”

I get up. “Please.”

He subtly narrows his eyes at me for a brief second.

“Fine,” he concedes. “But on one condition.” He stretches his hand forward and my heart skips a beat. “The flute.”

I look at him, not moving. I clench and unclench my fists and steady my breathing. His hand is still stretched out as he stares at me. “Ada.”

I slowly untie the flute from where it dangles from a small rope attached to my skirt. I hold it out towards him. He looks from me to the flute, then back to me again, then comes forward to collect it. The instant his fingers close around the instrument, his entire body shudders and he lets out a strangled gasp. He falls to the floor in a shuddering heap, a cold he cannot explain taking over his body.

“I’m sorry, Kunle.” I pick the flute from his hand, and lift it to my lips.

 

[*]

 

All I can feel is this infinitely piercing frost that coats my very soul. I can still see Adanma as I lie violently shivering on the floor. Her eyes have become as they were on that evening.

Her pupils and irises are gone, leaving only the whites of her eyes.

She plays the flute and now, it is impossible to miss the surreal power that thrums through the air as the enchanting melody takes over the atmosphere.

And then I hear them.

Unearthly moans slowly permeate the music, increasing in number and frequency until the Mmuo begin to cross over into this world.

There is a reason the dead have a realm of their own. The air is filled with a fundamental sense of wrongness as the dead of Ebenkeudo are given form. The Mmuo resemble people draped head to foot in colourful ankara fabrics but devoid of legs. They appear in all sizes; I see Mmuo as small as rabbits and I see others as imposing as bears. Their faces, if they have any, are hidden behind grotesque masks of different colours and designs, and the Mmuo moan and sigh as they rise from the ground, pull out of trees and flow out from jagged lines in the air as they rend the division between our worlds. They fly around Adanma, circling her and suffusing her melodies with their ethereal sounds. I watch, in unmitigated horror, as their numbers climb, well into the hundreds, until there are countless of the spirits circling around and over her, even up to hundreds of feet in the air.

That terrifying evening, it was just one.

Hunters ambushed us in the forest, to rob us of the little we had. Adanma had brought out the relatively useless instrument and played for the hunters.

A masked figure had come out of a nearby tree, the bark flowing off like a thick liquid from the giant form of the Mmuo. The hunters couldn’t see it. They’d never even known what struck them. The Mmuo, floating and moaning like a strange animal, had wrapped itself around the closest hunter to it. The unfortunate man had immediately dropped lifeless to the dirt. The other two had attempted to shoot Adanma, fearing her to be sibylline. The Mmuo, with a speed unmatched, and impossible, had moved to shield its mistress. I couldn’t see where the bullets went. I only know the Mmuo’s fabric rippled with every corresponding gunshot. It had surged forward and touched the faces of both men and like their former companion, both had similarly dropped to the ground wide-eyed, gone.

It was just one.

But now, as I lie cold in the grass, the late afternoon sky vibrates with the cries of the Mmuo horde. Adanma opens her eyes and looks at me. It is difficult to place any emotion in those unnerving white eyes but I like to think that she feels remorse or she feels her decision is a form of justice for the wrongs of the village. I don’t know anymore.

She turns and walks toward Ebenkeudo, accompanied by Death.

Death in all its colours.

 

[**]

 

I arrive at Ijeoma’s house. Or rather, where it used to be. Tall weeds grow over the torn down remains of what used to be her home and goats graze amongst the wood and stone, strangely unaffected by the chaos of the hysterical villagers. Spitefully, I direct one of the dead to the goat herd. It streaks by, quickly passing a hand through each goat.

They don’t graze anymore.

I realize I am crying and this time, I let the tears run. I let my anger and resentment run. I play for Ijeoma and Mama and I play Ijeoma’s favourite melody, The Old King’s Daughter, because it seems all too fitting. I cry for what I do to the village, even as I mix my pain with the tears and let it all leave me. I let the soil soak it up and take it away.

I use my music to take away the villagers’ pain; I play until all the screaming stops.

 

[*]

 

More than an hour passes before I am able to stand up. It takes me another several minutes to arrive at the village.

The first thing that greets me is the stillness.

There is a silence so material that I feel like I’m trapped in a painting. Nothing moves, nothing sounds. Even the wind is gone as if it too can’t bear to upset the stillness. The only thing I hear is my own fatigued breathing. I move slowly through Ebenkeudo, my mind growing numb as I walk around scores of fresh corpses. Men. Women. Children.

I stop by an anthill. The many ants around it are motionless on the red soil and for everything I’ve seen, it is this sight that finally breaks me: death so profound and absolute that nothing is left. I kneel on the ground in front of that giant anthill and scream. I cry out, hard, as my tears reach for the ants, to comfort them, in death.

***

“…when the elders sing

will they dance on our graves?”

***

About the author

Haku Jackson

Haku Jackson is an engineering student most times and a writer at other times. His short stories are mostly African dark fantasy and Science fiction. He currently resides in Lagos, Nigeria.

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