Six minutes. That is all the time I have now. Six minutes until the pain is over, six minutes until I finally die.
“Greet the devil for me when you get to hell.” The warden spat at me, cocking his gun in anticipation. I looked away from his hard eyes and into the void before me. I would not let those eyes be the last thing I saw before I died.
Five minutes. “Amen.” The old priest released my hands from the tight clasp of his and made the sign of the cross on his forehead.
“Thank you Father,” I said.
“Don’t thank me; I have only prayed for the soul of that young girl,” he replied, “As for you, even God cannot forgive you.”
A month ago, I would have told him I didn’t believe there was a God, much less one that watched over the actions of human beings and punished or forgave on a whim. But now, when I thought of the purity of her smile, I was ready to believe that there must be some deity, demon or destiny. Anything that would bring her smile back to me.
Four minutes. I shut my eyes tight and thought back to the day I first met her. There’s something about time travelling through the vehicle of your own memories. In one moment, I stood firmly in the present and in the next I stood in the subterranean truths of my own experience, mirrored back to me with ten times the luminosity. First, I started with her smile and then I built the rest of my memories around it.
“…And this is our youngest, Moji. She’s six years now.”
Moji. Dark skin, dark eyes and dark hair that fell to her shoulders in two plaits. Before then, the last time I’d seen her was at the hospital, freshly born to my sister and her husband…
“Six and three quarters.” Moji looked at me conspiratorially as she said, “I’ll be seven in May.” I smiled in response. Was there a time I had also counted my birthday down to the month (or remembered them at all)? If there had been, it felt a lifetime away.
“Moji, this is Uncle Dele. You know I told you he’ll stay with you while me and Daddy are on our trip.”
“Yes, mommy.” Moji nodded.
“And what do you say to Uncles who are far older than you?”
Moji bent at the knee and said, “Good afternoon, sir!” with a smile that revealed a half-chipped front tooth and bright-red gums.
“Good afternoon, my dear.” I said, warmed.
Three minutes. I thought about that smile constantly, even now at my life’s precipice. Maybe that was why I could be so calm. I felt like a stranger watching my life unravel; like a mountain in the midst of clouds.
“Get up,” the warden said. He paused before he said again, “It’s time.”
A strange feeling stirred within me as I stood up. It started as heat pangs at the sole of my feet and shot throughout my body till it reached my spine coldly. Not a fear of dying or a fear of what would come after dying but a fear of this life- a fear that her smile was lost to me forever.
She was smiling again. “Uncle Dele leave me alone!” She screamed. It was always like that. I would pinch her randomly across her body- on her cheeks, at her waist- and she’d slap my hands away and shout. But her smile gave her away.
“Leave me alone!” She dragged out the ‘lo’ in ‘alone’ till every other syllable was drowned out. Moji was always making her own words by leaving that last consonant behind- her ‘now’ was ‘naa’, her ‘kneel’ was ‘nii’. It was a special language that only the two of us could speak.
“I can’t leave you,” I always said, “Until you become a good girl.”
“I am a good girl!” Moji would yell.
“Only bad girls say they’re good!”
And then she’d burst into unfiltered laughter. It was a contrived exchange that we repeated over and over, each of us saying our lines as though surprised by them. But I would have done it a thousand times more to hear her laugh. I felt something deeper growing within me, and I knew she felt it too.
Once, I sat above Moji on the staircase, oiling her thick hair and picking gossamer-thin flakes of dandruff from her scalp. She was telling me about a boy in school who made it a point to push her down every day at break and then run away.
“Maybe he likes you” I said
“Iyama!” she said. The way she scrunched up her face in disgust made me laugh.
“Why now? What’s wrong with the boy?”
“I hate him!”
“Hate is a bad word.”
“I don’t like him sha,” she shook her head vehemently, “And he can’t even like me.”
“How can he be pushing me every day if he likes me? Other boys buy girls chocolate and Pringles if they like them.”
“Well, love is different for everybody.”
“I don’t want that type of love.”
“Nobody chooses who they love,” I said, “or how.”
“Maybe. But you can choose what to do with it,” sShe said., “If you like someone and you treat them badly, what’s the difference between your love and the devil’s hatred?”
I paused. “It’s true.” I said. That was the first moment that I knew I was in love with her.
“It’s time.” The warden repeated. I knew the procedure: three other wardens would soon come with sturdy rifles. In less than two minutes, the four of them would then aim pointedly and shoot at me simultaneously. They would all then stay there till I bled out and my heart stopped beating, to confirm I was dead. A death by firing squad was such an empty way to die. It had none of the humanity of a lethal injection or the immediate finality of a hanging.
“Ogbeni!” the warden shouted, jolting me out of my reverie. “I said get up! Before I deal with you!”
I stood up, balancing the weight of my body evenly between my two feet. I didn’t want to be saved, I didn’t want to run. All I wanted- needed now- was to see her smile again. But time was running out for me.
It was a warm Sunday morning when it happened. I went to Moji’s room to wake her up at six in the morning for church. The first thing I saw when I opened that door to her room was her lean, chocolate-coloured body sprawled across the bed. Legs wide apart, like the centrepiece of a porn flick, spread in just the right way to reveal a thick, hairless centre between them. Right then, a thing within me started that could never be stopped again.
Thick drops of sweat formed at the nape of my neck. My dick hardened to twice its size, moving on its own from the inner recesses of my trousers to my hands. My tongue dried up and I trembled as that thing- a spirit, a force? – moved me towards Moji. I could smell her centre, taste it. My heart rose to a piercing crescendo at the thought of being inside her.
As she slept, I rubbed my dick ever so slightly against the walls of her centre, careful not to slide it in. I did not want to hurt her; I knew I was too big for her young body. Her walls were so wet and tight, I willed myself not to go further. I closed my eyes and moaned, softly at first, then deeply and rapidly.
“Uncle Dele!” Moji said. Her shout made me open my eyes, but it didn’t make me stop rubbing myself against her walls. Nothing could make me stop.
Her half-chipped front tooth shone brightly again from the curve of her lips. “Leave me alone!” she shouted. I heard what she said, but her smile gave her away.
One minute. The wardens came in with their hollow eyes and sturdy guns and I knew it was over. The tension that had settled at my throat rose up and I vomited on the floor in violent, thrashing coughs.
“You fool! Look at you vomiting like a weak woman,” one of the wardens sneered, beating my chest, as though beating the vomit and mucus out of me. “You know what you did and you’re here vomiting-vomiting. Take your punishment like a man not like the animal you are.” He slapped me across the face and spat at me.
The earth beneath my feet spun around me, till it made me dizzy. I hung my neck down and saw the green-yellow vomit on the floor; the physical representation of my fear.
I stood up. The warden was right; I had to atone for my sins. “What are your last words?” One of the wardens asked.
“If you like someone and you treat them badly, what’s the difference between your love and the devil’s hatred?” I said. I said it again and again till it reverberated in my mind so loudly that I did not hear the single sound of four gunshots as they each travelled through their respective barrels and landed in my chest, killing me.
“I love you, Uncle Dele.” Moji said. It would have been more poignant to me, had I not just told her, “say you love me Moji,” as I lay on top of her, both of us naked, me rubbing myself against her walls again till I climaxed. I knew she loved me but there was something about hearing her say it, in that puerile voice as I felt the heat of her core against my penis. It took me to another place where I was just a man and she was just a woman, untrapped from the maleficent boundaries of age and time and norm. Just two humans melting into one another.
“Talk to me, I love to talk to you while we do this,” I said. “Why are you smiling?”
“Your face is so hard, like you’re in the toilet.” She giggled again.
I sighed and smiled. “Are you okay?”
She nodded and moaned softly into my ears, like a prayer to the gods. And then, that thing reared its head again. It crept up behind and swallowed me whole like a recalcitrant Jonah. And I, quondam worshipper at the temple of her walls, turned to a savage, breaking through her walls. I launched into her with everything within me, sliding the weight of my erection in and out of her. I must have heard her cries, her shouting for me to stop; I must have known I had gone too far for too long. But I didn’t care. All I could see was her smile. It drove me, speeding recklessly, till I climaxed and crashed. Immediately, I recoiled and held her.
It was then I realized she was dead. I shouted, shook her, wept at her, but nothing worked. I wondered when exactly she had died. Had she lost her life while I lay on top of her, molding her body to the rhythm of my own pleasure?
“If you like someone and you treat them badly, what’s the difference between your love and the devil’s hatred?” I said this to myself the next day as I told her parents what had happened. They were back the next morning. I can’t forget the wails of her mother as she held Moji or her curses at me when the police finally came and beat me to a bloody, bludgeoned pulp before taking me away. That was the last day I saw Moji, and her lips were still fixed in a smile.
My time was up. I lay on the floor with none of my senses but a blurred vision. I could feel each cold bullet passing through my muscles, slowing down time as they raced to reach for my heart. In seconds, I’d be dead.
If I could do it again, I would run, I told myself. Not for myself (because I deserved this). Not for her parents or for anybody else. But for her. My eyes were closing against my will and I knew I was a dead man already.
“Uncle Dele.” I felt rather than heard her voice.
As my eyes closed for the last time, I saw the faint smile of a soon-to-be eight year old with a front tooth that was chipped at the side and gums that shone red. I smiled back at her. Now, I could die with no fear.
Image: Bigstock.com and twak via Flickr remixed