Everybody was running toward the sea. People ran in different states of chaos. Some ran in their sleeping clothes while others ran in their office coats. There were young women who ran in their wedding gowns and some who held on to bouquet of flowers. Lovers ran apart, friends became foes. Everyone wanted to reach the finishing line. Some market women carried their wares in baskets and some office women threw away their high-heeled shoes in order to run faster. Everyone was running, even the people of God. Most of these holy people ran, chanting heavenly slogans. Some of them ran with thousands of colored chaplets hanging from their necks. Some ran brandishing holy books while proclaiming paradise, heaven and nirvana. Others ran speaking in tongues. In that state of complete disorder, the language of tongues sounded more like rush-of-adrenalin gibberish. While some people ran with empty hands, others clutched little bundles of memory. Some mothers ran with their babies and some children ran yelling for their parents. Because they were running so fast, even the sky and the trees also seemed to be running.
I was dizzy and embarrassed. First, I only had on boxer shorts, which was very unusual. I did not like baring my desert-like chest, because years of perpetual struggle and hunger had left a story of ribs on my chest. Secondly, I had a sickening feeling that I might be mistaken for one of those laboratory skeletons used in biology class. Although I was dizzy from the sudden madness, running was not exactly new in this part of the world. Anything could trigger a life and death race. A single scream could lead to a war dance, even a street fight could trigger a mighty stampede. In this part of the world, one had to learn how to run in order to walk properly, because running was deeply etched into the national character. Only a few weeks ago it was reported in the newspapers that a young passenger in a Danfo bus had to make a quick exit through one of the narrow windows. On seeing him, many people joined in the race, even when they did not know the cause of his flight. Much later, after a lot of damage had been done, the young boy said he had to run because he was the only normal person in the bus. A few furious runners wanted to know how he got to that conclusion. He said that the bus had no steering and that the chairs were made of loose sand and that the other passengers spoke in drawls. The furious runners got very mad because they thought those were normal things in the city. Most Danfo buses never had complete parts, not to talk of good seats, and most people ate or smoked igbo because that was the only way to hang on to reality. They abused him, saying he was one of those whose souls had been lost to dark memories. But there was something dangerously different about this present race. It was as if Armageddon had become a grain of confusion pouring down from the bowel of hell.
In my blind confusion, I screamed a question at the stampeding crowd, “Where are you all running to?” But no one bothered with me. I was shoved here and there as if I was an unnecessary hindrance. As I battled with different thoughts, it suddenly occurred to me that another strange fish might have been washed ashore. Only about four months ago, many city- dwellers had cause to thank God and genuinely bless the city of aquatic splendor. Why? A strange-looking whale had been washed ashore; it had more colors than the rainbow and looked like ten different animals all at once. Some people said it was chameleonic as it changed to whatever it was called. A marine biologist was contacted, but before he could get there, the whale of many colors had become mere pieces of broken bones. That night on national television, many city-dwellers openly described how they partook in the manna from the sea. One woman boasted that her own share would serve her household for three months. Another man regaled the viewers with his wonderful trip across the border. There, he had sold parts of the wonder-whale to forest doctors who boasted that the fish could cure every ailment, including yet-to-be-known ones. Could it be another fish?
As I pondered the question, people continued to shove me about, bumping into one another. Since I still did not have a reason to run, I managed to keep walking. I kept walking until something fell on me. Running feet eventually trampled both the something and me. Then I raised my head and I completely forgot the embarrassment of the boxer and the fish question. I just began to scream wildly as I beheld the object that pinned me down. It did not seem affected by the upheaval as it smiled at me. It was Uke, a creature without form or description. It had died many years ago – that is, even long before my ancestors were born. I think its parents killed it when they found out it was a child of tragic omen. Dazed, I allowed it to drag me through the human crowd to a tent made with the chalk of knowledge. It was a special kind of chalk, the type that gave one a single powerful eye. My heartbeat sounded like a frenzied drum. The noise from my heart mingled with that of the mad crowd and I was filled with a fear that had the red color dancing round it. At that point, thinking that my end was imminent, I began to frantically search for an end-of-life prayer. But in spite of my fear, I managed to ask Uke what it was doing with the living. Uke told me that the noise roused it from the grave and that a lot of dead people were actually in the race.
“Why?” I asked. It gave me a strange answer that I did not understand.
“Most of the dead people are distorted fragments, searching for their whole reality. So they think that if they join the race, they might find the pieces that would lead to wholeness.”
“But where are they running to?”
“Does it matter where? Anyway, I smell a great calamity in the offing. But why not eat some of the green chalk to find out more?” With that advice, Uke vanished and I felt lighter than light – like an alien ship gliding through space.
Still confused, someone’s head hit mine, but he did not stop to apologize. I did not think he could have stopped because he was submerged by another group of runners. More people began to emerge from nowhere. A group of angry traders from the East emerged from a wide gully. They carried a coffin and a huge metal crucifix, which sometimes resembled a big gun. This group ran and sang at the same time:
Who say we no get fada
We say we get fada
Our fada na ’oly Gos Fada
It seemed to me at that point that the reasonable thing to do was join the singing traders, but they suddenly disappeared into another gully, and thousands of runners who seemed to have fallen from the sky fell into the gully with them – all singing of their ’oly Gos Fada. As if that was a playful interlude, a group of bugs and rodents circled the clouds like an airplane. They boasted of how wonderful their existence was: they have no need for employment or worry about money or care about population control – they rule the world. They began a meaningless song that filled the air with mockery:
Cockroach and rat are in the car
Rat being the driver
Cockroach and rat
Rode in the car
For a few minutes everyone froze. They held their buttocks as if trying to prevent big explosive farts, then they began to laugh and eat mushrooms. Wait! Was I dreaming or what? Minutes later, the freezing moment passed and everyone resumed running. I was about to give up on the national madness when a young girl bumped right into me. She had a tiara on her head and she was eating one of the boastful bugs. This time I got an apology, but I did not know if it was for the bumping or the edible cockroach. When I asked her why everyone was running, she gave me a sharp look of surprise.
“You mean you do not know?”
“That the messiah has come.”
What an answer! I wanted to find out more, but someone pushed her out of my way. Messiah? How could Christ come without my knowledge? I went to church, kept vigils, evangelized, and paid my tithes. The heavens changed and a heavy downpour fell with hellish abandon. But neither the rain nor the thunder deterred anyone. Familiar faces began to fleet past, but none of them acknowledged my presence. Then I saw a sudden surge of domestic animals join in the race. A yellow cat smiled at my confusion and I dared to ask the same question.
“To meet the messiah,” it cooed.
Messiah again? What messiah could this be? In all of my lifetime, the coming of the messiah had been predicted more than a dozen times. The last aborted prediction was a couple of years ago. A date was even fixed. I think it was October 28. A few dabblers in the occult had affirmed the number. They preached endlessly about the simplicity of the supernatural logic. October was the tenth month. 2+8=10. And ten meant the wheel of fortune, so a great change was surely imminent! People became hysterical and paranoid. Some people took their lives claiming they were after all tired of living. Many gave out their belongings arguing it was better to travel light through their spiritual journey. They also hoped that their final act of kindness would fetch them a pass to the Eden of heaven.
At that point, thinking that events had turned bizarre I ate the green chalk and could feel the surge of the powerful eye. Now I could see the dead people that Uke spoke about. Most of them looked very angry, and their anger made them look more deadly and deader. Since I was now a part of the all-knowing eye, I could communicate with them telepathically. So I asked why they were also running and one of them answered: “Justice.” He said most of them had been earthbound because they reached no closure for the many sins that were inflicted on them. I was going to say that most people never really got that kind of closure because life was too hard and unpredictable, but one of them gave me the bad eye and I quickly checked my thoughts.
Even as most of them were not ready to make conversation, they nevertheless manifested their anger. One had died while on a job hunt. He had gone for an interview on a particular Friday. He was the last person to arrive as thirty other applicants had preceded him. One after another they were called in for interview and one after another they seemed to vanish as none of them came out of the inner room. Determined to remain alive even if he had to feed on hope, he jumped out of a window when it was his turn to be interviewed. By the time he landed on the roof of a rickety bus, he had died. One said he watched as armed robbers raped his wife before killing him. Another died while watching a football match between an English club and a European one. There was a sudden blackout, which although was not an unusual occurrence, made him very angry. He tried to get an electrician to fix the problem to no avail. He then decided he could give it a try. He was shocked into death. One had fallen into a wide gutter during a heavy flood. He was rushing through the rain to keep his teaching appointment where he was paid one hundred naira per hour. Yet another had died of fright at the sound of a car tire that burst open in the middle of the road. There was the case of the one who died of a heart attack. His sister, who had become a successful businesswoman, sent him some foreign currency. When he changed the money at the bank, he had eighty thousand naira. This dead fellow had never seen such amount of money. He went berserk and called on two of his trusted neighbors to come witness his money madness. When they answered his call, he poured all the money on the floor and then he began to beat the money with a broom. He asked his neighbors to join in the beating but they refused. It was while he was shouting for joy and beating the money that had eluded him for a long time that his heart failed him. He is angry at his neighbors, who shared his money among them before letting out a public scream. Another complained of being sex-starved in the last decade of his life because he had no job, no money, and therefore no girlfriend. He nursed his decade-old erection with vehemence.
The dead women were not left out. Most of them complained about societal abuse in a world of phallic solidarity. I tactfully let my thought slide on that one. I did not want a thousand bad eyes. Yet I felt sorry for the maid who said she was killed by her boss who was also a church pastor. She had been killed because she did not heed his warning not to get pregnant. She had been told time without number to wash off immediately; leave no trace of sin. Nothing is wrong with feeding the flesh when there is no trace. It is only a sin when you are caught. Stay hidden and be angelic! The pregnancy could not remain hidden and so death followed. For a while the thought of using the idea on my boss appealed to me. What if I decided on embezzling office funds? It was a juicy possibility, but the presence of an ancestral ghost caught my attention. She was not running out of anger but out of despair. She lamented that all her children had fled to distant lands: I am lonely in the grave. If I go join my children, at least I will get a memorial wreath once a year. I have always loved flowers.
In the air, powerful demons flew. One demon who was part-man and part-woman, part-fish and part-lion asked me to come close as it was going to tell me a great secret. I gave it my ears and it said the Head of State had sent his special squad of soldiers to stop people from running. He said it was going to use juju on the soldiers so that they would also join in the race because the soldiers were nothing short of disgruntled elements. “Why would the Head of State stop people from running?” I asked. The four-part demon gave me a queer look asking if I was born in the Country or elsewhere. I assured it of my citizenship and it said, “Well, since it looks like stupidity is your middle name, I dare to let you know that the Head of State would have no one to rule when everyone runs away.”
“Yes o,” I agreed with it.
The commotion in the air was even worse. Wizards, witches, half-formed humans and even the unborn collided in the flight to the messiah. An old witch tired of flying came down for a rest and told me that the Head of State was wasting his time.
“As a matter of fact,” she winked at me, flashing a gold-toothed smile, “all his medicine people are here with us.”
“So what is all this about?”
“Were you born today?” she asked, then not waiting for a reply said she wanted what other people wanted – food and freedom, employment and equality, light and justice. Suddenly she began to laugh, “ And I, I want more souls of course. I hear that in distant lands people want more darkness than light.”
More people surged forward. I saw a newborn baby crawling towards the sea and I thought I ought to save the baby. But then, Ayele breezed past. Ayele had jilted me months ago because she could not spend her life in penury counting kobos. She breezed past like a ghost. At that point, I thought I was done for. It must be the rapture. The rapture was no longer at hand, it was here, and if Ayele could make it so should I. I began to run, but realized my legs were not moving. A bird manifested from nowhere and took me on its wings. It was also trying to make a run for the messiah. However, by the time we got to the sea, it was way too late. We beheld the worst mayhem in the history of Time. Many had become dead tales, suspended forever in the midair of hope and realization. The awesome ship was just sailing away. It bore the inscription: The Messiah. Second coming of the Slave Ship.
Then I woke up.
And although I was thankful that it was just a dream, I felt a part of me may never get out of that dream. It was as if I had died and witnessed my own funeral. As I stepped out of my one-room crib into the early morning madness, I wondered if I ought to get a wreath for my soul – or my Country.