Strange how things are on the other side of death. This strangeness, perhaps coupled with my inadequacies, makes this experience utterly indescribable. I fear I am incapable of describing this experience to you because I do not know the words to. One simply has to die to understand the perpetually enigmatic phenomenon called death.
I certainly did not wake up in heaven as I had anticipated – for I am certainly not bound for hell even though I am not a saint but instead, I woke up in this huge, seemingly infinite universe of darkness. I could sense nothing except that everything was hollow as if I were in a black hole. I have, by some strange circumstances, been bundled into this jungle of silent confusion. I could discern nothing except being self conscious but even then, I could not remember my name. My mind was as bland as a blank slate. The blandness frightened me to the point of screaming. I screamed. A terrible scream that only echoed in the walls of my cadaver, where it whipped itself into silence; a deep, hollow, silence. The only assumption I could make then was that my mind and my body were no longer the same entity; they were quite distinct from each other. That much I assumed before I lost my consciousness again.
Then it came back once more, my consciousness. The first thing I discerned then was not the light of the angels for I could see nothing nor was it the heavenly melody of their songs for I could hear nothing as well. Instead, I perceived a smell; a distinct smell, a powerful, dominating smell, a smell I knew so well – when I was alive. But it took me a quarter of eternity to recognise the familiar smell of antiseptic in the air. I inhaled this…air and then it happened. I realised that my body and soul now appeared to be one but I struggled to find my mind. It came, like a thunderbolt out of the blues. It came when I felt the pain; pain all over my body, as if I had been thoroughly mangled by a ferocious beast. Then I heard footsteps, tired, irregular footsteps as if from outside my world. Then I realised that this could not be heaven. Heaven could not smell so awful.
Then she started humming a heavenly melody. Even in my presumed death, in a realm I was yet to understand, Faulata’s voice was quite distinct. She was humming a poignant tune; a tune that did magic to my mind. It ignited my memory because I challenged my mind to show me her face as I could not open my eyes. It was as if I were falling into an abyss, hollow and dark, with still pictures gliding about in the blandness, pictures of my life. I caught glances of them on my way down while my frightened scream echoed uselessly on the invisible walls. I saw her angelic face with her divinely toned skin, large, almond eyes; dark, like pools in which I would not mind spending eternity. Her brows were thin like upturned crescents and her beautiful eyes were framed by generous lashes that cast shadows across her face. Her nose was straight and pointed with a little loop passed through her nostril. Her lips were small but yet full, darkened slightly by nature.
And then I saw a picture of my mother, Ummi and I in the back seat of a small sedan with two other fat women. I remembered the stifling heat that pinched like soldier ants biting me; I remembered feeling like a sardine crammed into a can. I remembered Ummi’s reassuring smile and then the accident; the screeching tyres, the crash of metal against the hard asphalt, the shattering glasses, and the frightened screams, and then blackout.
And then I saw a picture of men in black. I felt their hands on me, strong, male hands, searching my body while I lay soaked in my own blood. Their rough hands ran riots on my body, touching me in all conceivable places almost lubriciously. They found what they were looking for – my wallet.
One of them said, “Oga, see. This one too don die.” As if removing my money from me settled the matter of my being alive or not.
The Oga’s voice was raucous. “How much you fin’ for ‘im body?”
The first man said, “Four thousand naira, sir.”
The oga said, “These ones se’f, them no carry plenty money. Oya, put ‘im body with the others but hide the money before people come.”
A third one said, “God o! This accident bad, eh, see how every body just die. Chei!”
The oga said angrily, “Shut up, corporal, if them no die you go fit get this kin’ money wey you dey get just like that? Na this kin’ thing we dey pray for, no be say na we kill them.”
I recalled that Ummi had been in the car with me. Had she died too, I wondered.
I caught glance of a picture of the men in black lifting me like a sack of rubbish to God-knows-where and I muttered barely audibly, “Ummi, Ummi!”
The officers dropped me roughly on the ground and screamed in excitement, “Oga, this one never die o!”
The assumption that Ummi was dead rather than the manhandling was, as I had thought, my coup de grace. Gradually, I faded into darkness – the final curtain fall of my short, tragic life.
Suddenly I felt myself crashing into the bottom of the abyss. I bounced off like a ball and struck down again with a thump. I felt hands holding me down and I struggled to breathe. It was indeed a long fall. And then I heard her voice, “It’s okay now, it’s okay.”
I laid back. Try as I did, I could not open my eyes. Every inch of me ached, from head to toe. After a while I found my voice, “Faulata, where am I?” It was barely a whisper.
Her voice was emotion laden when she spoke, “You are in the hospital, Salim.”
“And what about Ummi?”
Silence answered me.
So, I was not dead as I had thought. Well, maybe physically I was not but otherwise I was through for sure. My whole life as I had known it had been shattered. Abba, my father, had been dead for long; my elder brother, Kabir, passed on just over a year before and now Ummi. All I had left was Jamila, my teenage sister. My other two female siblings were married.
As for Faulata, our impending wedding was put on hold. Ummi and I had been travelling to inform my grandparents about the wedding due after my graduation when the accident happened. I had two fractures on right leg, one on my left arm and three more on my ribs. But the worst damage was to my eyes, which have been rendered blind.
That was how I lost everything – my dreams of graduating and becoming a medical doctor with just about two months to graduation after seven years in medical school; my future, to have been shared with my love, Faulata. We were supposed to have been happily married and live happily ever after. Everything was blown away, like desert dunes, in a twinkle of an eye.
My body healed in the hospital but my mind laid siege at the gates of heaven, pleading for admission. There was nothing more to live for. My mind and body were heading in two different directions while Faulata struggled to keep both together. She was the only thing that adamantly pinned me to this wretched earth.
“You are not dead, Salim,” she would sob. “You cannot leave me here.”
Her plight was understandable of course; a woman losing her love could evoke the greatest sympathy anyone could imagine. She made me feel guilty and I wished I could put an immediate end to her nightmare – our nightmare. I could not imagine her marrying the monster I have become. How I wished I had just died and saved her and myself all the agony. But I did not and Faulata and her seemingly undying love forced upon my reluctant mind a reason to live. I had to recall my mind from the gates of heaven back to this….this cruel world but my rebellious mind was not pacified. It still longed for the divine call.
The flow of sympathy overflowed into my discharge from the hospital two months after the accident and my returning mind abhorred that. Relatives, friends and course mates just refused to stop coming with condolences, which instead of strengthening me, served only to make me feel hopeless and helpless. All those who could not make it to the hospital came to the house. Some, I believe, came just to see for themselves how really ugly poor, blind Salim had become. They would inspect me as if I were a lab rat, some sort of experimental guinea pig to observe for changes. Some came at early dawn, some in the mornings. By lunch time, the whole house would have been filled and some of them would deliberately stumble into my siesta, which was the only time I pretend to sleep. By night, I was left alone with my insomnia.
I had this phobia for eating before people, strangers or not. I had this feeling that they would be looking at me, shaking their heads in pity. I hated to be pitied. I would rather have them laugh at me. But each time I imagined them laughing at me, I would get angry and fume. Besides, my pride would not have me eating before them because the exercise was tasking. I had to feel the food, like a child learning how to eat. And so when there were guests around, which was always, I would refuse to eat and Faulata, my darling Faulata, would spoon-feed me, coercing as only she could have done.
Visiting the toilet was something else. I needed a guide to even shit. Often, I would miss the pit and deposit the whole thing by the side and Saint Faulata would have to wash it. She did everything diligently. She would come in the mornings before leaving for school and my house was her first stop on her return. I wondered how she coped with her project and her impending final exams barely a month away. With the gradual passage of time, I began to forget to love Faulata like I used to, instead, I relied almost entirely on her. Jamila, my young sister, had better things to do than to attend to me. Once she got back from school, she would change out of her uniform to start entertaining her numerous array of boyfriends. She got over the tragedy rather too fast and for her it was ‘life goes on’.
I woke up one morning and came out of my room. Even with my walking cane I was still stumbling over buckets and stools left out of place by the careless Jamila. I was in a hurry to go to the toilet. Then I heard someone giggling. I said, “Jamila, why are you laughing?”
It was not Jamila but her friend, Saratu. She said, amidst laughter, “You are wearing your trousers inside out.” And she cackled, very much like a hen.
Seething with anger I said, “Bitch!”
It vexed me to have a girl as young as her laughing at my misfortune. In frustration, I continued my march, determined to spite her in a way I did not quite know how. I failed woefully for I stumbled over a bucket of water, made a dramatic fall and crashed on my scarred face. It was not the pain but rather the cackling laughter of the accursed Saratu that stung my heart. I could still hear that laughter. It rang through the air, whipping my pride like whips of lightening. She laughed her heart out and laughed her way out of the house, calling people to come and see.
I was so angry I did not move until people rushed in. Seeing me sprawled on the ground like an evicted rat provoked laughter from the young ones while the older ones spanked their butts and chased them out and then they came to help me up. My anger blinded my heart as well and I lashed out. I caught someone below the cheek with my backhand and he yelped in shock.
One man said, “Salim, we want to help you, eh?”
They tried again and I kicked out ferociously. “Leave me alone!” I screamed.
Another person said, “What is wrong with this stupid boy?”
An elderly voice said, “You don’t understand.”
“We don’t want to understand,” said the second. “We were only trying to help him and he’s just hitting at us.”
Some of them left in anger. Others stayed behind, pleading with me to get up. I remained there until my anger forced tears out of my damaged eyes. All the women in the neighbourhood came out to plead with me. I remained there, unmindful of their pleas. Instead, I thought of my mother and wept more. I thought of her for a long time. Then Jamila started wailing. She wailed inconsolably for a long time while I laid on the warm, sun baked cement.
Then Saint Faulata came. She said, “Who did this?”
And the women told her. She knelt by me and touched me gently. Her touch felt like magic. She lowered her head to my ear and whispered, “Salim, I am here now, you can get up, my love. Everything will be okay, by Allah’s will, I promise.”
She led me to the room and cleaned the caked blood from my bruises and treated it while everyone watched in awe. Then she said, “Wait here, I will be right back.”
She took war to the accursed Saratu’s house. They said she fought ferociously, like a lioness and that she meant to kill the stupid girl but for the people’s intervention. They rescued Saratu from her glorious claws but Faulata was not done. She pranced in front of the house calling for Saratu just like Achilles had done before the walls of Troy, demanding for Hector. But they hid Saratu and Faulata fetched some petrol and poured it on the house. She was about setting it ablaze when they seized her. She struggled fiercely and wept because they would not let her burn down the house.
Later, Saratu’s parents came to apologise. Neither I nor Faulata said a word to them. Then the elders came and delivered a long, boring lecture about forgiveness and reconciliation and to get rid of them, I said it was over. So, Saratu kept her distance.
But this rather unpleasant episode made me to start asking questions a good Muslim should not. I asked, in my mind, why did this happen to me? Why should my mother die? Why must I go blind in my final year when my life should just be beginning? Why, why, why? I sought answers and could not find any to satisfy me so I grew angry. I began to blame everyone for my predicament. I blamed the driver of the vehicle for driving the way he did; I blamed the car for allowing itself to fall into that accident, I blamed the government for everything in general and nothing in particular, I blamed the police for robbing even the dead, I blamed my long dead father for having died since, I blamed Jamila and her friend, the accursed Saratu, I blamed Faulata, on whose instance we have been travelling. When I finished blaming everyone I could think of, I started blaming God. It was his fault since he decreed everything as we have been taught. I lost faith and stopped praying.
A friend of mine tried explaining things to me. He meant no harm really but I took offence. He called me a “kafir” and I called him an “accursed son of a bitch.” He got really angry and left.
Faulata was not pleased with me. She said, “Stop looking like a soon-to-erupt volcano.”
And I cursed her. She wept.
I cursed Jamila for a reason too trivial to remember; “You stupid, fat, ugly bitch!” I shouted so loud that the neighbours heard. Jamila cried all day.
I cursed everyone I could think of but my boldness fell short of cursing God Himself. I just could not bring my self to do it and so I looked elsewhere for something else upon which to vent my anger. I cursed everything in the house; the bed that cried in protest each time I set my angry mass on it, the door that hissed each time I opened it, the chairs that seemed to cringe each time I sat on them. I cursed the mosquitoes that buzzed in my ear, the flies that perched on my skin and even the cock that crowed at dawn. I cursed Sinnoor, my cat, which kept me company when everyone else had fled my scorching tongue. “You hairy, creepy, slimy, good for nothing son of a bitch!” I shouted, seized it by the scruff and hauled it against the wall. It yelped and scuttled out. I once cursed my food and threw it away. I could not tell if I looked like a soon-to-erupt volcano but I knew I certainly felt like one. The lava of rage boiled in me and I hated life, the whole of it.
We had a big row with Faulata. She had bought me an admission form into the school of the blind. She was just trying to be of help, to repay a favour. I had struggled tooth and nail to help her secure admission into the university from which she was about to graduate and she was just trying to do the same for me but my revolting mind did not want to understand.
I said, “Oh, so you want me to go the accursed school of the blind so that every son of a bitch could laugh at me, eh?!”
She said, “Oh, Salim, my Salim, what has come over you? You curse so much and you won’t even pray for God’s sake…”
“Pray? Why should I pray, eh? Where was God when all these happened, eh? And like hell, don’t tell me I curse, I curse when I like. I curse any son of a bitch I like!”
She said, “There is a purpose in everything.”
I laughed mirthlessly. “Of course! And what the hell is the purpose in having me blinded, eh?”
“You shouldn’t question God like that.”
“Says who? I shall question whosoever I wish. Bloody school of the blind! I was on my way to being a medical doctor, just one damned month to go and bang, just like that, this bloody thing happened and now you want me to go the school of the blind of all places!”
She said, “I am just trying to be of help, my…”
“Damn you, who needs your help!”
“Oh, you are such a fool!”
“Who the hell is the fool, eh? Wait until I get my bloody hands on you; I will beat the bloody devil out of you!”
“Go ahead, superman, beat me up.” And she broke down and wept. She wept so much that it touched my heart. Her tears, like rain, set upon the wild fire of anger raging in my heart and extinguished it. I felt guilty and ashamed of myself. My guilt then transformed into confusion because I did not know how to pacify my personal saint, my Faulata and so I watched her, helpless and confused, while she wept for a long time.
Finally, I summoned the courage to say, “I am sorry, Faulata.”
She wiped away her tears and sniffed. “You know I love you, Salim.”
My heart sank further in the ocean of guilt.
“I know how you feel,” she went on, “I can imagine how painful this thing is. I share your pain just as I shared your happiness, your joy and your dreams because your dreams are mine too just as your pain is mine, you know that, Salim. But this thing…I suppose it was destined to happen and besides, there is nothing we can do about it now. We can’t waste forever crying over it.”
After the biggest argument of our lives, Faulata left and it seemed she took away all that anger I felt inside and cast it by the roadside dump, never to bring it back. I was now overwhelmed by guilt; guilt for questioning God, guilt for not accepting my fate, guilt for having caused my Faulata so much pain. With my guilt came submission – servile submission, I might add for I felt God had abandoned me for my insubordination and my daring to question His wisdom. I surrendered myself to fate and I felt utterly helpless.
From sunrise to sunset I would sit by the window listening to the children playing outside while I reminisced my own happy childhood. I missed playing football bare-footed in the dust or hopping in the savannah grassland in pursuit of grasshoppers or dancing in the rains, praying to God to send down more rains and fried fishes from heaven. I missed chalo! – our inter-street, childhood wars, fought with maize stalks and dust bombs.
I missed The Whispering Trees, the woods down hill where we took refuge to flee our mothers’ whips when we were guilty of one mischief or the other, which was quite often. We would play hide and seek there and build a tent and imagined we were explorers from another world. We grew up in those trees. But the romance came to an abrupt end when Hamza, one of my childhood friends, fell into a shallow spring in the woods and died. It was rumoured that there were Iskokai in the trees that made them whisper. It was said that the spirits took Hamza and sucked his blood and I agreed because the spring was incredibly shallow for anyone to drown in. So, everyone stayed away from The Whispering Trees ever since.
It was in those days that I realised how I had taken everything for granted. My health for instance, it came so naturally I never thought there was anything to it; my mother, who had always been there that I hardly noticed how important she was and how fortunate I was to have her; my dreams, my hopes, which I assumed came so naturally with my potential; even my sight, my vision, I never thought how fortunate I was not have been born blind like so many other people who were no less human than I. How I now miss all those things, things for which I have never once deliberately said, ‘Thank you, God’ because I had taken them for granted.
In my depression, Faulata was the only person who understood what I was going through. Jamila, when she was not too busy with her bevy of boyfriends, spared a minute to think of me as the lousy, pissed off, wet blanket she just had to live with.
An uncle of mine came and said, “This boy has gone nuts. Maybe we should take him to the psychiatrist.”
His big mouthed wife said, “See, malam, he is downcast. Maybe he wants to start begging for alms by the roadside. That would fetch him some money, you know.”
I would sit with my cat, Sinnoor while Faulata did my laundry. She would iron my clothes, do the dishes and sweep the house. Faulata cooked my meals. Saint Faulata fed me, Saint Faulata sang my lullaby, Saint Faulata did everything. It was difficult to imagine what life would have been like then without her. I do not know how she coped with her academics, for at that moment, she was writing her final exams but somehow, she managed to do everything all at once.
The image of a blind man in the north is that of a dirty, unkempt old man, holding his walking stick in his left hand with his right hand outstretched, begging for alms by the roadside, singing songs even he, sometimes, does not understand. I could not bring myself to imagine myself like that. I did not want to be like that. So, one day, I mustered courage and said, “Faulata, maybe I should go to…that school.”
She dropped the dishes in her hand and came over and hugged me. She heaved a sigh of relief and began to sob.
The rains came and went. The grasses grew lush green and faded into a pale, hungry brown. I could hear the dry, cold harmattan winds blowing through the hungry savannah grass. The weather now grew unpleasantly chilly. Everything was cold – including my heart. Faulata was gone. She had been posted to Ilorin for her mandatory, one year, National Youth Service after obtaining her university degree. I was happy for her but I felt sad because I should have been a graduate by then. So, my life, once more, was a gloomy mess.
There were periods of sunshine of course, when Faulata came back by the weekends just to see me. She would come every weekend without fail despite calling every week day. I tried not to miss her much but found that impossible. My only solace was in throwing myself whole-heartedly into my studies. I learnt well and I learnt fast. I learnt the Braille and surprisingly discovered a universe of books for people just like me. I learnt cane-weaving and was becoming good at it. I weaved a basket for Faulata and God! How she loved it. I weaved a bag for Jamila and she was delighted. When she served me my dinner that night, as she had been doing since Faulata left, there was an unusual bustle about her.
I was rediscovering life and the process was exciting. I manage to navigate myself around the neighbourhood with some success. I rediscovered a whole new world of numbers and was as excited as Columbus must have been when he stumbled upon America; the mathematics thrilled me. I knew exactly how many paces would get me to the street from where I would board a motorcycle to school; I knew the paces to the toilet, to the living room, to the kitchen, where I kept Jamila company while she cooked. I went for walks, I visited friends but sometimes, I would just sit under the big mango tree outside and listen to the children playing in the open fields.
Faulata got too busy in Ilorin that she could no longer call every day. One day, she called and said she could not come over by the weekend because she had some work to do. I had, in fact, been pleading with her not to bother too much about me but for some reason I had been looking forward to seeing her that weekend, to show her all these wonderful things I had woven for her. I swallowed my disappointment and assured her that I understood.
Next weekend she came but was in too much of a hurry that she could only stay but an hour. She sounded rather nervous and disorganised. I thought it was the stress. I told her I was getting the hang of the thing and she need not come every weekend.
She said, “Oh no, Salim, I am just stressed out right now but I will be fine. Coming is not the problem really.”
Next weekend, Faulata did not come neither did she call. I was so worried I called her and she said she was just too busy and I said it was okay. The episode continued for a couple of months and I managed as best I could.
The next time she came, she had something important to say. She was restless and uncomfortable. She said, “I … am getting married, Salim.”
I felt the stab in my heart and blood started gushing out, soaking my skin, my shirt and then trickling down to the floor where it collected into a pool. I gasped.
She was still talking, “…I know it will hurt you but I thought I should…tell you…personally. I am really sorry…”
For the second time in my life, I died.
I cannot explain how I felt then but I knew that my mind felt deprived. It climbed up to the gates of heaven once more, seeking admittance, pleading, begging, weeping and coercing. It did everything to gain admittance without success, so, it lodged outside the gates just waiting and hoping. My body longed for a reunion with my mind – not here though, on this cruel earth but up there so much so that I became oblivious of my daily necessities such as eating and sleeping. Time became of no essence as I lost track of it. I lost track of everything as my mind became enshrouded in a blanket of agony. People came and left and I was never aware that they had come in the first instance.
Faulata had pinned me to this world when I had wanted to die and just when I was coming to terms with my new fate, she broke my heart into a million fragments. I longed for death. I longed for freedom – freedom from pain, from anguish, freedom from this world but death abandoned me in my hour of need and nothing, no one, could set me free. Perhaps the only thing that reminded me of life was Jamila’s constant plea by my bedside. She would talk and weep until blessed sleep stole her away.
My uncles came and bathed me with herbs – my first bath in nearly a month. They smoked me with all sorts of ritual herbs so much that they smoked every miserable insect in the room dead and still I did not flinch. They concluded that it must have been Iblees, the devil himself, who had taken possession of my soul. Then they came with a renowned exorcist, whom they called Malam Nagari to exorcise the great Iblees. The malam had me seated on a sheepskin and drenched me with a pungent smelling perfume. Then he proceeded to recite the Holy Qur’an over my head. At first he sounded aggressive, harsh and frightening but fatigue crept in and slowed his tempo before driving him out of breath and still, I did not flinch.
By evening he came again with spiritual incense and lit them all around me. He began his recitation once more until he ran out of steam. He said, “This devil is indeed obstinate.”
His apprentice then took over. His recitation was more subtle, more pleasant and more poignant. It reached out to my mind at the gates of heaven and subdued it but as I was not possessed by any devil, my mind was not convinced to return.
From somewhere beyond my realm, beyond the gate, I thought I heard a voice, a familiar voice, calling my name. I listened and behold I thought I heard my mother’s voice. She said, “My son, your life may be full of tribulations but it is not yet a tragedy unless you make it one. Every man may stumble and fall while walking but not all men have the courage to rise again and face the challenge ahead. You might fall once or twice but the tragedy is in your never rising again. Rise now, my son.”
The apprentice continued his beautiful recitation into the night until my body, ravaged by hunger and my breath, choked by all the perfume and incense, gave way. I slumped to the ground.
The crowd shouted, “Allahu Akbar!”
Three days later, I was discharged from the hospital. My rebellious mind had reluctantly returned to my body and strangely, I began to see. I saw with my mind’s eyes. I saw images I could not discern, they were like blurred, glowing lights that moved about. Nothing made sense, so I said nothing. I ate my meals quietly and would sit under the mango tree outside. I no longer heard the children’s voices because someone had decided to build a shopping mall on their playground. The plot next to my house, previously populated by grasses and trees, was also attacked by men armed with a chain saw. I heard the trees screaming in agony as they cut them down. Each time they fell one, the children would scream in delight, drowning out the tree’s death throes. Tears streamed down my eyes. I could bear the pain no longer so I decided to go home.
In the living room, I saw those glowing-light images once more with my mind’s eyes; two images on the sofa. Though everything was queer but I thought one of the images was rather peculiar. It looked like two images doubled in one, one big, the other, very tiny. The second image was rather familiar.
I called, “Jamila.”
Jamila was taken aback by my first words in a very long time. I went on, “Jamila, who is sitting next to you?”
The image I perceived as Jamila fretted and I could sense she was nervous.
“Who is the strange person next to you?”
She said timidly, “It is…Saratu.”
Ah, the accursed Saratu! That was my first encounter with her since Faulata trounced her.
“Saratu?” I said, “what is wrong with Saratu?”
The girls looked at each other in alarm.
I said, “Don’t look at yourselves like that, I know there is something wrong with her.”
Jamila rose and came towards me, peering into my eyes. “Can you…see?”
I could not but I knew something was not right and I just could not say what immediately. Instead I said, “Why are you double, Saratu?”
She said, “Double, how?” She was alarmed, of course.
My mind saw the image of Sinnoor, the cat, crouching in a corner of the room. I went and picked it up and then settled myself on the couch while the ladies stared at me in awe.
Jamila said, “Oh my God! Salim, you can see!”
I said, “Oh, how stupid I am! Of course, you are pregnant, aren’t you, Saratu?”
She was pregnant. A scandal, of course, since she was still not married. The fact that she was pregnant was known only to her and to Jamila but how did I know? I did not understand anything anymore – trees wailing, people floating about like lights. Everything seemed crazy. I thought I was going insane.
That night, I had a dream. Two strange men came and guided me to The Whispering Trees and then the first said, “Sometimes you see better with your eyes closed.”
The other said, “Sometimes you don’t need your eyes to see.”
The first said, “Listen and listen well.”
“Listen to your heart.”
“Listen with your heart.”
“Listen more to things than to words that are said.”
And then the trees came alive and wanted to eat me. I screamed and woke up.
Jamila rushed into my room. “Salim, are you okay, Salim, what is wrong?”
My mind stared at her. How clearly I could see her. Her light glowed; a strange white light. I could see the outline of her face. I had almost forgotten what she looked like. She had grown into a fine, young woman; no more the pimply teenager I had known. But there, where her heart should be, was a bluish tint. It was fading by the minute. I listened to my heart and it told me it was fear. She had been frightened by my scream.
I said, “Jamila, I am sorry I called you a stupid, fat, ugly bitch. I now see how wrong I was. You have grown into such a beautiful, young woman. Ummi would have been proud of you. I am sorry.”
She wept in my arms. Women are strange, no doubt. When I had said she was ugly she had cried and now that I said she was beautiful, she cried still. But at that moment, I realised how much I have missed my sister.
Thereafter, my mind’s eyes grew sharper. I did not see things but I saw their souls; human souls, goats souls, chicken souls. I was amazed to discover that even mosquitoes have souls too. The souls glowed like mild, white lights. And then I discerned that there were good and bad souls, the bad ones being in the majority. I recognised each by its unique tint. I discovered how deceptive and hypocritical people were. I saw their faces, looking so innocent but their souls where so bad and mean.
I listened to my mind and could tell how people felt by the colour tint over their hearts. Most had a crimson hue over their hearts because they were so full of anger – anger because they felt oppressed and cheated by the greedy politicians and their stooges. If the police could pray for accidents and rob the dead, what else could one expect? The fat politicians made it worst. They came with their darkened souls and spat rubbish about piety and good governance and then farted corruption’s fetid air. The hypocrisy was stark naked.
I spent three days exploring my rediscovered life. I saw things from a unique perspective that gave me an in-depth insight into things people ordinarily would not see. I saw goodness in unexpected places and I saw evil masked in goodness. I took a new interest in people or rather their souls. I would go out to the market, the junctions, the arenas; I would go everywhere people gathered just to look at their souls. What I saw troubled me. I grew tired and disenchanted and so started walking off, feeling the road with my cane as I could not see the stones because they have no souls. I kept walking until I went down hill and before long I was standing just outside The Whispering Trees, the woods of spirits. I have not been there since Hamza’s death. I turned to go but froze. Strangely, the woods appealed to me so strongly that even the recollection of my recent nightmare could not counter it. Instead, my mind raced through all those memorable childhood days. I made up my mind and plunged in.
The first thing that caught my attention was the heavenly melody. There must have been a thousand birds and countless insects weaving their sublime melodies into the mysterious whispers of the trees. It was an orchestra so out of this world that for a long time I stood, lost and bewildered. And then gathering my thoughts about me, I perceived an indescribable sight. I saw a bevy of souls as I have never imagined. Birds, praying mantis and all these wonderful insects were about their business on or about the trees and down below, I could see the souls of ants, creepers and crawlers on the ground. Butterflies drifted between the tree trunks, dancing and bursting into incandescent colours, sapphire lights glinting off their wings. The souls of the trees were so pure and homely without a hint of evil about them. All these souls, so pure, so clean, so many and not one stained by anger, malice or envy. No treachery, no guilt but innocence and I began then to question man’s moral justification to lord over all these beautiful, innocent souls. The contrast from the world I came from was so vivid and somehow, I felt at home among all those pure souls. I felt safe and relaxed. I found a fallen tree trunk and sat on it. The spirit of The Whispering Trees absorbed my soul and at last, I found such peace as I have never known and quickly forgot time.
And much later, a gentle breeze wafted through the trees leaves and made them rustle. It was as if they were whispering words meant for their ears alone and one could so easily feel the sense of expectancy, knowing something was about to happen but not knowing what it was. I waited a long time and then I saw it. It was the soul of a young boy, just about fifteen. As it came towards me I could discern that it was different because it was not white like all the others but rather an emerald green. I hardly had time to marvel over the strangeness of that soul when I recognised it. It was Hamza, my childhood friend, who had perished in The Whispering Trees some twelve years ago. He approached me, not betraying any sign that he had recognised me. My shock paralysed me and I could not move.
He said, “You have returned at last. I was afraid you might never come.” He sat down beside me on the tree trunk.
I said at last, “Hamza, is this really you?”
I rose. “But this can’t be. You are dead. You died twelve years ago. I saw you!”
He said, “Has it been twelve years already?” He shrugged and then looked at me and I saw that his eyes were hollow. “You look all so grown up, Salim, what happened to you?”
“I had an accident,” I managed to say.
“I am sorry to hear that.”
“But…what happened to you? I mean…you died, down there, in the stream.”
He sighed. “You remember the day we came here, all of us with Tanimu, Audu, Bala, you know…all of us. You remember I had taken my mother’s wrist watch and that was why we had come here, to hide…”
I remembered. I could still see that watch in my mind; a beautiful wrist watch coated in gold. His mother had always treasured it because it had been a gift from her husband. It was the last thing he had given her before he died in an armed robbery attack. Hamza took it to show off and we ran all the way to The Whispering Trees in excitement. We examined it as it glistened in the sun. Then we got tired of it and decided to play hide and seek. Hamza had put on the watch. I made the call and they all ran to hide. He and Tanimu ran towards the stream and hid but while hiding, Tanimu had demanded to see the watch once more and Hamza had refused. They struggled and Tanimu had tripped him and he fell over. Tanimu had tried to hold on to him but his hand was clasped over the watch and it came off. Hamza rolled over on his neck and landed, face down in the stream, breaking his neck in the process.
“…when Tanimu saw that I had died already, he panicked and fled,” Hamza concluded.
I remembered that when we found Hamza dead, Tanimu was no where to be seen and none of us thought anything of it because we were overcome by the tragedy and the rumour that Hamza had been killed by the spirits of The Whispering Trees.
Everything changed. Our little group broke up and we were forced to grow up. We could hardly look into each others eyes. Tanimu was worse off for he seemed to have lost his mind. He looked miserable and none of us seemed to be able to get through to him even though we rarely tried. He merely drifted along with life and to us, he grew into a stranger.
We talked some more until he rose and said, “I must leave now. Now that you are here, I can leave. But see how beautiful this place is, see how pure and full of life and yet someday, the living will come and destroy everything.” He started off. “Man destroys that which he claims to love.”
I did not know what to say.
“You know, Salim,” he said again, “if you had been a doctor you could only have treated the ailments of the body but now you can treat ailments of the soul. You can understand that which most men do not understand. I go now, my friend.” He waved me goodbye and I watched the final curtain fall on his short life.
Tears streamed down my eyes and I was amazed at how easily he seemed to have accepted his fate. In a way, I think, he seemed glad that his death had helped protect The Whispering Trees by mystifying it. Men feared the spirits and stayed away, beauty and innocence thrived. But for twelve, long years, Hamza had lingered in those woods, waiting for someone to bear his message and it was such a message that I took to Tanimu.
His soul was in such turmoil that I immediately felt sorry for him. His heart was framed by the yellow hue of guilt – the guilt he had lived with for the last twelve years. I gave him Hamza’s message. That he should not feel guilty for it had been an accident. His intention was not to harm him but nature had played a trick on all. I told him that Hamza does not hold him responsible and that he had forgiven him.
Deeply moved as he was, Tanimu was sceptical. “How can the dead speak?” He queried.
I said to him, “He also told me to ask you to please give back the watch you keep in your ceiling, the one you had taken from him. He says his mother would want to have it back.”
He gave back the watch and freed his mind. He became a new man. But the joy of Hamza’s mother upon receiving the watch was such that I cannot describe. Finally, it seemed, she had overcome the loss of her husband and her son.
The elation I felt at seeing all these troubled souls liberated remains the most magnificent feeling I have ever felt. To see people in anguish and at least, give them comfort, to free minds bound by desire, anger or guilt, to guide souls that are lost to their destinies, to reconcile souls alienated by misunderstandings – that is my life, that is my purpose; that is what gives me joy.
I rediscovered my purpose in life; I rediscovered life in serving and I discovered heavenly peace in The Whispering Trees where I spend hours listening to the melodies of nature and to the dead, who come once in a while, seeking to reach out to loved ones before taking their final leave.
I lost my sight to find my vision, I lost my life to find my soul and I lost my vanity to find my purpose. And now, sitting here, in The Whispering Trees, amidst all these beauty and innocent souls, listening to this heavenly orchestra, I realise that happiness is not getting what you want but wanting what you’ve got. I AM ALIVE AND HAPPY.