The curtains reeled in the breeze. A stormy night it was. The silent thunder kept me half asleep. It terrified me because I heard no sound but imagined that the next thing to follow would be the bangs of thunder on my door. I heard the screams from next door. I could recognize that distinct voice. Nneka’s. A tiny, wheezy voice, so unmistakable. I knew the voice even in sleep. This time there were tears breaking through, screaming for escape. It faded slowly and quietly in muffles. The footsteps pounded the floor and I feared it would come to mine.
When I moved into Divine hostel three months ago, I was warned. Not before I packed my luggage. But immediately after unpacking. The erstwhile tenant who vacated the room for me, came back to remove her ceiling fan. She was clad in pity and when she looked upon me, it seemed for a moment that she saw death chasing me. Pale eyes looked and shifted her gaze from me to the ceiling, hissed, then began unscrewing the fan. I could not understand her emotions. Was it nostalgia or mere cruelty? The day I paid for the room, the caretaker, a stubby, middle aged man told me I was lucky to have the room. He said many people showed interest but the landlord was only at peace with me. He said my spirit was like ice that chilled the hardness on his resolve to not rent the room out so soon. He said the last tenant was troublesome and owed him three months’ rent. That was one side of the rumour. The other side of the rumour revealed the tenant was the caretaker’s girlfriend and that they had a fall out. There were different shades of the truth or lie and frankly I did not think it important to investigate. But having this much talked about tenant stare quizzically raised some curiosity in me. Why are you looking at me this way? I had asked. She shook her head and said nothing. So nothing it was. She turned her back on me. And then I saw it. Her collar. The cream collar had blood streaks on it. Tiny bruises decorated her neck like twinkled stars. Did she not feel the moistness or the pain, at least? I wanted to bring it to her attention but decided against it. I had to mind my own business. She finished with the fan and before she left, bade me good luck.
My neighbours were amiable especially Nneka and her boyfriend, Ifeanyi. They welcomed me with a variety of dishes and drinks. Ifeanyi fixed my television, fan and painted my room. I often caught him staring at my wide hips. But it wasn’t a big deal to me because Nneka was prettier than I was. I had curves and she had the face. And I was used to clandestine eyes following my every sway. After a month of moving in, I noticed the streaks of blood that sometimes trickled down Nneka’s nape, just the way it did with the erstwhile tenant. I could have reached out for a tissue. I could have asked what she had been eating or if she had been bitten by an insect or passion. But something held my hands and tongue. A week passed and the bruises on her neck disappeared. In the second month, Nneka told me she was having issues with her man and wanted to leave him. They were cohabiting. I did not ask what the issues were. I only asked how she planned on doing that. She didn’t say. I guess she was grateful for my aloofness, the fact that I didn’t want to get involved. She told me she needed my help. How? I asked out of perplexity, impulsively. She never told me. She started avoiding me. And the strangest thing happened. The more distant she became, the closer Ifeanyi became. He visited me often, offered to fix everything that needed fixing, and when I was down with fever he walked down the street at odd hours to satisfy my cravings. I didn’t speak much but I always thanked him. He never asked for anything. He was content with putting on my generator, watching movies, and reading whatever books he found lying around. Sometimes, he offered to take my classes whenever I needed to be absent. I taught in a public primary school. That was my primary assignment as a Corper. He taught in the same school as I.
One chilly morning, Nneka came into my room with a big bowl of pounded yam and nsala soup. The nsala soup was garnished with stock fish, assorted meat and catfish. She knew I never really enjoyed any meal with catfish. Matter of fact, I nursed my animosity for catfish the moment I learnt that it preys on smaller fishes for food. Nneka came in again with another bowl of pounded yam and nsala soup, garnished with assorted meat and turkey. Catfish was missing. That had to be my share then. I stood at my door wondering what necessitated the sudden renewal of friendship. I asked why. She said I was supposed to thank her instead of questioning her. I asked again. Then she gave in. She said she knew the Government had not paid my monthly allowance and since she was soon going to conclude the program, she thought she could give me a treat before leaving. That made much sense to me. I thanked her and asked why she had been avoiding me. She said nothing. I felt the urge to confess something I wasn’t sure I was guilty of. I felt the need to lay down my innocence at her feet, to tell her that even though her man had been helpful these past weeks, I had done nothing to encourage him. But then again she looked at me with that forlorn look, the same pity that the erstwhile tenant gave me. Nneka, just so you know, there is nothing going on between Ifeanyi and I. I said. I know. She replied with a sheepish grin. She told me Ifeanyi enjoyed catfish, so the catfish soup was his. She also said that Ifeanyi doubted my cooking ability, that I was just a hot girl with no brains. That is a cruel thing to say, she continued. But he likes you, you know. And since I am breaking up with him, or have broken up with him already, I think you would be the best choice for him. Tell him I won’t be back till tomorrow, that’s why I made all that. I nodded like the dumb, brainless girl. I did not hurt. Not everyone had a right to speak into my life and I had the choice to accept or disregard any remark about me. Truth is, I never cooked for him; he always cooked when he had the chance. I only made indomie noodles. There was something I did not confess to, and that was my likeness for Ifeanyi. He wielded the mind of Nneka when we were all together. He controlled her like a piece on the chessboard. The neighbours gossiped that Nneka wasn’t the only girl in his life. They said she had lost babies due to his severe beatings. I didn’t know if the gossips were true. I sometimes suspected but I never encouraged my mind to believe the worst of the person that had been so sweet to me. That’s how my brain worked. If I had the skill of flirting, I would have made him my man but as I was dumb as he rightly pointed out, I resigned to mooning over him. I did not hate him for the cruel things. No. I hated Nneka for saying those things to me. What was her motive for trying to hurt me? My stomach groaned. I took the bowls to my kitchen and turned them in different pots. Just then I heard a knock on my door. It was Nneka. She wanted me to give the spare keys to Ifeanyi. When she turned to go, I noticed the streaks of blood on her neck. This time, I wanted to ask if she was dumb enough to have not noticed the stained nape of her pink shirt. But I said nothing. A little time passed and Ifeanyi stumbled into the room, his eyes red, his breath, short gasps. And all he asked for was food and water. He instructed me to take some money from his wallet to buy pepper soup from the canteen down the street. I shook my head and told him I had made his favorite meal. The look of shock on his tired face was priceless. I didn’t just stand there to capture the moment. I hurriedly ran to the kitchen, warmed the soup and dished it out for him. I smiled smugly when he told me he did not know I could cook, after taking a few molds. I feared that I would give myself away. I needed time to prepare myself to live this lie, away from his penetrating gaze. And so I told him I was going out to get recharge cards. I went out, stayed for thirty minutes, then an hour, because the lie couldn’t stick to me.
I got back to my apartment to meet an angry mob. Their stares were hard and hateful. Hold her, don’t let her escape! And three hefty men held me. I started to cry. I could touch and smell their hatred. It hung in the air like an evil cloud, eating my intestines out. And then I saw it, saw the genesis of it all, the reason this kind community turned against me. The limp body of Ifeanyi was on the shoulders of men, his arms dangling. My heart bled, it twisted and broke and fixed itself again and fell to my feet. I saw Nneka shedding uncontrollable tears. When she sighted me, she pointed her finger furiously at me. That is the witch that never talks. The villagers nodded in agreement. I still could not wrap my head around it all. Was he comatose or dead? Why was everyone blaming me? Why was Nneka accusing me? The three hefty men pulled me down. They used so much force on me when I wasn’t even struggling. Three hyperactive women jumped out from the crowd and tore my clothes. Kill her! Burn her! The witch that never talks must die! They chanted on and on.
It is not that I hate to talk. Quite the contrary. There was a time I loved hearing the sound of my voice all the time. All that changed when I lost my molars to cavity and the brown coating on my incisors and canines refused to get bleached with lemon and soda. I was ashamed of my dentition, the hanging teeth on my gums. It was obnoxious to behold and in time past, I noticed that when I spoke, people fixed their gaze on my mouth. But when I learned to seal my mouth, their gaze followed my body. Their chants that had flashed me back brought me to the present again when I felt the tire being forced down my body. I tried to transport my soul to a different place, to forget about their call for my persecution. I began to dream of a place so peaceful and quiet, a place where everyone looked like me, with my imperfections and faults, a place so true and honest. I had surrendered my fate to these villagers, but I wouldn’t let them take the only dignity I had left. My life. I held my breath. Before I could hold it any much longer to do the damage, I heard the sirens. The policemen with their batons came to my instant rescue. They chased the villagers away and carried me into their van. One of the Policemen held me so tight that I felt his member pushing out of his trousers. Did it bother me? No. At least I was going to a place where I wouldn’t be lynched before having a proper trial. I couldn’t think much because I felt the hardness of a baton on my head. I was knocked out.
I woke up in a cell with iron bars. My bruised body lay on the concrete floor under the watchful eyes of women that had seen worse days. They cracked their knuckles and kept mumbling. I looked at myself; I was covered, at least, in a blue large gown. I tried to smile, with my lips closed in order to win their affection or pity. But I didn’t stay long enough to find out if it worked, for I was yanked out of the room by a Policewoman. I was taken to another room, a room with curtains, so many curtains, I could hardly see the wall. There was a bed. On this bed lay a stout, hairy man. His dark uniform lying askew. He beckoned to me. I shivered. What did he want from me? I snapped out of the luxury of questioning myself, only to fall into his embrace. Ssssshhhh, don’t make any noise, else I’ll throw you back into that cell. You see those girls, they can kill you. If you stay here with me, you will be safe. He cautioned me, at the same time taking off his clothes, revealing his folded fat. I nodded in exasperation. He pulled down my panties, revealing the hairs I had planned to trim earlier. He yanked off my bra with glee. I shut my eyes and the only thing I could feel was his hard thrust in and out of me and my ears breaking free from his words saying, oh my god, you are so sweet. Such profanity. He poured it all in me, after which he tapped my buttocks playfully, calling me a good girl. I sniffed and cried silently, my shoulders shuddering because I remembered my early years at the orphanage. The orphanage I ran away from because of the very same thing rescuing me from death. I felt a gentle tap on my shoulder, quite different from the hands that just finished plowing me. I turned and saw the Policeman that rescued me from the mob. He looked sympathetic. I felt I could plead with him, to save me again, this time. But his eyes said different things. He desired me. My Oga said you are the best he has had after a long time. I want the best too. He said overpowering me with his whisky breath. He said he would try to not be forceful; he would treat me as he does his wife. He started to kiss my nape, my hands, my back until he heard the banging on the door. Ojo! Hurry up, Oga wan do o! He pleaded with his eyes, as if saying it would be wrong of me to deny him the icing on the cake. Did I have a choice? He became rough, wanted to take it all in such a short time. After he left, two more came. I don’t remember much after that. I may have fainted.
The few hours I had to myself gave me time to think of how I got framed. Nneka told me I would help her get rid of Ifeanyi, she never told me how. This is definitely how. But I remember doing nothing to deserve this. I could not understand her reason. Maybe it overwhelmed my brain. I kept remembering the streaks of blood. Were they my imaginations? Were they signs that only I noticed? Did they warn me? I found no answers. I stayed in the curtained room as a prisoner. Each day, a Policeman would tell me how lucky I was to have a separate room. I became mute.
I found my tongue the day I heard Nneka’s voice real close. It came in my dreams, in Divine hostel, it came for days. It scared me. Till one morning, when thunder ripped the curtains in two and the kindest Policeman told me the good news. Investigations, he said. That girl, that girl that accused you has been caught. She is in the next room with the ogas. I knew the next room was just another room in this brothel. It was no investigation room. Oga said she is not as sweet as you. He continued. She is too straight and too wide, not as tight as you. Really? I asked him, I wanted to know more. Yes, was his abrupt reply. He left afterwards.
In the morning, I heard Nneka’s voice fade slowly into oblivion. I stopped seeing her in my dreams and one day I asked the Policeman about her. He said she was wasted. No use for Oga so we don waste am. That satisfied me. The other side of my brain, the smart one maybe, wanted to know the whole story, but the dull part wasn’t interested. I have resigned myself to my situation. Maybe one day the oga at the top will look upon me and give me a better station in life.
IMAGE: Jeff Kubina