By UZOR MAXIM UZOATU
You were coming home; you ran into a funeral. A woman was being buried, the very famous Madam Mercedes who died, you were told, in highly embarrassing circumstances. She was found naked and dead after a round of unprecedented gymnastic sex. Her lover suffered a broken neck and was hanging by a thread in the orthopaedic hospital. Even so, the sin of Madam’s death did not matter for the moment. What really mattered was one wailing voice dominating the serene midday gathering of mourners.
“Cruel death has done us bad,” bellowed Father Jerome, the parish priest, fighting back tears from under a canopy of palm leaves. “Wicked death has snatched away the pearl of our life. We are only consoled by one fact: Angels never die – they find eternal comfort in the bosom of our Father in Heaven!” He paused to scan the gathering, wiping his brow with a sparkling white kerchief. “True, she was not married,” he continued, his voice becoming quite shrill, “but she did not wear misfortune on the face. The money she would have devoted to the marriage and her children she dedicated to the service of God, the church and the poor of this earth. What could be loftier than that?”
Your dissenting voice rose sharply from the crowd. “Father Jerome, nobody says you can’t mourn your friend. But please leave God out of it!”
Quizzical looks shot back and forth in your direction. An elderly man reeking of snuff and soot nudged you and said, “Stop fighting God’s work.”
Other voices followed.
“Son of Satan!”
“Demon, what brought you here?”
“Evil son, tread softly on holy ground.”
Undeterred by the shush and the curses of the crowd, you made to say more things but Father Jerome had vaulted into a frenzy that could not be punctuated.
“Lord Jesus, receive your devoted daughter,” Father Jerome wailed, showing his outstretched hands to heaven. “The beautiful ones are always plucked away in their prime. The only joy is that Heaven belongs to the jewels of this life.”
Appalled at Father Jerome’s relentless eulogy you could not but ask yourself if this was the same Madam Mercedes everybody knew, the amorous one who seduced you with such greased and greasy ease when you had just gained admission into the university, the voluptuary who was so dominating she made men pregnant instead of getting pregnant herself. She was a paramour who lived by tickling herself, died by it and was now getting a holy and garlanded burial complete with parish priests, hallowed words, hot tears and all. Perhaps one could get the same treatment with a little more wealth, you said to yourself, swallowing bitterly.
The coffin was laid out on a golden bier atop an oak table festooned with variegated floral wreaths and garlands. Lusty gold chains crawled and slithered on the diamond-tinted casket, matching the sun’s sparkle glitter for glitter. The chains were so overwhelming in their abundance it could have been chains, and not Madam Mercedes, being buried. Looking intently at the casket, a swooning sensation swept down on you. The casket with all the festoon of flowers and chains had the shape of the map of the country. A disembodied voice whispered into your ear: “The only industry that thrives in our land is death. People die and go to Nigeria.”
Woken suddenly from your reverie you beheld good old Madam Mercedes walking about, sharing snacks at her own funeral, laughing, beckoning on you.
“Son of Devil,” she called out to you, “Opara Ekwensu, you abandoned me only to impregnate a rich man’s daughter. There’ll be no party at your funeral.”
“Kai!” you screamed, jumping away as she tried to grab you by the waist.
Without knowing it you had broken into a run. It was on wobbly legs that you got to your father’s compound. You saw a new set of dark, coarse chains girding the dark and creaky door to the aged wall. You stood fixed on the spot, staring from the chains to the wall and to the door and back again. You were still gaping when the old man appeared from the pathway to your right. The sudden appearance jolted you such that the first impression was that your father was an apparition of Madam Mercedes celebrating her own death.
As the first wave of fright receded you saw that the man had aged markedly in the fortnight you last saw him, with deep angular wrinkles cascading his brow. He wore a browning loin-cloth and held a grimy machete in his right hand.
“Some policemen were here,” the old man said with an edge of panic to his voice and then pointed to his right. “They are over there.”
Walking with a strength that did not appear to come from your body, driven by a determination that was compelling in a subtle incomprehensible way, you walked into a massive gathering of people that was quite out of place in Agogo.
Under a lush umbrella tree, a middle-aged man dug feverishly with a hoe, making an oval shape in the ground, executing self-conscious motions that exaggerated his exaction. After about a handful of minutes the digging man stood straight, threw away his hoe, looked fixedly into the hole and shook his head. The policemen moved forward, forming a shield round the knee-deep hole, as though trying to screen a horrible sight from the prying eyes of the world. You nearly swooned as you saw that the body which was exhumed from the shallow grave was that of no other than Anuoluwapo, your girlfriend. She was wrapped up with a light-blue mackintosh, and she was dead like the clump of sand falling from her hair and body.
Lemi the Pagan looked at you and pointed. Two policemen ran towards you. The shorter constable struck the first blow as you made to talk, a whacking stroke of the loose handcuffs that caught you on the cheek, nearer the eye than the mouth, and it drew blood that dropped on the ground with a distinct plop. A punch crashed on your jaw with the crack of thunder. You spat out two of your teeth and a red gob of blood as you slid down the body of the taller policeman and slumped on the hard ground. Heaven and earth came down on you, knocking the wind out of you and you lapsed into a stony unconsciousness.
The cold stab of the cement floor shot all the way up to your head like the electric tremor of a snake bite. You had come to. Slowly, with a gentleness that was meant to defeat all pain, you opened your eyes and a howling darkness stared back at you, making shutting or opening the eyes quite irrelevant. Your head vibrated with the excruciating tolls of its inside, loud knocks that hung heavily above your eyes. Lifting up your hand was like picking up a heavy object that was independent of your body; the pain of the effort was somewhat numbed, deadened by the overwhelming nature of the pain in your head. Acrid anger overpowered you and a sob escaped you and you tasted bile in the mouth and you bit your lips; contact with the gap created by your two knocked-off teeth made another sob of anguish escape you. You rolled over on your back, letting the coldness of the floor act out an equalizer for the hotness of your anger and the scorching fire of your wounds. A warm mixture of urine stench and body odour rushed into your nostrils and you trapped the breath, exhaling slowly. Your ears were now open to sounds flowing with a haunting slowness in the distance, of the chirps of insects and birds, of the flapping of tree leaves and grasses, of tapping noises and pecking echoes. Your pain rose again, and with it your anger, and all other sensations became banished. You started crawling as though distance, no matter how infinitesimal, would somehow assuage your hurts and push you into a repose in which torpor would defeat pain. You got to a wall and your anguish appeared to have multiplied. In a fit of mad, unaccountable rage, you banged your head on the wall and gravitated into fiery spasms.
“I have always been an outsider, the man at the edge.” Voice of the waking mind, utterances of the nightmare. “I weep. I cry not of the gashes on the body; the painful wounds are within. My shouts are lost in their own echoes. Who am I? Here is where?”
The dull light crawled in like a serpent, slithered some about the floor and started creeping, steadily, towards you. You stirred and your heart began to race and your fists tightened into hard knots and your eyes opened wide in fibrous, animal anticipation. All pain had gone away and in its place stood the fierce desire of the moment, the desire to master the predator coming upon the fettered beast. You made out the opening through which the light crept in was that of a door, a wooden door, and you also made out with the help of the spreading luminosity that you were in a room, an unclean room. When was the beast yanked into the room? The door creaked sharply, harshly, and your nerves tightened in fright. You waited, you stared, and you pulsated.
“Are you there?” said a soft, quivering voice.
The figure that groped in holding a sooty kerosene lamp was that of a policeman, Constable Kayode, the taller of the two who had arrested you.
“I thought he had woken,” Constable Kayode said, rather loud, to himself and held the lamp up to peer at the corner you crouched.
He knelt over you, shook his head and said, “They had no reason. I am sorry.”
You could not be sure you had seen well; you peered closely at the man’s face and you could see his eyes misting over, clouding with pricks of tears that glinted with the lamp. Try as you might you could not stop your own tears as they flowed even before the cop could open the floodgate of his. He suddenly made a wild circular motion with his hand and then assumed a surprising calmness, as if he had not talked or lifted a limb.
“Do you have a relative who is a big man?” he asked, and added, “I would like to go to him, to ask him to come save you.”
You shook your head. “I have no big man. All I have is my father and he is a poor nobody…”
“Actually it’s about your father…” Constable Kayode cut in and suddenly broke off, confused.
“What happened to my father?” Your panic was total, overwhelming.
“I had to smuggle your father into custody for his own safety.”
“Is my father dead?” you asked sharply.
“No,” the constable said with a reassuring decisiveness. “Some thugs attempted to lynch your father but he was saved by the timely appearance of Father Jerome who handed him over to me.”
You were incredulous. “You are not telling me the truth.”
“This is no time for too much talk.” His urgency was compelling. “Do you know any influential man I should contact?”
“To save you.”
“Fate, what crime have I committed?”
“We don’t have time!” Constable Kayode shrieked, turning down the wick of the lamp. “You ought to know people. But they said you were in the university?”
“I didn’t go to the university to know influential people.”
The man shook his head. “I have to do something to save you. I would have wanted to escape with you now; only it is no possible.” He paused and sighed. “But do I really need your approval to contact your fellow students? I can go to them on my own. I must tell them of the killing being done here.” He turned, walking away.
“Wait!” a voice from within you said, a compelling voice you did not know you had. “There is a young man called Durotimi. He lives in Alata-Ijebu and runs a place called People’s Awareness Centre (PAC). He was our leader in the university. Tell him I sent you.”
Your pains, within and without, returned and you sank to the floor. Constable Kayode looked at you and then beyond you, rolling some words in his mouth: “Durotimi. People’s Awareness Centre. PAC. Alata-Ijebu. The students.” He shook his head. “We shall see.” He stared at you some more and then braced himself up to walk away.
“But tell me, did they succeed in killing my father?” Your voice quivered and was hardly audible.
Constable Kayode, transfixed at the door by the question, inertly turned to look at you. For a moment he sought for words; he only found tears. Even in the dimness you saw these tears.
You lay coiled in a corner, observing the waking spell of a sleeping-waking-weeping continuum. Ever since Constable Kayode left in the small hours it had been a wearying, long-drawn-out process of nightmare-infested naps that always gave place to ghost-ridden wakeful moments in which you stared forlornly at the wasted bodies of your girlfriend and your old man, all loved ones, the sight of whom brought tears to your eyes and a wounding heaviness upon your heart.
“Who you de talk to?” barked a police sergeant, barging in on you. “Or you don craze mad?”
You said nothing.
“My oga wan see you,” said the sergeant. “Inspector dey call you.”
You struggled up on wobbly feet, groggy like a felled boxer, and followed the sergeant like a zombie.
The inspector, a cross between ugliness and death, sat on a wooden platform. He was very tall, very bulky, very dark, very ruthless and richly deserved his alias: Idi Amin. He had many words for you, words about going to the university to study the art and science of trouble-making, about sponsoring a crude abortion and burying a potentate’s daughter in an unmarked shallow grave, words about upsetting the balance of the land and putting so many lives at risk…
“Son of Devil, what do you gain from fighting God?” Idi Amin asked, shoving you. He ominously looked towards his right. In the shadows sat a baldheaded pudgy man who emitted a choking animal stench. In front of the man was a freshly-dug hole forming a valley between two heaps of red soil. To the side of the man were two spades with which the hole was dug. Idi Amin waved a hand and the pudgy man threw a heavy truncheon to him.
Time stood pregnant like the charged instant between the referee’s whistle blast and the striker’s penalty kick.
“You killed Alhaji Adeyemo’s daughter and thought you would live,” said Idi Amin, glowering at you. “You shall live a grisly life underground screaming for death to come.”
He furiously raised the truncheon and just as furiously lowered it on you, hitting at every point of your anatomy: the thighs, elbows, joints, anywhere. At the end of it all you lay still, numb, whimpering like a stricken horse.
“Get me the coffin,” Idi Amin said, waving.
The pudgy bald man fetched a hideous coffin from the shadows. You did not shake, could not, as you were put into the coffin. It was only when the bald man, working fast, started knocking in the nails that you began to bang your head loudly against the walls and roof of the coffin. Time stood still, surreal, as you were lowered, ever so giddily, into the grave. Up where they stood, the men could hear your frenzied jerks inside the coffin, but these jerks soon petered out to a harsher sound when the men started hurling red sand into the grave.
The men kept vigil, waiting for the torturously suspended moment of wretched subhuman death, until a mammy-wagon suddenly appeared on the scene. Idi Amin and the pudgy bald man ran when they saw Durotimi and the students emerging ferociously from the wagon. A good half of the invading army immediately gave pursuit. Durotimi rallied some of his troops to ransack the police station but ended up finding the place deserted by the policemen who as ever would show clean heels to the militancy of the new Nigerian days. A frenzied search of the premises fetched only one fellow, a spent witness cowering in his cell. Durotimi and his comrades could not get the unrecognizable man to make coherent talk let alone introduce himself. They left the poor fellow alone to his incoherence after many futile minutes of questions and threats and appeals. They then ran after their other comrades in the general direction of the pursuit.
Only the little man remained behind, the unfathomable fellow who bore no voice to conduce Durotimi and his men to hold out. Stricken by the compelling presence as witness of one’s own unbidden immolation, the little man stared cryptically at the peculiar mess of red sand and said to himself: “I know our people. We don’t bury the dead. It is life we lay under the earth.”
He grabbed the clayey spade, digging, grunting, working alone and digging some more, his mind a swirl of images of the renegade son damned for not seeing like all through the classic eye-view of God but rather via the spectral viewpoint of Satan. He dug on until the spade struck something hard. Dredging the sand, the coffin’s ochre somewhat softened the encompassing redness. Knocking out the coffin cover and bringing you out were awfully daunting, but the little man managed somehow.
As father beheld son the stink and spatter of faeces apprised the old man of the grim struggle for life inside the box of death. In a trice he hit you beneath the breastbone, nodded at the effect and then mightily lugged you up on his shoulder and headed for the thicker end of the nearby bush only to be stopped in his tracks by Constable Kayode who was doing a recce of the area with some students.