He shot up with a start, heaving and gasping for breath. He kept muttering Jesus! Jesus! Jesus! The realization that the thing may have traced and followed him to Siki’s place both pained and frightened him to his innards. He turned and peered at his friend who lay sleeping at his side, coiled up under a crumpled white sheet. Siki apparently had not heard Tonye as Tonye struggled in his sleep. In school Siki would have made it into a thing of jest; how embarrassing and annoying that would have been. Still trying to still his trembling body and mind, he turned over and tried to go to sleep.
‘‘What was that?’’ Siki murmured, half-asleep.
“You’re talking in your sleep.”
“Just a nightmare,” Tonye mumbled sheepishly, tucking the voluminous sheets firmly about him, more in a puerile attempt at shutting out the importunate demons that had plagued his very soul these past four years, than in keeping out the putrid cold air that seeped in through the louvred window. He tossed about for almost half an hour before finally drifting off to sleep.
* * *
He had made it to the other side of the bridge. Without a break in his stride, he glanced up at the big round clock that hung on the second floor of the four-storey building: it was almost 3 o’clock. He’d been doing this for the past five years—since he was in JSS 1. Now it was a habit–no, a reflex. And there were a hundred, maybe a thousand, other students like him who daily depended on that big round clock for the time.
He trudged on with the gait of one who didn’t care if it took him three years to arrive at his destination .His countenance was long and drawn, and his tall slim frame was bent. He was broke and always hungry these days. He felt bitter towards his father who had defaulted on his routine fortnightly visits and had, consequently, reduced Tonye to living off his friends, Siki and Paul. Tonye was a very proud teenager. He knew their suppressed resentment would surface before long and he wouldn’t hold it against them; after all, aren’t most school boys known to possess tight purses and tighter fists?
Tonye plodded homeward; he neither saw nor heard the strings of pedestrians and okada riders that perpetually went up and down the bridge. He couldn’t feel the snaky sweat that trickled down his hot armpits; couldn’t feel the battered old plastic file clasped in his damp right hand.
Occasionally, he’d jerk at his slightly oversized trousers, so as to pull back the frayed cuffs that were constantly creeping beneath his black sandals. But even that occasional action couldn’t disrupt his train of thought. He’d tried all he could: fasting, praying, memorizing whole portions of the Bible, all to no avail. If anything, the nocturnal torments had grown progressively worse, in fact, they’d taken a diurnal turn. The demons had grown bolder and more daring. They now called even in the day–daymare?–and harassed him if he’d so much as attempted to take a nap.
About two weeks ago, the nightmares had become unbearable and had begun to tell on him. He’d show up at school with tired puffy eyes, a haggard face, and an inscrutable expression about him. He began passing the night with Siki and Paul, two of his four closest buddies at school, in the belief that his house was haunted. He didn’t tell them why, and they never asked. Even if they had, he would’ve revealed nothing. He had not disclosed it to anyone .He never would. It was going to be his own little secret.
At the beginning of the first week, his sleep had been peaceful and uneventful, but by the end of that week, the nightmares had returned. It was sometime past 1 o’clock, on a Tuesday morning when he began to feel that very familiar chill in his left foot. That was how it always began. Earlier that evening, Siki’s father had made an unexpected appearance, so the three friends had to improvise a makeshift bed on the floor of the parlour. Paul was sleeping in the middle, flanked by Siki on his right and Tonye on his left when it came.
For some unexplained reason, the boy was always half-awake at every visit. This made him confused over whether he was really roused or sleeping at the time of each attack.
The deadening chill, which was futile to fight off, especially when it had taken hold off both legs, swiftly traveled up, paralyzing his lower extremities within seconds. He tried to move both his arms, but it seemed like two invisible boulders had been placed on each of them. He opened his mouth, but no sound came. He strained at saying Jesus, but succeeded in uttering only a jumbled garble of syllables. Although he couldn’t move his head, he was able to move his eyes. The room was in semi-darkness. He could hear the sounds made by his friends as they respired in their sleep; he could hear the occasional baritone croak of a relentless bullfrog in the open drain outside the house; he could even hear the loud rhythmic snores that tumbled from under the door that separated them from the other room where Siki’s father slept with one of his many mistresses..
Terror seized him when his eyes made out a dark form taking shape at his feet and floating towards him. Tonye clamped his eyes shut and struggled to utter the name “Jesus”. But the effort was as useless as a man attempting to lift a ship. He knew from experience that if he kept trying to pray, his voice would become audible and Siki or Paul might hear him and shake him awake. But much as he wanted to be pulled out of his horrible dream, he didn’t want anyone to have an inkling of his nightly troubles.
So, with an effort, he held his peace and waited for whatever it was to come and do whatever it was it wanted to do and leave. He’d been having these nightmares regularly since he was thirteen and he believed that since the thing had not killed him in all these years, it wouldn’t kill him now—at least, not tonight. He stopped trying to fight it and lay still, and it came upon him like a massive weight, a smothering shadow. To his horror, he felt a sharp point slowly drilling its way into his left ear and into his brain! By God, he thought, it was going to render him deaf as well as insane!
He began to will his paralyzed muscles to stir; he perceived what sounded like the beginning of a moan at the back of his throat. He strove some more. Single syllables at first, and then he was able to form the word, a single word which he mumbled over and over, like a mantra.
Suddenly, he felt a sharp poke in the ribs and could move his muscles again. The last word he heard as he opened his eyes was Jesus!, but he couldn’t tell if it came from his very lips or another tongue had uttered it.
When he opened his eyes it was to meet the curious and rather peeved figure of Siki’s father staring down at him, a turned up hurricane lamp held high above his head. Thankfully, his friends had not wakened. Tonye stared down at the cloth wound round the man’s expansive waist and waited.
“What’s the matter?”
“Do you have such dreams every night?”
“No. This is the first time.”
The man had looked at him queerly and had asked him to go back to sleep. In order to forestall a recurrence that night, Tonye had kept vigil till dawn.
Last night’s was the fourth attack in as many days and he was beginning to find the curious glances thrown at him by his pals embarrassing. He had made up his mind to sleep in his own house tonight, even if he was going to have all the goblins and witches in the world for company.
When he got to the Market Square, he heard someone call his name. He turned and waved in the direction of the voice and strode on not seeing or pausing for even a moment.
* * * *