White skulls littered the desert. The iroko tree stood tall and proud against the backdrop of the full moon. Red mist floated all around as if the very air had absorbed blood. Vultures hung on the branches of the iroko tree, watching me with patient eyes. There was something at the base of the tree. A lump of black outlined in the shape of a body.
But I had to look. I walked down the path of shinning white skulls, the bones crunching beneath my feet as I stepped on them.
I bent forward and reached to pull back the black cloth but froze in place when something in the air changed. The air thickened and the cloyingly sweet smell of roses permeated the air, making it hard to breathe. I tried to draw in breathe but found it almost impossible. My breathing sped up but it was like all the air had been sucked out from that desolate place.
Something dropped from above me and I looked up into the red blotched face of my mother. The rope around her neck hung from one of the iroko tree’s branches. Her neck bent at an awkward angle and her bulging eyes stared at me with hatred so deep that it swallowed me whole.
“Mimiiiiii…….” Her voice whispered like the wind against my skin, chilling me to the bones and standing my hair at attention. “You killed your father… You killed your father…You killed your father…”
“No…it was an accident.” I denied weakly, “It was an accident.”
“You killed your father.”
“It was an accident.” I whispered. My eyes began to tremble and I clutched at my hair. The tears fell freely from my eyes, there was no fighting them this time.
Weakly, I fell to my knees and put my palms against my ears, hoping to block out the accusation. I huddled into myself and buried my face into my lap, sinking deeper into myself. Wanting to feel nothing; wanting to escape the pain that constantly ate at my soul until I was nothing more than a husk.
“You killed your father.”
“An accident?” A voice asked. It was a voice I recognised, a voice of myself from six years ago.
My head snapped up to the sight of ten year old me holding a broken bottle of beer that dripped dark red blood. Her face was cloaked in shadows but I saw clearly the sinister smile that grew on her lips.
“It was an accident.” The girl repeated. She raised her arm high above her head with the jagged end of the broken bottle glistening under the moonlight. Her hand descended down in a lightening-fast sped to stab the black cloaked figure on the ground, but just before she reached her target, she paused a fragment of a second to look at me.
“Right?” She asked. Her hand came stabbing down on the black cloaked figure, sending a spray of dark red blood everywhere.
A scream lodged in my throat as I fought to come out of the dream. I forced heavy eyelids open and blinked several times as my eyes adjusted to the lighted room. Sweat beaded my face and arms and my breathing was coming out in shallow gasps. My heart thudded so hard that I had to clutch at my chest and pray for my heart not to burst out.
The nightmares are back…, I thought.
It has been years since I had that particular dream and with all the dead rising back to life, it was no wonder. The faint scent of roses lingered in my head though I knew I did not perceive it. That was the smell of mother to me. The talcum powder she’d always used had that scent.
I sat up on the bed and stared at my unfamiliar surrounding. Fear spiked through me. I’d just had a nightmare and last I remembered, dead people were eating people. Where was I? I so did not want to be alone right now.
I pushed aside the thin blanket that covered me and put my feet into the white and blue bathroom slippers that were placed beside the bed. It was then I noticed that I wasn’t wearing my blood stained uniform. Someone must have changed my outfit into the simple black gown was wearing. It would have been my exact size, but for the fact that it was a bit loose around the chest area. I immediately guessed that this was Sara’s dress.
The room seemed to be a combination of a bedroom and an office. A large wooden desk occupied the opposite end of the room. It was piled high with books that looked as if to topple over with the barest wind. I found my phone on one of the book piles and took it.
I opened the door and found myself in a hallway, facing another door that led into another room that faced the room I was in. The hallway was a very short one as within five steps I was out of it and in the open night air. Railing surrounded the veranda, and I saw Sara’s sister, Grace, leaning against it as she stared up to the sky. A cigarette dangled from between her fingers as she stared blindly up to the starless sky.
I took a step towards her.
“Oh? You’re awake.” She said as she casually looked back at me.
“What happened to me?” I asked as I rubbed my eyes and went to stand beside her.
“You fainted. You must have been really exhausted. How is your head?” She asked.
My brows drew together in a frown, “What happened to my head?”
She put the cigarette in her mouth and reached towards me, her fingers inspecting the back of my head. “You slumped to the ground and hit your head. Does it hurt?”
“Not really, I just have a headache.”
“Oh, gross…” She removed her hand from my head.
“What is it?”
She puffed on the cigarette twice before removing it from her mouth. Smoke bellowed out from her mouth in waves, white clouds floating up into the air. “There’s a finger nail stuck in your hair.”
“That is disgusting. Can you help me take it out?”
She busied herself with my braids for a few minutes trying to get the fingernail out, but she couldn’t. “You’ll have to loosen your hair.”
“Oh, but I don’t have a comb.”
“Wait here, there should be one inside.” Grace disappeared inside the small house for a few seconds but she soon came back out. She held up a small blue comb with a long tail.
“It’s a good thing Sara’s always in this house. There’s bound to be all the beauty accessories I need here.”
“Is this where your family lives.” I asked.
“No, our main home isn’t this one. This little house was built for the pastors to sleep over if they stay too late in church and can’t get back home or for visiting pastors from out of the state to stay in.” She sighed and took another puff from the cigarette. She reached to crush the cigarette against the railing and throw it away, but I quickly asked,
“Can I have that?” I asked pointing to the cigarette.
“This?” She held it up questioningly. There was a puzzled frown on her face.
“Yes. I’m thinking it’s the perfect time to start a bad habit. What with all the undead roaming the face of the earth.”
“It’s not good for your health.”
“But you’re smoking too.”
“Well, I am the black sheep of my family. God knows how many deliverance I’ve had to endure because of my ‘sinful’ ways, but it’s not my style to lead little lambs astray from God’s path.”
“I’m not a lamb, I’m a wolf and I have never been on God’s path.”
“Hmmm.” A smirk curled her lips as she handed over the cigarette to me. A considering look came over her face as she stepped back to watch me suck on the cigarette. I ended up coughing as the smoke went down the wrong way.
“Little wolf, that’s not how you do it. Take in the smoke to your lungs gently, hold your breath for a second and then softly release the smoke. This way you won’t end up choking.” I waited for the coughing to subside before trying again. I did as she instructed and when the soft cloud of smoke caressed my lungs, flitted over my tongue and out of my mouth without me choking, I smiled in triumph. Grace smiled too and before we knew it we were giggling like five years olds over nothing.
Grace sat on a white plastic chair and motioned for me to sit between her legs on the tiled floor of the veranda. “Come and sit down, Little Wolf, I’ll help you loosen your hair.”
“Ok, thanks a lot.” I sat between her jean clad legs, the tile floor cold against my exposed legs. I sucked on the cigarette stick as she began loosening my hair, releasing it from the knots it had been braided into.
“Where are my friends?” I asked after an eternity of silence had passed. The night was dead quiet without even the punctuating creak of the crickets.
“Last I saw her, Sara was in my parent’s room and your other friends should be sleeping in the church with the other parishioners. Your friend, the tall big one, would still be here if my mother had allowed it. But you’re a girl and he’s a boy. She didn’t think it was right to leave the two of you alone.”
“Frank was here?” Out of the three boys, Frank was the tallest and the biggest. The other two were lacking in the muscles that Frank packed on his frame.
“Yeah. You’ve been asleep for four hours but he was here for three. My mother had to drag the poor boy out of your side.”
“So someone’s got a boyfriend.” She teased. I almost choked on the cigarette as I sputtered in denial.
“H-he’s not my boyfriend! We’re just friends. Frank and I aren’t like that at all.” I turned to face her, so she could see how truthful I was being.
“Ah, but there’s no need to deny it naw, I could see the way he looked at you. It’s so obvious he likes you.”
“That’s not true. Frank is my best friend; he doesn’t like me that way. I should know since I’ve known him for way longer than you have.”
“Then, Little Wolf, you are very either very naive and innocent or you are dumb and blind.”
I opened my mouth to deny that I was either options but was cut short by the sound of my phone ringing. It was the number my brother had called me with earlier this morning.
“Hello? Emma?” I spoke into the phone.
“Mimi, are you alright?”
“Yes, yes I’m fine.”
“Good. I was so worried-“
“When you called me this morning, what did you mean?” I cut him short. I did not need to know how worried he was about me. I did not need to know if he cared about me. He did not matter. He hasn’t matter in a long time…not since he failed to save our family six years ago.
“You told me that you’d fucked up big time and that I should leave Asaba. It’s almost as if you know what caused this outbreak. What did you do this time?” Grace’s fingers paused in loosening my braids.
“I didn’t know this was going to happen I swear! It’s not my fault.”
“Cut the bullshit, Emma. Tell me straight out what you did.” I snapped.
“Ok, so you know that story grandma is always telling us about our great grandfather? About the sacred box that must never be tainted with evil?”
“Yes I do.” I said remembering the intricately carved red and white box that grandma kept in a shrine behind the house in Okada.
“Well, one day I opened the box and found a carved statue inside of it. The statue was wrapped in white and red material with a cross on top of it. I’m really sorry Mimi but I was really desperate. There’s a man who collects things like that, African cultural arts, my friend is close to him and when he informed me that the man was in Nigeria, I thought it was a golden opportunity to get fast cash. I stole the box from grandma and early this morning in an office near Ogbogonogo market, I sold it to the man. At the end of the day, it wasn’t even worth much because according to the man the statue lacked history and then I told him the story of great grandfather and the box. Of course he wouldn’t believe me and then I told him jokingly that if he wanted to know how true the story was, he should commit evil near the box. Seriously, I didn’t expect anything to happen. I just thought the story that grandma told us was just folktale. I never expected it to be true.”
“Emma…Emma…you have put us all in trouble. How could you be so stupid and irresponsible?! Even if you thought the story was just a folktale, you should never have stolen from grandma! You know how important that box is to her. And if the story is true…then it means the children of chaos have been released. There’s no bloody way we can stop them. We’re all going to die.”
“That’s why I told you to go to my apartment in Okada. You know grandma has been living there since her house got demolished by the flood last year. You’ll be safe there. She’ll know what to do.”
“What about you? Where are you?”
“I’m still in Asaba.” He answered.
“Then let’s find each other so we can go to Okada together.”
There was a long pause. “Emma, are you still there?” I asked.
“I didn’t want to tell you.” He sighed heavily, “It’s too late for me…I got bitten an half an hour ago. I don’t think I’ll survive it.”
I sucked in a harsh breathe and tried to blink back the tears that instantly built up in my eyes. I blamed my brother for a lot of things; for not being there the night my father died, for not being there when our house was filled with the stench of rotting flesh; for not being there to save my mother when she hung herself from the ceiling fan; for only being there to stop me from slashing my own wrists with the kitchen knife. I blamed my brother for a lot of things…but I still loved him. He was the one who had bullied the other kids on my behalf. He was the one who stole money to keep food on the table when my father spent all his money on drinks and drugs. He was the one who held my hand to sleep and sang to me over the sound of my father beating my mother up. He was the one who got between their fights and suffered for it when father turned his violence to him. He was the one who kept my sanity intact until my father died…because then, it shattered into a million pieces.
“Hey…are you still there?” He asked.
I sniffed and coughed a little to clear the clog that had built up in my throat. “I’m still here.”
“This might be the last time we get to talk.”
“I’m sorry, Mimi. I wish I’d been there to save you that night.”
“It wasn’t your fault. You got locked up for picking pockets to put food on our table.”
“Still…I should have been there. I’m really sorry Mimi. I hope in our next life we never come back as a family. In our next life I wish you’ll be born as a princess or superstar or an astronaut or something…”
I choked and the tears fell freely from my eyes, “Idiot.” I whispered.
“I love you, Mimi.”
The call ended.
Grace put her arms around me in comfort, and that was when I let loose and started bawling. I cried and cried until the tears slowed to a stop, until the tightness around my chest lessened, until the lump in my throat melted, until I felt empty and weightless. And through it all, Grace held on to me, letting me stain her white cotton shirt with my tears, letting me cling to her as I dispelled myself of all the accumulated pain.
“Are you alright, Little Wolf?” She finally asked.
“I’m fine.” I automatically replied.
I’m fine…those are the words you reply when asked how you are. It was a simple lie I told when asked that question. The words helped me scale through many hurts; they brushed aside my feelings and covered up the wounds festering inside of me from other people. People always accept the answer as that. They leave it at the surface and accept the words as they are. No one ever wants to dig deeper to how you truly are.
But Grace shook her head and asked again.
“That’s not what I want to hear. Are you alright?”
My eyes grew wide in surprise as I stared at her. Right at that moment, in her white cotton shirt, she looked to me like an angel. “No…I’m not alright.” I answered. “My brother got bitten…he’s going to die.”
“I’m sorry to hear that.” She said as she hugged me.
“He is an idiot, but I love him.” I said softly.
We sat in silence as Grace continued to loosen my hair.
“You heard my conversation with my brother. Aren’t you going to ask about it? About how he caused this outbreak.”
“I was thinking that if you want me to know about it, you’ll tell me.”
“You’re strange. Other people would have forced me to tell them about what caused this.”
“I’m a black sheep remember? I don’t follow regular conventions.”
“I’ll tell you everything I know about it. There’s this story my grandma used to tell us about our great grandfather and a dangerous box…”
And as I began to tell the story, I found myself slipping away from the pain of losing my brother. I twirled around my fingers, the silver chained cross.
………..To Be Continued…………
By Ngozi Nmadu