How I found myself in that hall was indeed a bafflement I couldn’t just explain. But, like conjuring magic, there I was, seated in the front row and listening with rapt attention to the strange man delivering his lecture on the Act of Photography. I said he was strange because, to begin with, he was tall, almost taller than any man I ever saw. Apart from that, I was quick to notice that the only piece of clothing on his person was the brown baggy trouser held at the waist with what appeared to be a crudely crafted belt like the stretched skin of some bush animal.
He was naked from the midriff up and walked with a somewhat eerie stoop so that an observer was left with the puzzling impression that he carried the burden of an unwanted hump on his back. I overheard one of the students whispered that he was a retired war-veteran-turned-lecturer who fought actively during the Nigerian civil war.
Despite his seemingly crooked physique, he moved around the large hall with the agility of a wild animal preparing for a bloody encounter with a cornered prey. I contemplated briefly what under the sun gave him the effrontery to have ventured into the lecture hall without bothering to dress up properly from home? Or didn’t he have the civility to respect the fact that there were married men and women in his class?
“Photography is spiritual.” His voice barged rudely against the privacy of my thoughts, like a blow from the fist of an enraged boxer. He gesticulated as he spoke, his face devoid of any traceable emotion. “The way and manner you handle your camera gives anyone who has the privileged ‘hidden eyes’ like myself an unfettered insight into your level of relationship with the other you.”
Whatever he meant by that was lost to me as I listened. In fact, the more I pondered his words the more confused I became. No one ever told me there was anything spiritual about photography…
“Now permit me to take you deeper by way of actual illustration.” He lurched forward and was beside me before I even realized he had really moved a limb. “You.” He pointed at me. “And you…and you too…and you…” He selected about four or six of us randomly and requested, nay, commanded us to go stand in front of the hall to enable him give validity to his explanation. We, the selected few, obliged him and the hall immediately erupted into a rapturous applause (whether for us or for the lecturer, I couldn’t exactly tell). Anyway, I jumped to my feet and, for no apparent cause, punched the air and shouted “One Nigeria!” as I made my way to the front of the hall with the other volunteers.
“You are an ignorant young man for doing what you just did.” The lecturer uttered those words as if they were some abominable liabilities he’d desperately wanted to distance himself from all these while, “What business has Nigeria got with our present discussion? Look, never mix mystical intercourse with that which are earthly by their very nature. Nigeria is there and you are here!”
I ignored the couple of jeers and sniggers from my seated colleagues.
“I am sorry, sir,” I said remorsefully, “I actually didn’t meant it as anything rude to your person.”
“Rude to my person?” He remarked and frowned somewhat queerly, “Young man, this whole thing is not about me. It’s rather about you. Photography is always one and same with the person taking the shots. This moment you are here, the next you are not – just like the flash from a powerful camera, see? The stage is yours. The audience are equally here for you.” He closed and opened his palm repeatedly in such quick successions that the very act blurred into a surrealistic jargon within the confines of my common reasoning. The stage was mine? The audience equally here for me? Who are the audience…?
“Sir, you are confusing me.” I said, shaking my head as if that in itself would introduce some sagacity into the unfolding scenario.
“No. You are the one trying to confuse this class, and I won’t take that nonsense from you! My obligation is to make you understand things you never thought possible about yourself and-”
“For the sake of our unborn children can we just go on with the lecture, please?!” Someone began to complain in a tone that almost sounded in my ears like the snarling of a dog. This was followed by murmurings from the sea of heads behind us.
“Quiet!” It was an order from the lecturer. The hall fell into such instant silence at the thunderous sound of his voice. In fact, the abrupt hush was so infectious that I was forced to steal quick glances over my shoulders to be doubly sure I wasn’t the only living soul still left in that large lecture hall with this strangely domineering character.
“Now, where did we stop?” he asked afterwards, his hawk-like eyes darting questioningly from one face to the other.
“You were about to elucidate on the spirituality of photography.” A shrill female voice reminded him.
“Yes,” he said with several nods of his head, “…as I was about to explain before the rude interruption, there is a concentrated power in your heart. A power beyond your imaginations. A good photographer must deploy these powers to full usage and learn to focus his heart’s eyes if he intends to impact his photographic techniques and capture imageries that would wow even the most fanatical of unbelievers in things ethereal.” He paused and knotted his brows in contorted concentration, as if straining to decipher codes from extraterrestrial beings only he could hear or envisage. After what seemed to me like an unusually long wait, he stretched his hand towards the four or six of us standing before him. As he did so he splayed his fingers and there was an unexpected blinding flash of light from the middle of his palm – as if a sudden power surge just blew a lighted bulb into uncountable smithereens. The flash hit us with such energy that I was of the initial impression a solid object was actually flung at us. It lifted upward and then suspended briefly above our heads in a bluish hallow before dispersing into the air in a smoky PUFF. It left in its wake a horrible stench that stung my nostrils and almost squeezed tears out of my eyes. The whole effect must have been too overbearing for even the lecturer himself because he staggered backward and nearly crashed to the floor, only regaining his balance just in the nick of time. He was thereafter compelled to go down onto one knee, his massive shoulders hunched and the head bowed, the way one would do in supplication to a superior influence. From somewhere deep in his throat a clicking sound found its way to his tongue. It was an incoherently lifeless sound, as if a huge watch fitted with a microphone had been left to tick too fast in an enclosed space. His entire frame shook almost violently as he repeated these sound again and again and again. “Tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh tsh…”
“Do you need any help, sir?” I asked, more out of fear than concern.
He declined my offer with a slow shake of his head. And when he found his voice again, it was with a frighteningly unsteady squawk. “I strive every waking day to remain the other person, the other you. But it is difficult to make a reasonable choice when the control is not from my realm. Please you must not hesitate to take responsibility if we are to avoid the approaching obliteration of this assemblage.”
Meaningless words to me. But still, I felt the gnawing coldness of fear on my skin and shivered involuntarily at his sinister message. At first my survival instinct urged me to leave the scene immediately while there was still time. But, as if on cue, the genuflecting man sprang to his feet and stretched himself almost to his full height. Christ Jesus! He was even taller than I had thought. As I watched in horror, a rapid transmutation began to take place about his mien. I saw the sun began to set in his eyes, and it was the color of fresh blood. It was like coming face to face with a brute versed in committing heinous crimes. And…did I just noticed horn-like protuberances on his forehead? Maybe just my imagination starting to play on my sanity.
“You caused this!” He spoke directly to me, his voice now a gurgling stream of unnamable fluid. “You caused my pains because you chose to do things your way. Your stubbornness is the origin of my pains!” He began to walk menacingly towards me, his crooked gait very pronounced now. I took one or two defensive steps backward while searching with my eyes for any available escape route.
The door! Use the door!
But then I was suddenly confronted with a new snag; the only door that exited the large hall kept shifting from my reach every time I ran towards it, as if acting in accord with a predetermined fiat not to be party to any attempted escape from me. This struck me as extraordinary – I meant the shifting door. Such things only happen in the dream world. But if this wasn’t a dream, then where was I? I was still contemplating my present dilemma when suddenly a shard of broken bottle of beer was conjured into my attacker’s grip. He came at me, his weapon raised high and ready to strike. Now the enormity of the coming danger bore down on me in a most macabre way, leaving my poor heartbeat to thump at such fast pace I thought I would faint any moment.
‘Paul, do something quick unless you want to become a dead man in the next few minutes. Use your mind.’
A voice that was barely perceptible above the wild thumping of my heartbeats whispered into my ears.
Meanwhile, the lecturer kept approaching me in all his evil manifestation, dragging his legs beneath his weight like a sleepwalker. His grip on the shard of lager bottle was so tight that the sharp edge pierced his flesh and caused a thin rivulet of crimson blood to burst forth, trickling down the length of his upraised hand before splashing onto the floor to take on a gooey shadowy outline of an eternally distressed ghoulish face.
Put that bottle away immediately!
An unspoken command struggled desperately to the surface from the deepest orifice of my mind, a command I almost didn’t realized came from me. Surprisingly, the lecturer halted in midstride, as if by some clandestine telepathy he could hear my unspoken orders clearly. He stood transfixed briefly on the spot, hand still raised in a last attempt to bury his weapon in my face. What happened next was so weird all I could do was watched with dropped jaw. First, the broken bottle vanished from his grip and then the malevolent presence that otherwise lurked heavily in the air was gone just as if a thick blanket was sucked up by a gigantic vacuum cleaner. Now the air was lighter and breathing made a lot easier again. My intended attacker underwent yet another quick transformation. He shook his head repeatedly afterwards, to clear it of any remaining wooziness. “Where did we left off?” he asked the class, his voice once again vibrantly normal. He resumed pacing up and down the hall, acting as if nothing unusual had occurred just moments ago.
“Sir, do we have to continue with this particular topic? Can’t we go on to some other subject that is less complicated?” Someone quipped from amongst the multitude of prying eyes.
“We have to finish the topic,” he said resolutely, a persuasive smile plastered to his emotionless face, “for your information, photography is the window to other realms. Photography reveals hidden secrets. It is symbolical. All you need is your inner eyes to separate reality from that which are merely imagined.”
“There you go again, sir,” I heard someone complained in a bitter tone, “As if most of us seated here are even interested in taking up photography as a profession.”
But the lecturer continued talking, as if he didn’t even noticed someone was interrupting him: “Photography is a pathway to imaginations beyond the scope of mortals. When properly harnessed, an initiate can concentrate the accumulated mental energies to gravitate himself to an upper level of spiritual dimension and-”
“I am leaving this hall right away, sir!” somebody exclaimed suddenly, jumping to his feet, “I can now see that you are only trying to brainwash us. But you fail to understand that some of us seated here are parents. It is our responsibilities as parents to imbibe good morals in our children. Therefore I say stop leading us astray.” He spoke at the top of his voice.
“Stop leading us astray!” a second voice reechoed the words.
I turned my head slightly askance to catch a glimpse of the owner of this new voice jiggled his finger threateningly in the air. Soon the entire hall was one loud hum, like the engine of a locomotive picking up speed:
“Stop leading us astray!”
“Stop leading us astray!”
One or two persons even took it upon themselves to bang loudly on the desks. It was suddenly a chaotic situation. This new development took the lecturer aback. He paused to give the hall a sweeping scrutiny, like a computer scanning for a contagious virus within its system. His searching gaze eventually fixated on a particular man in the multitude of heads, eyes and chants. “You started this ruckus!” he screamed at the man in a voice akin to violent shots from a double barrel gun, “You are a betrayer. And betrayers always get their measured punishment!” He began to move towards his identified target. As I followed him with my eyes, I heard an explosive shatter once again, like a brittle object been smashed against a hard surface. And before I’ve had the time to fully comprehend what had just happened, another jagged weapon materialized in his grip.
“Now I swear I will kill you!” he growled, barring bloodied fangs that weren’t there moments ago. The culprit, a rotund man with stomach so big it pushed awkwardly against the fabric of his kaftan, extricated himself from the gathering and trundled across the hall, barely managing to skid around desks and chairs, like a petrified rodent desperate to dash into any nearest hole in the wall. But there seemed to be no escaping from his furious assailant. The lecturer literarily flung himself at his human quarry. The rotund man let out a terrified shriek as his attacker’s nails dug into the soft folds of flesh around his neck. “Please don’t hurt me. I am a father of four. My children will suffer if you cause me any bodily harm,” he yelped, his arms clasped in front of his chubby face.
Will you just stand here and watch this poor man get mauled? Help him. Help him now.
It was that voice whispering to me again.
But how was I supposed to help? From every indication this murdering lecturer was as strong as a wild beast. He was not human. No human I knew of had this uncanny ability to transmute so easily at the snap of a finger!
Your mind. It is in your mind. You can control him. He listens…
The lecturer had almost completely turned into a monster now. Hairs, coarse and black as tar, sprouted out of his knuckles. His face had assumed a likeness to Jaguar, my neighbor’s bloodhound. Saliva dribbled from the sides of his sagging jaws. Effortlessly, he picked the rotund man from the floor by the scruff of his neck and lifted him high off the floor. “I will kill you now. You deserve to die!” he growled in a voice that was not like any sound from this world.
I summoned courage and rushed forward, just before he flung his victim against the concrete wall. I stood defiantly in front of this terrifying being and…
I command you to put him down immediately!
It was a quick order, a soundless scream from my mind.
“Why should I obey you?” The beast growled in reply to my wordless order, breathing heavily with something very devilish about his penetrating glower.
Put him down this very moment. You are hurting his neck.
I repeated, doing all I could to hold his burning gaze.
With a disappointed sigh, he relaxed his vice-like grip. His victim crumpled to the floor like a sack of groundnut, gulped a quick mouthful of air to revitalize his lungs and crawl away on all fours, evidently thankful to be out of the chocking clutches of his attacker.
The monster stood glaring at me, his breathing seemingly becoming belabored.
Who are you? Why have you gathered us here to torment us?
I asked him in my mind.
“I am he who lives beneath the surface of your dark emotions; the ghost in your dream. I traverse the landscape of your dream world.” He replied, his massive chest heaving up and down.
So why did you conjured us to gather here…in this hall?
“I didn’t. It was you who requested. I was merely summoned to help animate your dark fantasies.”
I don’t understand what you are saying…
“You may call me a figment of your dark imaginations. I am your fears, your imperfections…I am everything bad about your persona.”
If truly you are all those things that you claim then why do you want to harm me…and these people here?
“No. It was you who tried to harm yourself. I merely feed on your fears; your fears embolden my actions.”
No. You can’t be me. I have nothing to do with violence.
“That is the picture you’ve schooled yourself to present before the world. But beneath that picture lies a swarm of shadowy orgy even you are too ashamed to imagine in your waking hours.” He paused suddenly and began to tremble in a violent manner. For the first time, I saw something in his eyes. I saw fear.
What is happening to you now?
I asked, overcome with profound curiosity.
“I have to go,” he said in a quiver, “I have almost overstayed my time. The light is coming on at the other realm already. Please wish me away.”
He turned into a cute little kitten and with one or two meows, sauntered out of the hall.
“Paul. Paul, wake up.” It was the voice of Agbo, my younger brother.
I opened my eyes and stole a cautious glance around.
“You were murmuring throughout while you slept. Were you having a nightmare?”
From somewhere in the street a distinct male voice broke into the air. “Allah hu akbar” The lone voice called repeatedly into a loudspeaker for the routine morning’s prayers. I heaved a grateful sigh on my bed. “Thank God it was all a dream.” I smiled.