The boys watched as the screen parted, sighing at the sight of the life-like head wrapped inside. They studied the artifact; the sculptured beads, the tiny holes over the face, and the fading brass coating.
They looked at each other, their gazes telling of joy and an unspoken fear – not the fear of being caught stealing one of the eighteen sculptured heads dug from the city of Ile-Ife almost a century ago. They have been caught before, not once. This was different.
The first boy swept his torchlight around the image, reaching out to pluck the piece of paper taped to the object’s forehead. He was leaning forward to read the content of the note when the other boy, his younger brother, snatched it and, with aid from his own torchlight, began to read:
SAY GOODBYE TO YOUR YOU.
He frowned, shrugged, then tossed the piece toward the darkness below. They’d hired an engineer to cut the museum’s power, but they knew it would only be some few more minutes before the museum technicians lit the building up again. Or security found them out.
Another jail term.
Not good for business.
”Felix, what do you think that means?” Kennedy asked as Felix, his older brother, slid down the bannister of a backdoor step to meet him at the bottom.
”What do i think what means?” Felix asked as he landed, tucking the sack that now contained the head awkwardly beneath his sweatshirt.
”That thing i read from that paper na.” Kennedy said as they turned around a bend.
”Shebi na you grab am from me.” Felix said, visibly not pleased. ”Wetin concern me?”
With aid from high-powered torchlights, they walked the next few minutes in silence. Felix thought he heard a sound and turned around. Kennedy stopped, too.
”You don start, egbon mi.” Kennedy said after a minute, resuming the lead.
Something didn’t feel right around this place, Felix thought. He couldn’t ward off the feeling the piece of paper they had seen on the forehead of the artifact brought. He instantly recalled the words of Shade, his ex-girlfriend, girthed in historical and mythological analogy. Before they’d set off, she’d warned them:
”In getting that head, be careful. If you see anything attached to it, it may not bode well. But most times, it’s just there to scare thieves – people like you.”
Shade had never been supportive of their deeds, but she hadn’t openly spoken to them against it, either.
What if that paper and its inscrutable message was the ill-luck she spoke about? he mused it over until they finally could see the end of the pathway opening onto the lower streets.
They paused at the exit and nodded to each other. As they entered into the crisp evening air, Felix considered selling the head anonymously to the director of the National gallery in the British museum. That would make good business for him and his brother, he thought. Really good business.
None of them, however, was aware of the faint wisp of light that had spiralled up from the abandoned piece of paper trailing them.
* * *
Night had begun to fall upon Tijani street, the air now wreathing low in irregular streams. Felix paced about one end of the street. How long did it take to go up the street, get a fag and return?
Kennedy had branched off to get cigarette as they neared the street, asking that he wait at the gate to where they lived. Felix was at the gate now, the artifact he concealed bringing him unease each time someone walked across the street. ”Darn it, Kenny. I don go inside o” he muttered as he looped around.
Instantly, he staggered back as the blanched face of an old man stared back at him. The man was leaning on a wood cut in near-shapeless waves, the face unfamiliar and outlandish.
The man took a step forward, reaching to him with withered fingers. Felix backed away, mumbling a greeting, not sure how the old man took greetings.
”A puzzle will crack your skull.”
It sounded slurred, serious, and meaningless.
Felix frowned, watching as the man hobbled off like he’d said nothing.
When the frail figure faded into the far dusk, Felix shook his head, then went inside.
Kennedy returned late, a droll grin slapped to his face.
”What’s news? Found a better buyer?” Felix asked, downing a cup of hot Lipton.
”No, better news.” Kennedy said, producing a keen blade from his waist region. ”I’m possessed.”
Felix chuckled, then remembering the old man at the gate, sprang up from the floor where he sat, backing off from the approaching Kennedy brandishing a blade that gleamed in the candlelight.
”Kenny, you kidding me, right?” he asked as he felt his back slap the wall.
”Of course i’m kidding.” Kennedy said, dropping the knife, then he began to laugh hard. ”You too dey fear.”
Felix sighed as he felt colour return to his face. Amused, he threw his head back and began to laugh hard, too.
Maybe that was why he neither noticed that laughter had stopped at the other end nor saw a bright blade descending toward his skull.