In an altar of delight
A girl beamed her light
Just to alter her plight
Yet – she sunk in her fright
In an altar of desire
A boy played with fire
Trapped in lust vicious fist
Yet – he sought to escape its midst.
Leah Abba stood at the back of the large hall watching the new arrivals with fascination. They were a blur of comfortable clothes swarming around the room searching for seats even though there was more than enough room for everyone. Grey metal chairs had been arranged in rows on the left and right sides of the room, separated by a large aisle.
They clumped together on one side of the room, lending the place a distinct lack of balance she found amusing. She watched as they crammed in next to each other, using the proximity to strike up conversations.
The babies, as she called them, were rowdy. Their noise rose over the room like smoke that was trapped in by the ceiling.
Up at the front of the hall, the maintenance people pushed hard to finish setting up the projector before the management arrived.
Leah was a beautiful young woman; petite with caramel skin and large brown eyes. A small, smile played on the corner of her lips and reflected in her eyes. In her black hard- rock t-shirt, blue jeans and slippers, a high stack of black folders balanced precariously on one arm she looked eighteen instead of twenty-six.
Watching the babies, Leah wondered if her own group had been like them on their first day there. Her recollection of it was hazy. She had been so trapped in her own misery at being sent here, she hadn’t been aware of anyone else.
“What is so hard about it?” A voice barked. Leah turned in its direction. Selene, one of the administrative staff stood by the entrance of the hall shouting orders at her subordinates. They cringed under the force of her wrath and tried to explain but she cut them off with a wave of her hand.
Selene spotted Leah standing still in possession of the folders.
“Leah, what are you doing? Start sharing them. That’s your job.”
“Sorry,” Leah said and swung into motion quickly. She walked down the aisle to the front row to the group.
“Hello,” she shouted over the noise.
The group quieted in degrees until the only sound of the maintenance people hammering something into the wall could be heard.
“Hi, my name is Leah,” she said with a bright smile, her voice dropping now that the chatter had stopped. “I met some of you earlier. You guys can relax. I don’t work here. I’m just the house girl,” she said and a few people tittered.
Leah glanced towards Selene and then to the stragglers still standing. “Orientation is
about to start so I suggest you guys all sit. No African time.”
Slowly, they shuffled into motion, obeying. She waited until they were settled to begin passing out the folders.
“What is it?” a plump girl clutching a rosary asked as she collected hers.
“Rules. Schedules. Psychiatrist information. Meal menus. Recreational activities. Information on things you don’t want to know.”
“Then why do we need it?” the girl asked.
Leah smiled to herself without slowing down. “Because they said so.”
“How long have you been here?”
Leah glanced at the young man who’d spoken, reaching for his name. Emeks, she thought, uncertainly. She’d met him earlier with his friend. Very few people already knew someone coming in. She imagined it made it easier to deal with.
“Three weeks,” she replied.
“And you’ve gone from patient to worker?” Emeka asked with a huge grin. “Career progression.”
She smiled at him, liking him already. “Yes, my mother always told me I was special. Look at me now, sharing papers to mad people.”
Each orientation a few of the patients were attached to staff and assigned tasks. She had been attached to Selene this time because her Psychiatrist, Doctor Sulo, had thought she would benefit from it.
“We’re not mad,” a hefty man blustered from behind.
“What’s wrong with being mad?” Leah asked, her eyes amused flitting to him for a moment. “It makes you interesting.”
She moved quickly, giving out the folders. Once she was done, she returned to the back of the room and waited. Soon, the heavy doors swung open and a large group entered the room. Leah knew most of the doctors, at least in passing but she had barely had any contact with the non- medical staff. They moved down the hall in a flock to the seats arranged for them in the front.
The orientation followed the exact same pattern that hers had. Selene welcomed them to the Center and introduced the Center head, Melvin Okinma. Mr. Melvin, he lisped out. He was a burly man with stern features and deeply graying head of hair. He spoke forcefully, exacting his authority with each sentence.
“This is not a vacation. It is not a prison. It is not a reflection center. Our job is to help you heal. Your job is to allow yourself to be healed. Our goal is to guide you through a difficult but rewarding process. No one wants to examine themselves with a magnifying glass, but I promise you that if you do, you might find something beautiful inside too.”
Leah had to resist the urge to smile. She might not remember the details of her orientation, but she remembered his speech. It had been exactly the same, word for word. She hadn’t believed him the first time, the second time she could hear each point and nuance he had carefully rehearsed.
She glanced down at the babies, measuring whether they had been taken in by his speech. A few, she saw, were leaning forward, their entire bodies aglow with hope. A few of them seemed cynical and removed. But most of them appeared bored, more interested in examining each other than anything else. Leah did as well, assigning nicknames to them which she doodled in her notebook. Emeka, she called ‘the joker’. The man young man in his mid-twenties who’d pulled his chair away from the group she called ‘the loner’. The man with his arms crossed over his chest defiantly she called ‘The Rebel’. The girl who had asked her the questions, she called ‘the talker’. A teenager who looked lost and about to cry, she named ‘the baby’. A tall, fair complexioned girl with wavy long hair, she called ‘the mami wata’.
In the next half hour Mr. Melvin ran through the rules of the facility. Each participant had a personal copy in their welcome packs to follow along.
Leah knew them by heart. Wake up was at 7. Lights out was at 10. Meals were at set time, no exceptions. Therapy was mandatory. Process group at 12. Education Group at 2. Close group at 8. All were mandatory. No visitation outside the set visiting hour at 3. Recreational time came after at 4. No relationships among patients. No leaving without prior permission. No drinking. No smoking. No illegal substances.
Melvin finished his recital with flourish, shutting the book in his hand with a definite click. He motioned to Selene who trudged up and took it from him, then he proceeded to introduce each of the psychiatrists. Each of them attempted a reassuring smile and waved from their seats as he called out their names. Leah’s Psychiatrist, Dr Sulo stood nimbly in a long flared skirt and covered up blouse and smiled widely at them, waving.
“Time to heal!” he declared, signaling the end of orientation.
Leah heaved a sigh of relief that it was over. She waited while Selene led the patients out of the room and then followed more slowly behind. She headed through the halls to the female section to her room. She pushed open her door and walked in, careful to leave the door open behind her.
Leah came awake suddenly. One minute she was asleep and the next she was awake, sitting up in her bed, groping for her watch. She checked the time and thanked the Lord she hadn’t over slept. She rose, stretching slowly. She headed into the bathroom and checked her appearance in the mirror. The sleep was telling on her face. She washed her face quickly and dried it off with a towel before leaving the bathroom.
Once out, she stood in front of her open wardrobe, mentally trying to decide what to wear. A soft knock interrupted the process. She turned in the direction it came from and walked towards the connecting door, and pulled it open. On the other side, was one of the babies. The Mami wata she had seen at orientation. Up close she was even prettier and taller than Leah thought.
“Hi,” the girl said. “I’m your new neighbor. Mamita.”
“Hi, I’m Leah,” she returned.
Mamita nodded. “I know. I saw you at orientation. You know I thought they were going to put all of us who came today together but I’m glad they didn’t. You look like you know everything about everything so I am going to stick to you.”
Leah laughed and stepped aside, waving her into her room. Mamita entered slowly, looking around.
“I was wondering if every room was the same.”
“They are,” Leah said. “Some people really go all out decorating their rooms though. I didn’t because it seems like a waste of time. Why spend so much energy when you won’t be here that long?’ she asked, shaking her head. “How’s your first day so far?”
“Interesting,” Mamita said then shrugged. “The people are more normal than I expected. No one with dada talking to themselves?”
Leah laughed. “They can’t afford this place.”
Mamita perched on her bed, looking up at Leah. “That’s true. It’s bloody expensive. What do you do outside? As work?”
Leah gave her the simple answer. “For today I’m working in an advertising agency. You?”
Mamita looked curious. “Is it a big company?”
Leah shook her head. “Tiny.”
“Nooo,” Leah drew out the word, not sure where Mamita was going with her questions.
“So who’s your father?” Mamita asked directly.
Leah laughed at the irreverence of the question. “What?”
“Advertising money can’t afford this place so you must have rich parents.”
The mention of her family made Leah’s smile slip. She tensed instinctively and after a moment, consciously forced herself to uncoil.
“My Grandfather,” she said and mentioned his name.
Mamita’s eyebrows went up, impressed.
“My father is a senator,” she said. “You won’t know him. Or maybe you will. He’s one of those people who don’t talk in Assembly but are loud at home and on social media,” she said and laughed self-deprecatingly.
Leah grinned. “I like you.”
Mamita smiled back at her. “Thank you. I like you too.”
Leah glanced at her watch. Now she was running late. “Mamita, how do you feel about parties?”
The Centre had a legend they called The Party. On orientation night, the older patients picked a few people from the new arrivals and lured them away after dark during free time. They would meet at a secret location which changed from year to year. The Party conveners- the people assigned to help with orientation- only chose the best and most interesting new arrivals to attend. Everyone else found out after it was too late.
This year Leah was in charge. She had picked all the people she noted in her book and sent out the others who had been involved in the planning with invitations.
While it was fun, it was also necessary self-preservation. Past patients in all their wisdom had quickly realized that isolation would drive them truly crazy. They needed each other and the little freedoms they carved out in order to feel normal.
Leah walked out into the night air with Ter by her side. Ter was a tall man. The tallest she knew at 6’6. Beside him, she was miniscule, falling somewhere in the area of his lanky chest. She had liked Ter immediately. He was gentle and funny and very quickly became her best friend in this place. She was told that the friendships they made here didn’t survive on the outside but she had a feeling that it would be different with her and Ter. Even if they’d met somewhere else, they would still be friends.
“Shall we?” Ter said.
Leah nodded. She’d been looking forward to this. The entire break in her schedule today had been a welcome distraction. But the party was where her real interest lay.
They walked out through the expansive field by the wiry fence that separated them from the psychiatric clinic on the other side. The patients at the Centre were a cross between out-patients and institutionalized cases. They passed in and out of the Centre for a few months over the course of a year, dealing with problems that were mild to moderate while the Clinic handled the more serious, dangerous or violent cases.
She heard stories about the people hiding behind those walls. It had given her nightmares the first few days until one of the attendants had laughed it off and told they were so drugged they were mostly harmless. Bipolar and OCD cases were the most prevalent, the attendant had informed her.
“I thought people in Nigeria didn’t have those types of problems,” Leah had said with a smile.
The woman had smiled in return. “Which kind? Our problems have problems.”
Leah and Ter made their way to a secluded conclave of mango and palm trees where the others had already gathered.
“Hi guys,” Leah said to the people who had become her friends.
“Leah, you took long oh,” Ita complained.
“Sorry, I fell asleep.”
“You fell asleep while we were waiting?” Ita said, forcefully.
“Ita, leave her alone,” Brima stepped in. He offered Leah a charming smile, signifying that he was on her side as always.
“We’re here now,” Ter interrupted before she could continue.
Leah’s attention shifted to the new arrivals. Their curiosity was apparent on their faces, as was their apprehension. Ter nodded at her and she took a step forward.
“Welcome babies,” Leah began. “Tomorrow you begin a life of timed activities, ad words like ‘feelings’ and ‘healing’. Tomorrow, you have personal dissections, group dissections, nightmares where you dream of being dissected, so consider this your last day as the person you’ve always known. Consider this a send-off party, and we are your new best friends. All we ask is that as we’ve so graciously done this for you, do it for the next set and you can tell anyone you want except management. If you tell management, you will be ostracized. And believe us when we say that everyone needs friends, especially here. Now,” Leah said, pausing. “Let’s have fun.”
Brima went to work, grabbing a cooler full of drinks that Mushin had brought over earlier and began passing them out. They were all fizzy, non-alcoholic drinks. The last thing they needed was people getting out of control and drawing attention to themselves.
Leah began to socialize, asking people’s names and drawing the quieter ones from their shells. She spotted Mamita walking towards them with Emeka’s friend beside her. Leah waved to her, gesturing for her to her to come over.
“Hi!” Mamita exclaimed as they reached her.
“Hey, I thought you weren’t coming,” Leah said. “And I see you brought a guest.”
“I told you I don’t like parties, I almost didn’t come. You should thank J.J.”
Leah turned to him, looking at him closely for the first time. He was attractive. He and Mamita were striking side by side.
“Hi,” she said politely and held out her hand which he took in a firm handshake.
“So this is your party?” J.J. asked.
Leah smiled. “It isn’t really mine. It’s everyone’s party.”
“I was expecting a real gbedu.”
“Sorry to disappoint you.”
“Leah,” Ter said coming up behind her. “Time’s going, let’s play. Hey,” he said to Mamita and J.J.
“Yeah,” Leah nodded enthusiastically, clapping her hands twice. “I like this part. Let’s go,” she told them.
They gathered the entire group together and sat in a circle on the dewy grass. The game was called, ‘Name your demon?’ They all went round, saying their names and revealing what had brought them in the bluntest way possible.
“No sugar coating. No euphemisms. No making it look pretty,” Leah explained. The person with the worst problems wins all the money we contributed earlier.”
“How much?” someone asked immediately.
“Why?” Mushin asked, laughing. “Are you broke?”
“Isn’t that morbid?” The loner from orientation asked quietly.
“Yes,” said another young woman with too much make up. “I’m not doing it.”
“It’s not a law,” Ter said and inclined his chin towards the buildings. “You can leave.”
The girl blustered but remained in place.
“I don’t think it’s morbid,” Leah said. “Think of it as an ice breaker. Everyone is going to know anyway. This way you can relax because we all have our issues too.”
“I’ll start,” Ter said to demonstrate. “My name is Ter and I’m stupid about girls. One broke my heart and I tried to break my office. I had a breakdown for no good reason. She wasn’t that great.”
Leah squeezed his hand. His tone was light but she heard the painful undercurrent beneath it.
“Who’s next?” she asked.
Emeka piped up. “Me o. I’m for this game. Free money. My name is Emeka. I’m just here because they caught me smoking weed at work…six times.”
“And they didn’t sack you?” Brima asked.
Emeka smiled smugly. “Na my papa own am. This is just me proving my repentance.”
The loner went next. “My name is Jeffrey. I’m not good with too many people. I get uncomfortable. I sweat, I vomit. Which is a problem when you work in customer service.”
Ter let out a laugh and Leah pinched him hard on his arm.
They went round taking turns. The Rebel from earlier spoke next. “My name is Patrick. I needed a vacation.”
Leah smiled, there was always one person. “Depression?” she guessed and perversely enjoyed his face tightening in irritation, confirming her suspicions.
The girl who had argued about the game hemmed and hawed, adjusting on the ground and smoothing out her jeans. “My name is Patience. It’s nothing serious. I’m just here to talk. Like a checkup.”
“Honesty,” Ter reminded her. “The truth will set you free.”
“I am being honest,” she said defensively. “Are you in my head?”
Mamita spoke up. “Mamita,” she said, raising one hand. “I brought myself here. I researched the place, came to speak with them and registered myself. I am honestly not sure what is wrong with me, but I know there’s something,” she said with a small, smile.
J.J went next. “Jide,” he said. His eyes flit around the group and paused on Leah. “I’ll pass.”
Leah stared at him quietly for a moment, her eyes twinkling. “You don’t like to share?”
“Not particularly. What’s yours?” J.J interjected, before she could press further.
“It’s a mystery.”
“That’s not fair,” Patience complained.
Leah turned to her. “’I’m sorry, but I have no problems.”
“Then why are you here?” she pushed.
“She’s here to organize parties for lucky people like you,” Ter said.
“Leah is perfect,” Brima chipped in.
“Nobody is perfect,” one of the new arrivals said.
“I am,” Leah insisted.
“She really is,” Ter agreed. “Angel from the sky.”
“Nobody better,” Ita said.
“A purer person you will not meet,” Mushin added.
“You see,’ Leah said, with a smile. “I told you I’m perfect. Now,” she said looking around at everyone. “Who’s next?”
After the party Leah headed back to her room. They dispersed in batches of one and two to avoid attention. She chose to walk to her room alone. She had seen Mamita disappear with J.J. after the game had ended and as much as she liked her, she was somewhat relieved to have the time to herself.
She walked through the dark field. The cool, night air was glorious on her skin. She could tell it was going to rain from the scent of wet sand heavy in the air.
She passed through the building, smiling at the attendants and a few of the patients. She arrived at her room, flicked on the lights and paused in the door way, staring at the empty room. She sighed and moved in, leaving the door open behind her.
Leah went through her night rituals in the small enclosed bathroom. She washed her face, changed into a nightgown, packed her braids up in a high bun, and tied it down with a scarf.
She exited the bathroom and grabbed a leg of one of her shoes and used it to wedge the door open before turning off the lights.
Leah made her way to the bed and climbed into it, pulling blankets over her. She lay down in the quiet and was soon asleep.
Not long afterwards she was woken by the howling wind. Her sleep haze clearing, she blinked in the dark. Instantly, she knew that something was off. It took her a moment to realize that it was the room itself, it was too dark. She made the smallest movement of her head towards the door. It was shut firmly. Her heart lurched in her chest and her body tensed, going rigid.
A gust of wind hit the window sending it into a vicious clattering that filled the room. In the distance thunder boomed, shaking the building and startling her. She squeezed her eyes shut in terror and remained that way for what felt like forever.
Slowly, she opened her eyes, training them in the direction of the door. The distance between the bed and the door seemed like a mile. She calculated how fast she could move to pull it open. She could imagine herself there, standing in the open doorway, taking deep breaths, relief flooding through her. Every fiber in her body craved that vision. But her body had gone leaden, she felt cold on the inside. Even if she wanted to she doubted her body was capable of getting her to the door.
Her eyes fell shut. She dug her fingers into the edge of the blanket.
A scream lurched within her threatening to escape but she pressed her mouth shut. Instead, a small moan deep in the back of her throat escaped covered by the sound of the rain beginning to fall. Once it was out, she couldn’t control it. She began to let out short, start and stop moans, trying to cry out for help but unable to open her mouth and ask for it. She folded in half involuntarily. Even trapped in her pain, she felt removed from it. As though a tiny part of herself remained in a corner of her mind, watching her body writhe and sob.
No one would hear her. Not with the heavy patter of rain hitting the roof drowning out the sound of everything else. She was on her own till morning. She just had to make it one more time. Another moan racked through her body, tearing through her.