Ring around the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down…
The swing beneath the tree in the front yard swung slowly, back and forth, beneath the full moon. There was a light breeze, and power was out. The shadows ruled the night, and almost everyone was asleep.
Nkechi lay on her bed, staring through the darkness at the ceiling. She was not happy. She had not gone to bed happy, and had been unable to sleep since then.
Mummy had not let her play with Ade and the others.
She still remembered the look on her mother’s face as she had slapped the sweet out of her mouth while she had screamed at her.
“Nkechi! What have I told you about taking things from strangers?”
Nkechi’s lips tremble as she shuffles backwards, wringing her hands together, the taste of the lollipop now nothing but bile in her mouth. A tear, coursing a trail down her smarting left cheek. She sniffs back mucus into her nose as the visage of her angry mother, bending at the waist, hands akimbo, face showing mild irritation and something like the beginning of anger, fills her vision.
“Bu-but mummy, i-it was Ade tha-tha-that gave it to me. Ade and Bisi and Seun.” She fights back tears, determined not to let another one fall. She hopes this explanation will placate her mother.
She is wrong.
Mrs Obinna’s face contorts with rage at the mention of these names. “WHAAAAT!!!” Mrs Obinna leans back truly mad now. “Nkechi,” her voice taking on that monotonic quality that shows she is really mad, “what have I told you about playing with those children?”
The whole world drops away as Nkechi stares at her mother, her breath coming in short gasps now as she realizes her error. She backs away into the corner, praying for the wall, the floor, the world-anything-to open so she can slip through and escape the flogging that she knows is coming. Ade’s voice echoes in her head-
-‘Our Mummy never beats us or flogs us’-
“Nkechi, I am talking to you,” Mrs Obinna demands again.
-‘Yes it is true’ Bisi quips as Seun nods his head. ‘Our mummy never beats us. Nobody ever beats us.’
“Haven’t I told you to stay away from those children? Eh nwa ke, this child you want to kill me before my time and make me join your father? Eh? Is that what you want?”
“NO MUMMY NO!” Nkechi screams, shaking her head furiously as she recalls what Ade, Bisi and Seun had told her earlier-
-‘Our mummy says that she loves us too much to beat us,’ Ade tells her.
-‘But my mummy will beat me if I take this sweet from you. She said I should not take anything from anybody. She will flog me, and I don’t want that.’
-‘Then your mummy does not love you,’ Seun says. ‘Our mummy says that any woman who beats her child does not love her. So your mummy does not love you.’
-‘She does!’ Nkechi retorts, but the sweet draws her, calls upon her desire, and her hand twitches at her side.
-‘Don’t worry,’ Ade says, his head cocked to the side, watching her. ‘Take it. It is going to be alright. She will not beat you.’
– Nkechi looks up, her face expectant. She wants to believe Ade so badly. ‘Are you sure?’ she asks, heart speeding up.
-‘Yes. Just take it.’
-And when she does, she doesn’t see the malicious glints in the eyes of the kids, neither does she hear the ghostly laughter that rides the breeze… All she sees is the colourful wrapper of the lollipop…
“……log you. That is the only thing to do to you right now, since you will not hear.” Her mother’s voice pulls her out of her reverie. “I am going to flog that devil out of you that doesn’t let you hear me.”
“No Mummy No please I won’t do it again please!!!” Her desperate pleas fall on deaf ears as her mother goes into her room for a moment and comes out with a cane, even as Nkechi continues pleading-
-‘Please Mummy please I won’t do it again please Mummy please-
-and as the cane falls once, twice, thrice, the tears continue to flow and she escapes through the only way she knows; she recites the Nursery Rhymes that she has been taught at school in her head.
There are two little black birds,
Sitting on a wall,
One named Peter,
One named Paul…
Nkechi wondered why Mummy would not let her play with Ade, Bisi and Seun. Yes she had not seen their parents before, but they were nice to her. She missed her Daddy, and Mummy was usually at work, and whenever she came back, she was always busy. Ade, Bisi and Seun were her special friends. Yes she had other friends, but they were the ones who gave her sweets and biscuits and played games with her every time. So why wouldn’t Mummy let her play with them, or take sweets from them?
And then she heard the song outside her window.
Ring around the roses,
A pocket full of posies,
We all fall down…
“Mummy Mummy, please come and play with me!”
Mrs Obinna shrugs off her daughter’s hands from her sleeve as she bends over the pot of boiling soup in the kitchen. The heat is stifling and she has to be done so that she can feed her 6-year old daughter, Nkechi, and go to bed in order to get up early for work. The life of a Nurse was a tough one, and the absence of a man made raising her daughter all the more difficult.
“Nkechi, I am busy and tired. I cannot play with you.”
“Nwa ke, do you want me to burn this food?” Mrs Obinna says, irritated and turning to scowl on her daughter…
…and she is in her room, getting dressed, and Nkechi is beside her, wearing her school uniform, swinging her legs off the side of the bed, singing one of the many rhymes she loves, while she brushes her hair.
And in the reflection of her daughter on the mirror, a jagged tear starts to appear on her daughter’s cheek, as blood starts to flow.
Nkechi felt beside her on her small bed, and her hand brushed something round and crinkly, something on a stick. Her heart sped up in the darkness, and her face broke in a smile. She clutched the sweet, sat up, and opened the sweet. Strawberry. Her favourite flavour. She raised it to her lips and her mother’s voice screamed in her head-
–What have I told you about receiving things from strangers?
-and then the sweet touched her tongue, and her mother’s voice got lost in the sweetness of the lollipop and the Nursery Rhyme filled her head.
Nkechi got out of bed.
Mrs Obinna jumps out of her chair as she turns to look at her daughter, knocking it down as she throws her hair-brush back on the dressing-table, knocking down the bottles of cream and powder.
“NKECHI!” she screams, as she rushes to sit beside her daughter, cradling her head and trying to stop the flow of blood by tilting her head back and to the side. She looks for a handkerchief one-handed, in her bag, while whimpering/moaning/asking/crying “What is happening nne m, eh? What is happening? Who injured you? Who did this? How did it happen?” She attempts to staunch the flow of blood, but the handkerchief, once-white, is now soggy with Nkechi’s blood, and Mrs Obinna is afraid, AFRAID AND IN A PANIC.
And Nkechi continues to swing her legs and sing her rhyme.
Onye muru nwa na-ebe akwa…
She followed the voice. In the darkness, it was her light. Humming along, she walked unerringly in the darkness straight to her bedroom door and opened it. Sucking on the sweet, out onto the corridor, and past the parlour. She stood before the door. Stared at it, as she hummed along. The shadows danced behind her.
She reached up and turned the key in the lock.
“Mummy,” Nkechi says, in a voice that is a little more than a whisper. Mrs Obinna is crying; she cannot stop the bleeding. She is covered in the blood of her daughter; her hands are awash in it. Her daughter looks at her, and more jagged, bloody tears start to appear on her face, that sweet, beautiful face. Mrs Obinna struggles to remember what it had looked like without all this, and she nearly goes mad with fright because she cannot seem to remember her daughter’s face. It is fast becoming a blur, a distant memory. In its place is what she is seeing at the moment, her daughter being torn to pieces before her eyes.
“Mummy, don’t cry.” Nkechi raises a hand to wipe her mother’s tears. She leaves a bloody smear, and Mrs Obinna breaks down again. “I know I have been a burden to you, but soon that will end.”
“No Nke m, no! Don’t say that.” Her daughter is a blur as her tears cloud her vision. “I love you so much and I want to be the best mother that I can be for you. I know it is very hard and things have not been very good for us but I promise, I PROMISE, they will be better my daughter.”
Nkechi smiles. Her lips tear at the side, revealing her bloody teeth. “It is too late mummy.”
Nkechi looks at Ade, Bisi and Seun through the gaps in the bars of the burglary proof, and is not surprised when the locks pop open on their own. The bars swing open, and the soft breeze ruffles her dress. They smile. In the darkness, their eyes are preternaturally bright. She smiles back.
Ade holds out his hand.
Nkechi takes it.
He leads her out of her house.
She walks into the darkness with the Children of the Night.
Mrs Obinna snapped awake and without thinking, bolted out of bed. Out onto the corridor…
…and the open front door stopped her in her tracks.
“No no no no no no NO!” She turned to look at the half-open door to her daughter’s room. Hands shaking, she pushed it open tentatively. The room was cold.
No dark form on the bed, covered by a blanket. No Nkechi.
A strangled cry escaped her throat as she bolted out of the front door onto her veranda, straining her eyes in the darkness.
The only answer she got was the rustle of tree leaves.
Somewhere, an owl hooted, and the night answered…