The little room at the basement of our house was hot and dark on the first night of my visit to it. It was like the inside of a cooking pot. An unpleasant stench emanating from it could push you to the ground at the opening of the door. In there, in the dark, a tiny voice hummed an unfamiliar song which drove me closer. I took cautioned steps to trace the person who lived therein and never came out.
The hummed song was sorrowful and persistent. The door was a large metal rolled to keep attention away. It made the song faint. But the humming passed through escapable routes to reach me. It hands reached out to me and dragged me to its source. I could not see the face or the figure of the body that hummed. But I heard the melody and found it unpleasant. The rhythm did not change as days changed in the calendar. It was usual and boring. A thought of it meant taking up a truck and driving it into the little room to end the frustrating sound.
A car pulled up in a distant from the little room. I saw it headlamp shot down. I monitored the movement of the occupants. Two men walked toward the direction of the little room. I hid myself and quickly escaped upstairs. They rolled away the metal and entered the room. “Fanny! Thank your stars no one caught you invading a private affair”. A voice spoke from within my mind. I bolted the door and dropped my weight on the couch. My eyes closed. But my mind wondered about the strange music and the men who visited.
I had heard violent scratches like someone was trying to make a hole in the wall, then the annoying humming followed. The scratches preceded humming. The scratched wall did not disturb much. The humming did. Dad had gone to work for the night. He does not get bothered about trivialities. I felt alone. It was like a personal threat. No one seemed to hear the humming. I heard all that was hummed and I did not like the tune and the sound. I would prefer the ticking of a clock to it.
“Poor little girl. You have to do away with bad memories so your heart can be opened to better things. Maybe you should read a poem by Rumi or listen to something from Sade Adu. It would help”. Bloody therapy! The sound is crazy and another so-called pleasant or collective sound would do worst. The sound of the ticking clock could not make me music for that night. I had knocked off the television. It was becoming boring. My favourite contestant had been dropped from the American Idol. I shuffled legs around the room, thinking about the hummed music in the basement, its significance and the persistent scratches that followed. My 18year old knees trembled at the thought of what could be. “Just maybe an alien is in the basement preparing to take over the world” I thought. “Or maybe someone was making a construction from within the small room. Or a soothsayer lived there. Humming made her see the future. Maybe. But why should the humming come every night?” No clear sentence found its way into my mind.
I walked toward the hummed music. With every step I took the music became closer and annoying. The humming sounded melodious but it had to be stopped. It was not the first time I was hearing the sound. There are always scratches on the wall and humming when the weather was calm. It happened every night since two weeks. Screaming followed after the two visitors had gone in. But as the days passed the screaming reduced but the music did not stop. Even when sleep called the scratches on the wall destroyed the peace of mind.
We moved in 2 weeks ago to the neighbourhood. We had come from Nigeria three years ago. Nigeria is pretty far, especially when you have to sneak out illegally. You sometimes want to thank a god for distancing you from a land of communal crisis and unstable politics. And sometimes you want to wave a middle finger across the mirror to a god for all your misfortunes, like some oracle was interested in your affairs.
Papa, Mama and I had decided to immigrate to America to make a new life for ourselves. It was a mixed feeling for me. I lost my childhood friends. I lost the community that had watched me grow up. But the sound from the room at the basement brings to mind painful memories. Only mama hummed when she was angry. But the humming reminded me of the life we did not have as a family onboard the ship that brought us to America. And the terror that accompanied us even while escaping that of Nigeria.
Mama, pretty and intelligent ended up in the Captain’s cabin of the ship for the 40 days we sailed lazily to the new world. She was our sacrifice for life. Because we wanted to live Papa needed to give the crew a prize. They requested for the priceless prize that gave Papa and Mama some smiles. They saw my raised chest and admired it. When the sailors found us onboard the ship they pointed guns at us. The man we had paid to get on the ship was not available to protect us. He was either working or planning to take another Nigerian away from dirt and misery. We were ordered to bring our passports. Dad did. He handed the three to the men. Dad attempted to tell them of his bargain with a crew member but the bigger officer screamed “Pirates!” He demanded for me but my Mama resisted. She offered to take my place. Mama was the ultimate prize requested for our freedom. Mama was young and beautiful. She could not be rejected. She had just formally wedded Papa to obtain a marriage certificate for the journey to America. And I was 15years old hoping to start an education in a country of dreams and opportunities.
I once visited Mama where she was kept with the sailors. She once told me she was crowded each time the sailors were drunk and horny. She said no one requested her permission to spread her thighs. One day I approached the door that led to her room and I heard her scream beyond the humming engine of the ship. Each time the sailors came to Mama and she screamed I saw Papa’s regret in his face even when they were not in same room. Papa wanted to stop our tormentors. I still hear the pains and regret in my head. But I think Papa has forgotten about the incident or he doesn’t wish to be reminded of it.
Last night the shouting intensified. While I tiptoed down the stairs, I heard a third person shouting and giving orders. I carefully adjusted the opened door of the room like I was invisible. But I saw only darkness and heard voices. With a little bit of delay in my mind I saw moving figures in the thick dark hot room. The room had its usual stench. There was no furniture. And there was no trace of real light to the room. While my mind became clearer I saw two men unclothed. They staggered with their pants around their ankles smiling at the figure that buried its face down. Glasses of what I suspect to be whisky in hand; they pressed the figure to the wall. Her full figure appeared. She was a young woman. She had a darker skin than mine. But she looked rather weaken from old bruises on her neck and thighs than a regular black woman. She had no face only the familiar voice I always heard from upstairs. Sweat and withered hair hid her face from the light of my eyes. I strained to see what she looked like but nothing appeared. I could not make the image in my head. I thought she saw me when I sneaked into the dark room because she did not scream at me. But maybe she did not see me at all. Or she wanted me to see all she was going through and take away her oppressors. But she had the music that caused my madness.
Her room was an attachment to our house. It had been abandoned for a long time. No one ever came into it in the day. No one agreed to have seen what the occupant looked like. But there were always late night visitors. The visitors who wore flapping shirts and staggered down to the room on most occasions could tell of her identity. I never see them return to their cars until morning.
The stench of alcohol was high in the foul smells that wreak the room on the night I returned to the little room. I saw the men drag the young woman to a corner of the room. They pulled her by her hair on the floor. When she had been properly placed against the wall, legs spread apart; splashes of whiskey were used to revive her. She did not scream of burnt. She only shook her body and the men laughed mischievously. One of them pushed forth his hand through her naked body and rubbed her thighs sensually, like he was doing her a favour. The second man held his penis with his right hand and shook it like it was asleep. He moved toward her staggering. Fluids already greasing her thighs the bigger man with the penis in hand smacked his lips and pushed forth the erected rod into her. The woman struggled but the weight of the man hit her persistently. The bigger man kept thrusting while the slimmer man kept his fingers busy on her exposed breasts too. And when one of them rested, the other took over. But she did not cry. She only fought with her feeble hands and scratched the wall each time the men hit her harder. Each moment either of the men pushed forward I moved backward. I tried not to see all she was going through as rage ran down my spine. My legs wobbled. A shadow from somewhere kept my presence away from the men. The bigger man pulled out his penis and placed it in her mouth like a laden. He ordered her to suck and swallow it all. She did. She gulped all that came forth. And they wiped their shame in her hair. And she fell down gasping for air.
Before Mama’s death on our way to America I sneaked into the quarterdeck of the ship where she was letter transferred to. She had no clothes on. Her once smooth body was bruised and battered. Dried blood stained her thighs. Her breasts were still soft. The sailors cared little. They liked her that way. When Papa attempted to save her he got stabbed in the stomach. But Mama always had her smiles unlike this other woman in the little room. Mama told me no one could steal her smiles. I believed her. I believed all she said because she was my mother. She held my hands, on one of the days and told me to be happy. She said even if she was far away she would always be with me if I was happy. She told me my days would be brighter than hers if I took caution when adjusting to ambition. She told me that a woman was sure to have a better life if she would not give up her smiles for all the pains in the world. I rested my head on her lap and slept as the wind from the sea acted kind to my young mind.
The room at the basement was terribly-hot on the third day of my visit. Air barely made it into the stifling space. It was 4am. The alarm clock rang. The deed of meeting the woman in the little had been planned. Papa would return at 5.30 am. I crawled to the woman. She smelled of filth. And her dark body heaped like debris from a once worthy property. I lifted up her head. I saw her eyes, they were almond. She wasn’t white like the men who visit her. She was black, the same complexion I had seen from the distant nights ago.
“Are you okay?” My voice softened at her. She did not act as if she could see me. She might looked dead from all appearances. I touched her hair and caressed her gently. I hummed to her a hymn, All Things Bright and Beautiful. I sang the words at some point. Mama introduced me to loving hymn. She kept a collection of hymn. She was a chorister before she met Papa. The woman lifted her face to mine and thanked me without words.
“Who are you?” she asked voicelessly.
“I’m Fanny. And you?” She paused, looking into an empty space. “I don’t know”. Everyone has a name. I thought aloud.
“Why don’t you have a name?” I asked her.
“Could you give me one?” She responded. Mother called me Fanny because she loved hymns. She said she wanted to immortalize a hymn writer who she particularly loved. I have no personal god like my mother. But I named the strange woman in the little room at the basement “Zina”.
“It means star” I told her.
She might be dirty but she was a star, I reassured myself. “All women are stars. Strive to be a shinning star, Fanny” Mama would also say to me.
I still hear humming from the dark little room at basement. But I am confident stars would only shine brighter when uncovered. Zina, my new found friend would be free, someday. But she would have to decide when.