NICON TOWN ESTATE
I am back before the mirrors, in my usual place of solace. All around me is a deep silence. A man stands staring back at me, his surroundings the same mishmash of white, blue and gray that is behind me. Our expressions are identical, his brows drawn tightly in the same frown I know is on my face, but I wonder if we are thinking the same thing, if the uncertainty threatening my sanity is the same fate he suffers. Dropping my weight on the countertop scrubbed to a blinding gleam, I lean towards him so that our foreheads touch.
“What are you going to do now?”
Several moments pass. Apart from the look of confusion on his face, the man says nothing. I shake my head at him.
“You are wasting time. You are wasting too much time.”
Somewhere behind me, a door is opening. I turn away from the man to look into the smiling eyes of my fiancée. A pair of steel rimmed reading glasses magnifying her darting eyes, she strolls towards me, oversized pyjama trousers and a shapeless old shirt hiding her perfect figure. Her smile is dazzling and a perfect contrast against the chocolate hue of her skin.
“Are you talking to yourself?”
I twist my lips in what I hope is a cheerful smile.
A look of reprimand settling on her face, she shakes her head at me, arms going around me in a hug.
“You know you can talk to me, right?”
I lift my hand and let my finger skim the line of her jaw.
I watch her expressive mouth pucker in a pout and feel shame at my lack of desire.
“You have changed so much. Always hiding in the bathroom,” her eyes leave my own to roam the bathroom, “like there is something here.”
I sigh, “Yeah I know. It’s just….”
My powers of expression defeated by a heavily cluttered mind, I let my sentence hang in the air. Bukky’s eyes brows quirk in question. Then her lips spread in amusement.
“It’s just wedding nerves?”
Something about the situation strikes me as funny and I laugh then, chuckling hard at nothing and feeling foolish at the same time. Bukky laughs with me, though I suspect for an entirely different reason. Our combined mirth lasts for seconds until the silence wins again.
“Remind me to argue next time I hear someone say only brides suffer nerves,” Bukky says, her voice still ringing with happiness. I peel back my lips and expose more teeth.
I am mercifully saved from further acting when Bukky remembers a scheduled phone call. Pulling away from each other, we share a light kiss. At the door, she stops to give me a mock frown.
“And don’t stay too long here. Your party is not going to plan itself.”
I wear my smile until the door closes behind her, and then I return my attention to the man in the mirror.
Tell her,” I snarl at him.
“Tell her,” he snarls back.
I sigh loudly and lean towards him again.
“You have no idea what you are getting into Luke, you have no fucking idea.”
Still glaring at my reflection, I let despair run through me. When my phone starts to vibrate in the right pocket of my trouser, the attempt to fetch it is lethargic and slow. A single glance at the screen prepares me for Jude’s ribald clowning when I answer the call. I listen to him without a word, my facial muscles stiff and inflexible. His next words though spoken genially perform the last burial rites on my sense of humour.
“Something tells me you are watching the marriage clock ticking and shitting your pants.”
“So what’s up?” I say sharply, a little too sharply.
Jude’s voice drops in concern.
“Man you sound different. You okay?”
Feeling like an ingrate, I close my eyes and rub the space between my eyebrows.
“I am fine.”
There is a short pause before Jude speaks again.
“I just wanted to tell you that Ayo and the rest will be here by four. So we are expecting you before then.”
“I think they might have a surprise planned for you.”
I slip my hand into my other pocket.
Jude rings off without another word. Lowering the phone from my ear, I remember my indecision and curse loudly. I am about to make a mistake, a terrible mistake.
One you know too well.
I begin to nod my head in agreement with my inner voice, and then freeze.
One I know too well?
Unable to make sense of those words, I shrug them off. Looking up at the ceiling, I whisper an urgent need.
“Save her from me. Any way you can, just save her.”
THE CITY OF QU-STUL
THE KINGDOM OF TA-SET
Daylight broke through gray clouds, outlining hundreds of mud brick building spread all over the land. In the gateways of the temple, the eternal lamps burned, casting great shadows on the wall. In the secret chambers of the goddess, a shadow moved along the wall, steady and with unwavering resolve in the direction of the southern gate. It disappeared through the gate, passing Heru, the keeper of the gate and metamorphosed into a living creature under the light of dawn. The figure was no one else but Neferet who bundled under a pleated shawl the colour of the day time sky, hurried to keep a promise.
Creeping along the silt covered bank of the river, stalks of wheat and corn concealing her small form, Neferet navigated her way to the large band of men waiting for her at the end of the river bank. They were there as she knew they would be, their attention riveted on the tall giant of man with thick red flaming hair the texture of wool. He was one of the new men, the ones who had come in their hundreds the evening before to swell the ranks of the army that had claimed the river bank. His name was Ua-Zit and like the many in the multitude, he came from the land of Eshunna. Standing to the left of the man who had become Neferet’s reason for living, Ua-Zit addressed the band of renegades.
“The gods now rule in Eshunna. Why should Ta-Set be different?”
A low murmur of agreement broke out among the men. Neferet crouched among the plants on the bank and listened.
“En, he who was the greatest of consorts refused to put his throat to the knife as was done to the others before him, has enthroned the great god Enkil as the god of the land. Why then do we tarry?”
Neferet watched as Ua-Zit’s head moved in all directions, facing every man.
“Why we allow the goddesses continue to rule over this place?”
A short silence ensued and the growing brightness showed the eager anticipation on the men’s faces as they waited for Ua-Zit to resume his speech.
“Have you not heard the story, of how Enkil, taking hold of the robes of the goddess Innana, rent them apart, shaming her so that he claimed her soul? Have you not heard brothers of the land and you from this place, has it not been told how he breaking her will, caused her to sit at his side in servitude?”
Another murmur broke out in the crowd. Ua-Zit waited until it subsided.
“The ways of the goddesses must be discarded. Do the victories of En and those of the great god Enkil not tell us that the consorts are greater than the goddesses, that Enkil is the greatest of all gods?”
Neferet stopped listening to Ua-Zit, choosing to focus instead on Ahmose. She mused about the calmness of his features. It was the same calmness that had caused the guard’s arm to hang in the air, his knife near the cords of her neck the first time she had crept uninvited to this place. She had fallen before him, submitting and calling him Lord.
He had listened to her story, believing without a shadow of doubt that she was on their side. She was after all a daughter of Eshunna. She had taken her oath and sworn her allegiance to him, just as she had done to the circle of elders that had taught her to watch the goddess for the eventual victory of Enkil. The ones who had drummed into her mind the stories of the sacrifices, etching into her memory the screams of consorts sent to premature deaths after they fulfilled the tasks of filling the womb of the goddesses with their seeds.
Ahmose saw her then, his eyes narrowing in the way that it did when he considered a matter of importance. He watched her, his face plain and without any expression. He too remembered the first time she had come to this place and the awe in her eyes when he had commanded his guard to sheath his sword. The look of adoration in her eyes had not interested him. It was the fact of her betrayal that gave her any worth.
Ahmose considered his plan as their eyes held. His mind whispered ideas as his second in command Ua-Zit spoke. In the end he smiled.
What better revenge than to make the servant of the goddess his wife?
He lifted a hand and a hush fell on the assembly. Every man turned towards the plants of corn, wheat and papyrus where Ahmose’s eyes had fallen. Neferet rose to her feet.
It was time to share all that she had learned since the last visit.
Night came. The people of the land retreated into the warmth of their homes for the winter night had brought with it a chill that was like none the people had ever seen. Qalhatta, after a day of meeting with the crow goddess and her older aunts to discuss the threat posed by Ahmose and his men, had retired to the secret chambers to rest.
In the room she shared with Neb-Het, Neferet had lain still until the first maiden had stopped her tossing upon her bed before she threw her robe of disguise over her shoulders and stole once more out of the temple.
She was in Ahmose’s house not long after. Following a bald male servant that towered over her, she entered Ahmose’s private chamber. In the stately room of wooden pillars and chairs made with wood from Lebanon, she stood under Ahmose’s watchful gaze, bowing with her knees to the ground.
He had risen from his gilded chair with arms of a lion’s head and extended his hand to her. Rising quickly, Neferet had taken his hand, allowing him guide her to his bedroom, another stately room filled with furnishings and ornaments from foreign lands. A stone hearth on the floor cackled with fire, warming the room. In the walls of the room, oil lamps burned low in the niches cut for them, creating a seductive ambience. No words had passed between them. None was needed.
Neferet understood the look in Ahmose’s eyes enough to shrug off her shawl and the wide shoulder straps of her linen sheath dress. Standing before him naked, the flames from the fire in the room dancing on her naked body, she waited patiently until he issued his command. When he did, she joined him, discarding the vows of chastity which she had taken before the goddess.
Ahmose was a skillful lover. His touch burned and then warmed her. His lips traced the contours of her body, causing her to moan loudly in abandon. When the pain of his intrusion came, she took it without a whimper, afraid lest she offend him with her inexperience. She touched him, awed by the thought that he was now hers, for in the tradition of the land, the very act of their lovemaking had made them man and wife. It was a while before he rolled off her. Again he said nothing. Yet Neferet loved him in his silence. Tracing the muscled definition of his back with loving fingers, she pledged her life to him. She would love him in this life and the next, and no woman would come between them, not even the goddess.
At the edge of the bed, Ahmose watched the lamps in the wall, his mind drifting with thoughts. He thought of passion and lust. He thought of a love so great, it shook his soul. He thought of dark eyes that blazed with emotion and ocher coloured lips that once laughed without reservation. He closed his eyes, sighing within himself.
She was his mortal enemy.
He had begun a plot to end her reign.
Why then did he think of her often?
Thump! Thump! Thump!
I reach for the book divider with the face of a smiling girl and push it in the novel I have been trying to read for the past twenty minutes. Pushing upright to a sitting position, I dangle my legs over the edge of the bed. I study the rectilinear patterns of my rug, doing my best to block out the sounds of the pounding. It is an unsuccessful attempt. Dropping my hands to the bed, I clench them into fists, propping my upper body weight on them, and let my mind wander off.
I think about the old woman. There had been dreams after that evening. Dreams that left me bewildered and confused every time they occurred. In those dreams I saw the old woman but she was not old. She was a young, exotic looking woman with olive skin and wide beautiful eyes who spoke a different language. Every night we fought, tearing at each other with vengeance, and every night I would win the fight, standing over her body, hand tightly clenched over the handle of a knife dripping with blood.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
My room is suddenly infused with the enticing aroma of spicy pepper and locust beans. My stomach rumbles in response. Slipping my feet into the pair of rubber flip flops beside the bed, I leave the bed and stroll out of the room, leaving dreams of the old woman behind.
The pounding is loud when I walk into the living room. The television is on and flashing images of a half naked female dancer grinding over a fully dressed man looking into the camera, a pink bottom lip caught between his teeth. Their legs hanging off two of the six brown plaid leather sofas with heavy oak arms arranged in classic symmetry, my sisters add to the deafening din with an impossibly loud conversation. Celia the middle one is laughing hard. She stops to give me a grin when she sees me.
“Ah! Finally the hermit leaves her room.”
Theresa my immediate, who for some reason best known to her has become Triss gives me an even wider grin.
“Oya come and sit down, let’s gist,” she says, patting the empty space beside her.
I make a face at her and cross the room to the kitchen, past the windows where cotton velvet curtains hang low, allowing small streams of daylight to pass through exposed inner lace curtains.
“Why are you boring like this?” Theresa a.k.a Triss calls after me as I cut into the passage leading to the kitchen.
Thump! Thump! Thump!
Bits of tomato fly out of the wooden mortar and land at my feet when I draw to a stop at the door of the kitchen. I meet Martha, sixteen year old and the last of my sisters wielding the pestle like a weapon and looking at my mother with pleading eyes.
“Okay mummy, can I go now?”
Standing before the cooker in a floral print knee length dress and stirring the contents of the pot sitting on one of the burners, my mother turns to scowl at Martha.
“You are acting like I am punishing you.”
Sensing trouble, Martha lets her shoulders droop appropriately.
“No, you are not.”
Turning back to the pot, my mother dismisses my sister with a slight movement of head. Martha is happy to go. Casting a careful look at my mother’s back, she flashes me a thumbs up sign and a happy grin, and then skips out of the kitchen.
“So how are you?”
I walk into the kitchen and position myself at the edge of the kitchen counter top beside my mother to answer her question.
“I am okay.”
Grabbing a cooking spoon from the metal holder hanging on the wall above the cooker and handing to me with a cursory nod at the mortar, my mother stands arms on hips and wears her I-don’t-believe-you frown. I spoon out the tomato paste in the mortar and complete three trips to the open pot before facing my mother again.
“Fine, I am not really okay.”
I cross my arms against my chest and rock back on my heels.
“Well, something happened to me some days ago…”
I tell my mother about the old woman, reliving my experience with the same wonder that had struck me when I realized my encounter had been with the supernatural. My mother’s reaction surprises me. The slack jawed open eyed wonder I had hoped to evoke is missing. Instead her eyes are narrowed in deep thought and focused on something else. I find out soon that is on our past.
“You were five years old…”
For the next ten minutes, I am held spellbound by the story of the man who had visited my mother during a trip to the village to see my grandparents. According to my mother, the man had been one of the tallest men she had ever seen.
“There was just something about him,” she says, her eyes still on that distant past. “He was just so…” Lines settle on her forehead and I know she is searching for the right word. At last she finds it and sighs with it, “so peaceful.”
“So he was looking for grandpa?”
“Yes, that was what he said initially.”
Intrigued by the story, I press my mother.
“What else did he say?”
Dark brown eyes focus on me. Full eyebrows draw together in a frown.
“He said you were here for a reason and that I should watch you.”
I switch my weight to my right foot and frown.
“What was his name? Who did grandpa say he was?”
“That is the strange part,” my mother says, her frown deepening. “When your grandfather returned home, I told him about the man…but he said he didn’t know him.”
The pause that follows my mother’s words is pregnant. I know there is more. When more comes, it is with a hint of awe.
“And the man…he never came back….all the while we were at the village till this day.”
There is a lulling silence but it is a short one. My mother starts another conversation but it is kitchen centered and less riveting. I pay little attention to it, preferring to mull over the story of the man in the village.
Was he like the old woman?
And if he was, what did these disappearing beings want with me?
I am still struggling with my questions when Martha comes running into the kitchen, my phone well lit and high above her head.
“It’s a mobile phone, not a landline” she says, lowering the phone and waving it under my nose. I thank her and get an answering snort. I pick the call from Mrs. Shehu just as it gives off its last ring.
“Irima, where are you?”
I regret the inflection immediately but there is no time to apologize. Mrs. Shehu is breathless and in a hurry.
“Listen, I will need you to meet me at Osbourne Ikoyi in the next one hour.”
The phone clicks before I can get any word out. Hurrying out of the kitchen, I search for and dial Duro’s number. He is happy to hear from me. I tell him about the impromptu date with Mrs. Shehu.
“It will cost you o, Aunty Irima,” he says, jocular and at the same time businesslike. “I am far and before I start to come to Surulere, that is another money.”
Flipping through the clothes in my wardrobe with one hand, I bargain with Duro for several minutes until we arrive at a fair price.
“Okay, I am coming now,” he says, a smile in his voice. “Expect me in the next twenty minutes.”
Knowing Duro’s penchant for lateness, I add an extra ten minutes to the time given and dedicate it to searching for what to wear. At last I choose a black jeans shirt dress with a belt at the waist and a pair of nude stone embellished gladiator flats. Thirty minutes later I am ready, and very worried.
A convoy of six cars drove into the compound, the bright light from their laser and LED headlamps washing the white painted six bedroom duplex cocooned in a nest of Norwegian pine trees and coconut trees in a white glow. A chorus of running engines filled the night until one by one, their owners killed them, leaving the illumination of the vast compound to the poles of halogen lamps. Humans began to spill out of the cars into the stone paved walkway hedged by weeping fig plants. The women with their skimpy dresses threw coquettish glances over their shoulders at the swaggering horde of men that followed on their heels.
The house filled up with the people, its shiny wood floor covered by a variety of shoes in no time. The people divided themselves into small groups, congregating around pieces of upholstered furniture. As if on cue, the great wood doors to the west of the living room opened and servers spilled into the room, offering glasses of wine and pleasant smiles to the guests.
Minutes ticked. Tongues loosened. The women grew bolder, breaking out of small groups and searching out marked love interests. When the host arrived, he was in the company of five decently dressed women. With arms spread out, he stood in the middle of the living room and welcomed them.
“The groom is on his way,” he announced, oblong face split evenly to reveal slightly crooked white teeth. “When he comes,” stopping for a second, he looked sideways at the women that surrounded him, “these beautiful ladies here will give him the time of his life.”
The people cheered, hooted and celebrated his promise, and turned back to their drinks as they waited. Outside the wind had grown still. In the circle of trees behind the house, light spilled through branches, creating halos and deep shadows. In the shadows, a pair of eyes blinked. It too waited.
There is a crowd full of people in Jude’s living room when I arrive. Some of them I know. Most are just strangers but all seem to know me.
“Congratulations,” my friend Seye says, tapping my shoulder with a laugh, a small gold band nearly obscured by the fat on his wedding finger.
“Congrats,” says a girl with the reddest mouth and shortest dress I have ever seen.
The felicitations continue until another friend Ayo appears to my side and guides me to a chair in the middle of the room.
“Sit,” he says, lips twitching in the way it always did when he was hiding something. I sigh and let him cuff my hands with a pair of silver handcuffs behind the chair.
“So what’s the surprise?”
“Who said anything about a surprise?” Ayo says, stepping back with a smirk and claiming his drink from a big breasted woman I know is not his wife.
I laugh. “Sorry bro, but Jude’s ratted out on you. You might as well tell me wha –“
The rest of my sentence is cut off by the sight of half naked women strolling into the room. Wearing black mesh dresses, leather thongs and brassieres, they circle me, smirks on their faces. Suddenly the lights dim and music begins to play. Swaying with the fluid notes of piano chords, the strippers perform a choreographed dance, pulling the mesh dresses over their heads and stepping out of their leather underwear. The room erupts in loud cheers and I do my best to keep the smile on my face as one of the strippers straddle and grind me. Breasts, large and perfumed suffocate me.
“Suck it,” the stripper sitting on me commands, kohl lined eyes making her look like the devil’s emissary. Lifting one of the breasts, she places it against my mouth. “Come on. Do it,” she drawls, a teasing smile tugging the corners of her lips.
I consider my options and the dare in her eyes. Muting the noise and blurring out the people making it, I hold the stripper’s eyes and slowly lower my head. Hands cradle my head and run up and down my body, but I ignore them, choosing instead the woman on my lap. The nipple is hard and ready when my tongue circles it. A low moan escaping her throat, the stripper leans forward, pushing all of her flesh in my mouth. I oblige her, sucking and flicking the offered breast. I am aware of the sudden spike in noise in the background but I am aroused and indifferent to it. Suddenly, the music stops and light floods the room.
The voice is familiar and strained with pain.
Pulling back from the stripper’s breasts, I turn to see Bukky standing at the door of the living room, tears in her eyes and a plastic tray of brownish objects topped with white cones. From the corner of my eyes, I see someone whisper something into the ears of the stripper sitting on my lap and then feel her weight slide off me. A sudden press of bodies against the chair pushes me forward as my friends stumble over each other to free me from the handcuff.
My hands free, I stand up from the chair, my emotions tangled in an untidy mess as I approach Bukky through a crowd that parts like the red sea.
“Sorry,” I tell her when we meet. It is all I can do, but from the shimmer of tears in Bukky’s eyes, I know it is not enough.
Choking back a sob, Bukky looks past my shoulder at the sinful mob in the living room.
“Sorry is all you can do after this?”
I stare down at the tray she thrusts towards my chest and realize that the brownish objects are cakes.
“I came to drop this,” Bukky says, voice wavering as she explains the cakes. I look into her eyes.
A sob catching in her throat, Bukky throws her head back. I keep my eyes on her collarbone and the fine prints of her sleeveless green Ankara dress.
“You know what,” she says, looking back at me, tears rolling freely down her cheeks. “I am not sure I can do this.”
Spinning around with the cakes, Bukky leaves me standing at the door. The chirrup of a car coming on echoes through the night and car headlights shoot orbs on the wall beside the door as Bukky’s engine starts to run.
“Sorry man,” Jude says, coming to stand beside me. We watch Bukky’s taillights blink us goodbye. “I didn’t know she was coming here.”
“It’s not fault Jude.”
I ask for privacy and leave Jude at the door. There is a guest bedroom across the passage. I walk to it and shut myself from the world.
My six year relationship is over.
I am free.
Mrs. Shehu is on the phone reminding someone about her marital status.
“You know I am married. I cannot stay out late. My husband will be worried.”
I lean on her Honda and look at the cars in the compound and regret my jeans dress.
“Okay, we will wait.”
I am relieved to learn we are not joining the party inside the house. Mingling with well dressed people who drove luxury cars and owned more money than I dreamed of is the last thing I want to do this evening. My supervisor and I wait until the spread of twinkling skies outside the house and struggle through a distracted conversation about workplace politics. Somewhere along the line, we stop and Mrs. Shehu shakes her head at the display of wealth.
“Even with the fact that prices are falling, this people have money.”
I nod and toy with the end of my belt as something catches my eyes in the trees flanking the house to the left. Lowering my hand from my dress, I peer into the darkness.
What was that?
Was someone hiding there?
“Ah, he is here. Thank God.”
I look away from the shadows to see Mr. Harry hurrying down the steps of the house towards us, hand swiping perspiration from his forehead.
“Phew, it is hot in there,” he says, giving us a rather shaky smile. Mrs. Shehu and I close in on him and learn the disappointing news. Mr. Eleojo would not be seeing us.
“Something happened,” Mr. Harry adds with a sad shake of head.
Mrs. Shehu’s sigh is deep.
“What a disappointment!”
I watch her from behind the drawn blinds. Standing next to Mr. Harry and the woman Harry calls Mrs. Shehu, her eyes constantly shift to side as if searching for something. I find myself wondering what it is as I slip my hands into my pockets. Harry’s gesticulating arms cause me to focus on him and the woman and I frown.
Why was this important to him?
She catches my interest again and I incline my head sideways, studying her for several seconds. Dark thoughts race through my mind and I deal with the usual dislike. Pulling my phone from my pocket, I dial Harry’s number. Outside the window, he jerks and flashes one finger before the faces of the women with him. I keep my eyes on him as he steps sideways to answer my call.
“I am giving them the job.”
“Luke, I am sorry but who are we talking about?”
“The insurance company. Peachway.”
I enjoy a spark of amusement as Harry’s pumps his fists in the air. Ending the call, I watch the girl again. A look of wariness creeps on her face as she listens to Harry. Thoughts of control and subjugation produce a dark pleasure that makes me forget my botched Bachelor’s party.
Beyond the blinds, on the clear surface of the window glass, my reflection smiles back.
In the shadows behind the house, a figure fell to its knees, howling silently and clawing at its neck. A north wind swept through branches, whipping long hair to expose tortured ancient eyes.
It was time.
It knew it. The Great Spirit was about to bring them together.
Crumbling to the ground, gnarled hands beat the earth.
It would not be!
It would not be cheated a second time.
Umari Ayim is the author of ‘Twilight at Terracotta Indigo’ and ‘Inside my Head’ both winners of the 2011 ANA NDDC Flora Nwapa prize and 2012 Poetry prize respectively.
Umari blogs at www.umariayim.com and tweets from @umariayim