Okene, Kogi state.
Death twitches my ear. ‘Live’, he says. I am coming. – Virgil.
They say some people can see death, smell it even. They say you feel its presence. Not just a metaphorical presence. They say death visits five times a day, bidding it’s time till your scroll is folded. Till your thread is worn out. Till the last grain of sand in your clock drops.
Inya woke me up around 2 am. The night was silent, save for the sound of the wind and the chirping of crickets. It was early January and the harmattan was in full swing. In the left corner of the room, the single flame produced by the shakabula danced alone, a sort of melancholic dance. It’s shadow looked something like a shrunken ghost.
“Fadi”, Inya called and nudged. “Wake up, Fadi”.
I groaned and turned to face her. With each movement came a series of sounds. The spring under my mattress was the best part of sleeping in my late grandpa’s bed. At the very least, it distracted me from the smell of old sheets and tired bare foam peeping through the threadbare mattress cover. I rubbed my eyes absentmindedly and managed to sit on the edge of my bed. The room was cold and I felt goosebumps creep up on my arms and neck. Inya better have something important to tell me, I thought.
“Good girl”, Inya said. She had carried a wooden stool from a corner of the room to the side my bed where I sat. She regarded me with calm, serious eyes.
“I want to tell you something, Fadilah. Promise me you’ll listen”.
I looked at her, surprised. I was also beginning to get scared. It wasn’t odd at all for Inya to wake any of us up for a midnight discussion, she did it all the time. But there was something eerie, somewhat creepy about this time. A dog barked in the distance. I heard another one howl back from a farther distance. I exhaled.
“Inya, you know I always listen to you,” I said. I forced myself to smile. It was followed by a chuckle. Anything to remove the concrete eeriness that had so easily entered the room with this Inya’s talk.
“I’m serious, Fadilah. Listen to me”. Inya held my hands in her much larger, drier hands. I felt the roughness of her palms on the back of my hands, the palms that had held hoes and wielded cutlasses and roasted fish. The hands that had once cradled and cared for me.
“No matter what you do, no matter what happens, ensure that you complete your schooling. If you complete it and can go further, it would be the best thing. Once you’re educated, no man can ever do like this to you”, she said, pushing my head slightly with her middle and index fingers, signifying that no man would ever be able to push me around if I took her advice.
“Do you hear me? Do you understand, Fadilah?”
“Yes Inya”, I replied. This midnight speech scared me. I feigned a smile to assure Inya and myself, but mostly myself, that everything was fine. Everything was just great.
“Good girl,” said Inya. “Now, go back to bed”.
I only managed to get one hour of sleep after Inya’s talk. The weirdness I felt refused to leave my room. At some point, it felt quite near, something like a fog or cloud above my head. Something close and visible, yet intangible. Tossing and turning, I kept myself entertained with the noise made by my grandfather’s old spring bed, and said silent prayers when I heard the dogs in the distance howl and bark. Inya always told me pray for protection when I heard barking dogs at night. “They see and understand that which we cannot”, she would say.
At the crack of dawn, I stood up and went about my morning duties. Even though I had only slept for three hours in total, for some reason, I was sprightly and sharp. I prayed, cleaned my teeth with a small stick Inya cut for me the previous morning, took a quick shower, and dressed up for the journey ahead. The journey back to school in Kabba. In the past, these journeys were fraught with tears and screams from both Inya and I, well, mostly me. But things were different now. After the third year, I actually anticipated my return to school.
Inya prepared a breakfast of akara and eko for me. She also packed three sweets, two oranges, and a plastic bottle containing Dr Pepper. My departure was always emotional for Inya. She tried very much to hide it, to hide that she missed me dearly when I left, to hide that she cried herself to sleep on some nights during my absence. She did a good job at concealing her emotions, but I still found out anyway.
It was around 7 am. The air seemed colder and stronger. The mango trees opposite the house that served as shade on hot sunny days bent and shed leaves at the sound and movement of the wind. Market women with perfectly balanced baskets and firmly strapped babies waved as Inya and I strolled down to meet Mr Idowu, my Math teacher and school guardian, at his house. Inya and I walked slower than usual, as if savoring the taste. Our hands were locked in a tight grip, and Inya stroked my hand with her thumb as we walked.
We found Mr Idowu cleaning his bike in front of his house. Mr Idowu was a tall bespecatcled fellow with a cheerful face. He was possibly the most cheerful Math teacher in the world. He had assisted Inya in getting me admitted into the Girls College in Kabba as soon as I completed primary school. Even though I had been accepted into one of the federal unity schools in a neighboring state, Inya wanted me as close as possible. I remember her speaking to Mr Idowu for days on end till I got admitted. She was so excited the day I got my letter that she carried a basket of yams and one whole broiler chicken to Mr Idowu’s house. A bit embarrassed, Mr Idowu initially refused all the gifts but eventually collected the yams after my mother knelt and begged to. That evening, Inya and I had a small feast of rice and chicken, something we usually reserved for the end of Ramadan.
“Ah, good morning ma! Fadi, it’s nice to see you. Ready for school?”
“Good morning sir. Yes, I’m ready.” But I was not ready. I was not ready to leave Inya.
“Good morning Mr Idowu. She’s ready o. Please take good care of her for me.” Inya pressed a one pound note into his palm, almost clandestinely. Mr Idowu looked shy for a few seconds. He however managed to mutter “Thank you ma. She’s in safe hands”.
Mama turned to me and smiled. Before she spoke, she rested her hands on my shoulders and pulled me close. “God be with you, my child. Please study well, and don’t forget what we discussed. God bless you, Fadi”.
“Thank you Inya, God bless you too.” I closed the gap between us and hugged her firmly. Her hands moved from my shoulders to my back and my face rested on her stomach. I inhaled and took in her smell: firewood and old wrapper.
“Okay let’s go. We don’t want the traffic to slow us down, do we?”. Mr Idowu’s voice broke our little moment and Inya slowly released me. I looked into her eyes and they had grown red. Not from tears but from a lack thereof. I felt my eyes moisten and my throat tighten. No tears, Fadilah. No tears.
Inya placed my portmanteau on the back of Mr Idowu’s bike and he tied it firmly. She also lifted me gently unto the small space between Mr Idowu and my load and told me to hold tight to him. “When you get hungry, eat your oranges. Safe journey, you two”, Inya said, with a sad smile on her face.
“Thank you ma. See you in a few months”. I stretched out my hand and Inya and I locked fingers. Mr Idowu revved his bike in readiness for the trip. Inya moved back at the sound. The tightness in my throat returned. I waved as the bike took off.
Inya stood there till we were no longer in sight, her hand above her head waving like a politician at a campaign rally. She stayed there amidst the dust and the cold and waited and waved, not minding that people walking by looked at her the same way the looked at people who were victims of new madness. It took the sound of another bike to move Inya from the main road. Even then, she stood with the trees, her eyes still fixated on the road we had taken. Eventually, she walked home. Some say she stayed there up to an hour, or half an hour.
This thing they call death is everywhere. I think it roams the earth everyday, register in hand. Ticking off names and setting reminders for impending victims. That day when I left for school, it was there. The day I got the news, I’m sure it was there. I imagined it sitting in the room with us, Inya and I, that fateful night when we talked. I imagined it looking through its register and knowing Inya was next, knowing these were our final moments together. It knew. It stood with her when her eyes refused to tear away from the road, it stood behind her. It walked home with her. It caused the hair on the back of her neck to stand as she sat in my room, on my bed. It watched as she shed tears and lay down and sniffed my pillow. It listened as those tears became soft sobs. It stood as she drifted to sleep, as her headscarf shifted and stayed loosely on her head. It waited. It counted.
And it took her.