The dead man’s body lay by the roadside. Sometime before dusk, one of our most ardent worshippers, chased from the mosque by the demands of his fretful stomach, noticed it. He screamed. The wind carried this cry to ears faraway and people hurried over as if they were vultures tracking carrion.
Mangled, mashed, and missing some parts, the unfortunate fellow rested in front of a plank customers use in crossing the gutter to Mama Praise’s early morning akara and akamu spot. Two abandoned heaps of coal tar from when the local government council stopped funding road projects blocked him from full view. Whichever gods he served spared his left leg. The one wasted by polio. It lay a good twenty steps from the pile of bone and flesh like a shrivelled appendage too ashamed to join its companions.
Life is a mirage. A fleeting mix of joys and sorrows shining one’s path to an ultimate end. Here today and gone tomorrow.
Oshioke woke to the realisation that it was his birthday. He yawned shamelessly, shifting his bulky build into a sitting position, and rubbed the remnants of sleep from his eyes. Next, he took stock of himself: one lopsided jaw, puny projecting ears harbouring specks of greyish hair, an extra finger on his left hand, long stocky limbs. A musty smell rising from his loins made him squeeze his already unpleasant face. He began to take off his boxer shorts but remembering midway that he did not own another pair, he dragged them up again. He stretched his six-foot frame across the threadbare mattress and cranked up a rhythm by drumming his toes against the cement floor. The place his head had been while he slept was wet with spit, so he made a mental note to carry the bed outside once the harmattan sun made its appearance.
The bungalow he tenanted housed twelve rooms (six on each side) separated by a great corridor. Each was occupied by large families, all of whom he disliked in equal measure. He was an impoverished, childless, melancholic bachelor. Even if he desired a wife, the yams and palm-oil needed for this acquisition did not grow on trees.
While he walked to and fro plagued by disjointed thoughts, he avoided a mirror taped to the wall opposite. At forty-five, the wrinkles grew more prominent with each passing day. Being of a weak disposition, bouts of despair attacked him without warning on a regular basis, during which he often thought of taking his own life.
“Yes,” he sighed, approaching the bed. “Today will pass just like yesterday, and the weeks and months and years before it. Then I will have a stroke and die on this mattress like my mother.” His blue singlet and brown shorts danced to the rhythm of a gentle breeze, on the clothesline above his head. These, he always wore to Mallam Aminu’s abattoir, where he laboured with a gang of much younger men, butchering cows for eight hundred naira per day.
The muezzin calling his flock to prayer interrupted Oshioke’s thoughts. From the verandah, he heard the voices of Mama Praise, his next-door neighbour, and her daughter. It being market day, she was up with her kerosene lamp, jute bags, and baskets filled with smoked mackerel. Praise washed beans while protesting the housework sharing ratio between her and her twin brothers: “Ojojo and Omomo sleep as much as they want. They do nothing but eat like horses. Mummy, God did not create only me for work o.”
Oshioke hurried to his door, inserted two fingers into the hole where a knob used to be and pulled. He was intent on reaching the pit toilet behind the building (accessible through the main or back door) before anyone else. His bladder was in turmoil and his intestines pressed down on his anus with a load of shit. Mama Praise in her characteristic early morning chipper, stopped his race with, “Neighbour, good morning o. Hope say no be my noise wake you?” A lengthy exchange of greetings and enquiries about his health followed. He cracked his fingers, ran a nervous hand down his face, and answered her questions as straightforward as he could manage. By force of habit, he let his gaze linger everywhere but Praise, alternating his weight between both legs. The girl was breathtakingly gorgeous. She had a glow about her; a softness that lit fire in his loins and caused him to imagine doing things to her.
Mama Praise concluded her sermon by querying him about his part of their joint electricity bill, overdue for five months; an issue he was ill-suited to address in his vulnerable state.
What do I use light for in my cubicle? The only bulb I have is spoilt. It is cheating to split fifty-fifty. You have a television set, a pressing iron, an electric fan, and a deep freezer.
To be fair, he woke up every day, intending to settle a percentage of the debt he considered fair, but by the time he returned home, he never had enough money.
“I will give you something this evening” he pleaded, in a voice which broke. His forehead and armpits were covered in sweat. He squeezed his buttocks and released simultaneous gaseous bombs which corrupted the fine morning air. Mama Praise sniffed, dragged her blouse over her nose and stepped aside.
By the time he got back to his tiny room, dawn was fast approaching. Streaks of light tore through the tattered window curtain, giving the place a nightclub aura. This was always the saddest part of the day for him. He collapsed on his bed, coiled into a ball, and wept tearlessly. When he tried to get up and rustle some breakfast, his good leg gave way, so he returned to a supine position, arms splayed in mock surrender. A wave of revulsion coursed through him. “I need to drink,” he moaned.
The thought of beer warmed his heart. He was short of money, but Papa Praise sold on credit if you possessed things of value, such as a steady salary or items he could seize and resell. The shrewd businessman ran Ughiesomi Bar (spelt as pronounced)—one of only two such establishments in town. Signboards bearing the name and location of his enterprise scrawled in white paint were installed at the entrance to the bar and in front of the town hall, where motorcycle riders hustled for passengers.
As a result of this rebranding, the price of his ogógórò doubled. And nobody could afford several plates of pepper-soup in one sitting anymore.
“I deserve a break,” Oshioke murmured, dragging a wrapper over himself.
Thirty minutes passed. Someone brought a piece of cloth and covered the dead man’s body but left the stump where it was. The crowd swelled like fermenting cassava paste, leaving little room for air; a melange of halitosis, sweat, and body odour. Sachet water sellers gathered on the outskirts, doing their business.
Praise was on a motorcycle, squeezed into the space left by one basket of smoked fish tied to the luggage rack. Her mother’s customers who bought wholesale without haggling over every kobo could lose patience if she failed to deliver their goods pronto.
“Stop,” she screamed at her driver, who seemed willing to cut through the crowd.
The young rascal jammed the brake pads, and to his joy, Praise bumped—breasts first, against his back.
“God have mercy on my soul,” she hissed, alighting before a bystander could offer help. “Is that Oshioke?”
“Yes o, e never too tey wey e happen,” the newsmonger replied, letting a dirty cap fall from his hands in his eagerness to once more recount the tale. “Na 404 Tipper jam am when he dey cross express. We manage catch the Dan Fulani driver as e wan escape.”
A dizziness seized her; she may have fainted had the man not grabbed her when her knees buckled. The ringing in her ears increased. “It can’t be,” she said, willing her words to reverse time. “Stay with my load,” she ordered the motorcyclist.
Still conscious of how Praise’s body felt pressed up against his when he’d stopped, he yearned for an opportunity to declare the sudden affection that consumed him.
Praise drifted through the herd, not paying him a second thought. She arrived at the centre of the chaos, circling her thumb and middle finger round her head to serve as protection from any evil spirit lurking. It wasn’t every day that a vehicle grinded somebody to mush. The juju that caused this calamity must be hovering, waiting for its next prey.
The Tipper driver lay sprawled, surrounded by some villagers. He was naked. Blood dripped from a wound under what remained of his nose, staining his chest and upper lip red. An enormous lump covered half his forehead. One hand looked bent out of shape. He begged in his native Kanuri tongue, which nobody understood, making them despise him even more.
His swollen eyes kept darting from person to person in search of a saviour. They soon fastened on Praise, begging her to do something. Hating him, she reddened and turned away. It was useless—his display of remorse. He was stupid not to sense it.
At about 11:53 a.m., Oshioke made his way to the communal bathroom. You may be familiar with such stalls; they join four sheets of zinc end-to-end, forming a big roofless box. In front is an opening with a stick nailed crosswise. This is used as a towel or wrapper hanger, to hide an occupant’s nakedness. Stones are positioned at equal distance from each other to provide elevation for you and your bucket of water. A shallow passageway dug in any of the corners serves as drainage.
The compound was empty. He hummed lyrics to Idonije Ugabi’s latest highlife hit: “No Food for Lazy Man.” Thoughts of the approaching yuletide filled him with happiness. He hoped to switch jobs, helping barge operators stack vehicles destined for Ida or Otukpo unto boats. The roads being filled to capacity and dangerous, patronage of sea travel rose to a high. This meant more money and more money helped purchase gifts for Praise—a new dress or pair of shoes. He went to bed most nights thinking of a life with her. If he did not have her soon, he might go mad. Her reciprocity flourished with each passing day, and this emboldened him. A week ago, crossing paths in the market, he’d complimented her hairstyle. Rather than hiss as expected, she blessed him with a smile before flouncing away, wiggling her hips.
Their first official date would take place in thirty-five days under the guise of assisting her with new intakes’ clearance in the polytechnic. He planned to pay her unscheduled visits as well; those National Diploma boys better beware. He’d take her on dates to GT Foods or Mr Biggs. Girls love men who can afford GT. If she wants to shop, touring boutiques at Angle 90 was unlikely to cost him too much money. He’d buy her wash-and-wear flowery satin blouses displayed on mannequins and bell-bottom jeans that were all the rave this period. Two thousand naira could secure lodgings in a cheap hotel for a few hours. This part of his plan was certain to meet resistance, but the solution was sweet-talk and iron resolve, neither of which he lacked.
A vivid mental image of Papa Praise breaking into his room bearing a rifle or some other dangerous object, floated past his subconscious. In the vision, the old man’s wife pursued him, dressed in a wrapper tied around her chest, and both are trailed by a teary-eyed, pregnant Praise. The girl he loved carrying his child. His flesh and blood. Her parents seeing only one solution, consent to a quick dowry-less marriage—force her on him if need be.
It was too much to bear. His entire frame convulsed with nervous excitement and tears ran down his cheeks.
While dressing, memories of his mother during her period of great suffering flooded his subconscious. Altogether they were roommates for eight years. She rented their room the day he turned twelve and lived in it till her passing when he was almost twenty. Of his father, he knew nothing verifiable, except the man was a tinker from Cotonou. There were murmurings Limota let him have her whenever he wished, but the looming threat of a baby scared the vagrant back to his family. During their time together, she learned little of him—not even an address or surname, so Oshioke, when he was born, took her father’s name.
In one corner of his home, Oshioke kept a kettle pilfered from the mosque, always filled with water for ablutions. Several months without seeing a sponge caused grime to flourish inside this vessel, but its owner never worried about such things. Adjacent to this spot on the right, he placed his cooking devices—a small stove fitted with a smaller plastic bowl for holding kerosene and an aluminium pot containing vegetable soup of questionable quality. He stored salt and pepper in two Coca-Cola bottles, owned a rectangular ceramic tray roughened at the edges by what looked like human teeth, and kept an assortment of serving plates and spoons inside a halfway broken bucket. A piece of twine bearing a singlet, towel, and brown shorts divided the room into two equal triangles. Two shirts and three trousers hanging from nails drilled into the wall occupied the last section. If you searched the pockets, you’d find four hundred naira in varying denominations and an envelope containing twenty-nine paracetamol tablets already turning a sickly yellow colour. His bathroom slippers and a mousetrap were beside the door.
Toilette done, he doused himself in the perfume he’d received as a wedding souvenir, retrieved 2 fifty-naira notes from his stash, and headed for the abattoir, where he hoped to borrow money from Mallam Aminu under the pretext of an illness.
Halfway through his walk, he still could not decide the best sickness to pick, so he abandoned the mission and hailed a motorcycle.
“Ughiesomi Bar,” he ordered the teenager behind the wheel.
A Mob’s Verdict, No Appeal
The villagers arranged themselves in a circle around the Tipper driver; his cheeks were flushed red, his skin goose pimpled, angry beyond all imaginable limits. Like zombies in need of blood, they gawked at the babbling creature, wishing, willing him to die.
The mites which laid waste to their cassava farms were his fault. As was a dry season that drove drinkable water deeper and deeper into the ground, far from the reach of professional borehole diggers. And how everyone grew poorer because fish cost next to nothing these days. The permanent hunger in the village. A health centre that lacked nurses and medicine. Aunty Aminetu’s miracle baby boy, born after twenty years of hope and resignation, who only survived through the night. These were the sins for which he ought to pay.
Children ran riot, free from minding by parents who caused a racket with their own arguing. Witnesses whispered that overdosed on ogógórò, Oshioke was bumbling past the highway like a stray bat when he got whacked, but things were too far gone to stop on any account.
Whenever one thought the villagers would carry on with it, proceedings stalled.
Rose-cheeked and beautiful, in that uncertain stage between teenager and adult, Praise’s growl broke the jinx. She maintained her position in front of the group. Her savage screams, like the mini rocks she swung with astonishing precision, rent the air, driving old and young to the pinnacle of fury. She had thrown the first stone; thus she became de facto leader of the pack. Some people picked up broken bottles, others grabbed rods, while the rest found discarded instruments of considerable weight. Ojojo and Omomo raided their mother’sakaraspot and borrowed bricks she used in supporting her agbada.
The poor devil stopped making sounds long before his movements ceased. Three men gathered the leftovers and dumped it next to his vehicle. Somebody supplied kerosene in a Schnapps bottle and one of Aminetu’s daughters, Aishetu, whose baby was strapped to her back, offered matches. Then they started a bonfire.
The odour of burnt flesh somewhat dampened their mania. Some drew back and those who were filming, put away their phones. Praise stared at the mess, fascinated. The angel of death visited Agenebode to cast his lots and though two fell, she was among the lucky.
Conscious of time wasted and money she must have made her mother lose, Praise hastened from the scene. At the roadside, she discovered her fish swarmed by flies. Young Romeo and his motorcycle were gone.
“Nonsense boy,” Praise muttered, lifting the basket to her head before the long trek back home.
For dinner, Praise ate pounded-yam and eight-day-old groundnut soup. More from force of habit than interest, she consumed everything, quelling the vomit which rose to her throat with each swallow.
After observing the night prayer, she measured forty cups of beans into a basin, pushed it under the bedstead, and sank into her mattress. Ever so slowly, dusk gave way to a soothing darkness, laying to rest the many voices yapping inside her head. Her pregnancy could not be concealed forever. She must find another lover to bear the responsibility.
Her eyelids soon succumbed to the sweet reprieve of sleep, where she dreamt of Oshioke and the Tipper driver settling scores in a world far beyond her reach.
As Oshioke hoped, the bar was not full when he arrived. Somebody stacked plastic chairs over each other and pushed the pile to the side. Papa Praise, busy sorting out payment for a consignment of Schnapps, delegated duties to his daughter, who doubled as an assistant.
Six men sat around a table drinking palm-wine, smoking marijuana loaded cigarettes and bopping their heads to the highlife beat blasting from two speakers. Oshioke freed a chair and joined them. He offered greetings but did not shake hands, which was fine with everybody.
He turned just as Praise appeared by his side. That afternoon, she took special care with her look, choosing to tie her best wrapper and shining her full lips with petroleum jelly. She stole a glance before turning away. Her palms itched. The neck of her blouse slipped down one shoulder, exposing her luscious chocolate skin. Her cheeks crimsoned.
Praise’s emotions, though she tried to keep them secret, were the same as his. She liked him for his quietness—he never raised his voice against anyone. To her, his poverty was a result of society not granting him any opportunities. He needed a good woman by his side; a position she seemed most willing to assume, especially after the boy who impregnated her had vanished.
Lost in wonderland, Praise did not hear him, so he repeated his request. “Bring one plate of goat meat pepper-soup. Add Gulder—mortuary standard o.” He licked his lips and, seeing that her father was focused elsewhere, smacked her butt. She shoved his palm aside in that shy manner common to new lovers.
“Play Idonije Ugabi. No food for lazy man,” Oshioke begged. “I’m tired of this unayeye music. And serve my guys whatever they want. I will pay,” he said, affecting a seriousness he did not feel to counter his nervous excitement.
The recipients of his goodwill hailed him and sang praises, so he announced it was his birthday, which made them cheer more. Praise returned bearing lukewarm ogógórò and four plates of pepper-soup blessed with tiny pieces of fish. As soon as they started slurping, she left the bar.
Oshioke waited three minutes and then followed. At first, he walked, but seeing no sign of her, he ran, propelled by the fear that the girl disapproved of his excessive generosity.
He failed to catch up with her, so he returned and ordered a week’s worth of liquor. Papa Praise smiled and wrote figures in his ledger. His companions danced, but Oshioke felt no joy. The alcohol made him apoplectic. Desperation drove him to order more. If someone offered him a gun, he would have put a hole through his head. The business owner’s joy seemed to him a mockery and his buddies’ adoration caused a bitterness within him.
He drank until his legs no longer supported his weight and he fell. Somebody dragged him to a corner where he passed out at once.
When he opened his red eyes, dusk was approaching. A record was playing, and a new set of friends were drinking and dancing. He got up slowly to test his balance. Victorious, he joined the group, offered greetings, but again did not shake hands.
Oshioke managed to score four free beers before Papa Praise threw him out. He rummaged his trouser and shirt pockets for money but found nothing. A quick search of his surroundings confirmed his transport fare was lost. His body ached like a blacksmith’s forge; an overwhelming urge to expel the contents of his stomach took hold of him. Each step was a struggle against surrendering to the earth.
At the roadside, he heard sounds of vehicles speeding past; the streaks of stars in front of his face refused to stop twinkling; several times he started to cross the road and then stopped. Becoming impatient, he gauged his strides, putting one foot after the other.
Oshioke was almost to the other side when he was blinded by beams of light; a razor-sharp pain gripped him. “May one hundred vultures pluck out your eyes, you miserable cow,” he cursed as he was thrown into the air. By the time he’d come to rest, after tumbling down a heap of coal tar towards Mama Praise’s akara and akamu spot, everything went black.
About the Author:
Fatima Okhuosami loves to transform her thoughts into short stories and poems. Some of her works are published at: The Kalahari Review, Jalada Africa, Chillfiltr Review, Agbowo press, Writers Space Africa, Flash: The International Short Story Magazine, Itanile Magazine, etc. She was first runner-up of the 2020 Collins Elesiro literary prize and 2021 Kendeka prize for literature. She is a graduate of the 2019 International Writing Programme Lines and Spaces Tour held at Abuja, Nigeria. She tweets @fatiokhuosami and runs her blog at fatimetu.blogspot.com.
Feature image by Birmingham Museums Trust/Unsplash