UNDERGROUND VOICES: FICTION - 12/2012
OLUSOLA AKINWALE


STRANGER

         The dusty Harmattan wind had driven Isio to bed earlier than usual that night. A grass widow, she shared the house with only Ebele, her twelve-year-old niece, and Adaeze, her two-year-old daughter.

         Ebele’s bedroom was closest to the front door. She had heard the knock and gone to Isio’s bedroom to wake her up.

         “Aunt, there’s somebody knocking on the door,” she whispered into the darkness.

         Isio’s dream was interrupted. She pulled off the heavy blanket that covered her and her daughter, climbed out of bed and switched on the light. She glanced at the wall clock. It was twenty minutes past nine, but felt like midnight. Who could it be? she wondered, and she pictured Lawrence “The Law” Anini and his sidekick Monday Osunbor standing at the door.

         Benin City households were wary of nightly visitors, especially in the light of recent events. The pillaging and killing committed by an unidentified duo had become a national issue. For once, the entire nation of Nigeria had supported the gap-toothed military dictator, whom they loathed for embracing the IMF’s Adjustment Program against their wishes and plunging the land into austerity, when he gave the Inspector-General of Police an ultimatum to stop the “Robin Hoods in Bendel” at all costs.

         In the room everything was silent, save for the ticking of the clock, which sounded like a rumble in Isio’s ears. The floor felt unsteady beneath her feet as she tiptoed out with Ebele following close behind. She heard more knocking and suddenly froze with fear.

         “Isio,” a gentle, familiar voice called out.

         “Ej, is that you?” she said quietly.

         “It’s me. Ejike.”

         It hadn’t crossed her mind that her husband might be the person at the door. It could not have, because he only came home every twenty-one days—which seemed like twenty-one years—to spend three days with them. This time he had left on Monday, just four days before, for Kano, which was 486 miles away, where he was a line manager in a shoe manufacturing company in the metropolis.

         On Sunday she’d wished the sun would never set. When the sun had left its afterglow, she’d wished the night would never fall. When the night had dashed her hopes, she’d wished Monday would never dawn. For the first time in three-and-a half years, she had felt a strange heaviness about his going.

         “Are you going back tomorrow?” she had asked him in bed on Sunday night.

         “You know nothing can change it.”

         There had been a momentary silence as he regarded her. Apart from being petite, she had an innocent, childlike look that she knew made him wary of upsetting her.

         He had stroked her hair. “I think about you always.”

         “Adaeze needs more of you.”

         “This time will soon pass. My transfer to Lagos is possible next year. I’ll be closer to Benin then.”

         “Another twenty-one days?”

         “Keep me in your heart. That’s the most important thing.”

         “I have no other heart than yours, Ej,” she had said, fighting back tears.

         “You’re always in my heart.”

         He had pulled her closer, nibbled her neck, and rained enough kisses on her to have lasted another twenty-one days. She yielded to his kisses with the passivity of a reluctant virgin. He could see the heaviness still pitched a tent in her heart, but that would not stop him on Monday morning.

         “I must go. I have no other job for now,” he had said to her when he had set out at first light.

         But that was earlier and this was now. Isio was certain it was him and hurried to unlock the door, which was barred from inside to prevent robbers from breaking in. Ejike ducked under the doorway to enter the room. Her heart thudded at the sight of a wound on his head. In her dream, before Ebele had woken her up, she had seen herself with a bowl of water, a towel, a bottle of iodine, and a bandage. She had dipped the towel into the water and applied the wet cloth to a wound on her husband’s forehead. He had flinched when she’d applied the iodine to the wound. She had been covering the wound with the bandage when Ebele had woken her.

         Locking the door back, Isio asked, “What happened?”

         From the window she looked outside for his Volkswagen Beetle. It wasn’t there.

         “Welcome, brother,” Ebele said.

         He mumbled a reply and went to the bedroom.

         For a moment, Isio stood there, puzzling over the wound she had seen on his head in two different realms. She told Ebele to go back to bed and moved to their bedroom.

         Ejike was taking off his clothes.

         “Your return is unusual. What happened? How did you get hurt on your head? Where is your car?”

         “Accident,” he said, as if it were forced out his mouth.

         “Accident? When? Where? How?”

         “On my way to the office four days ago,”—he tossed his shirt into the laundry basket—“I had a head-on collision with a trailer.”

         “Oh my God!” she cried, throwing her hands on her head.

         “I was rushed to a hospital, unconscious. When I woke up, I found my head bandaged.”

         Isio moved closer to him.

         “The doctor said they had to stitch my forehead—”

         “Jesus!”

         “He informed our company, and my boss said I could take a sick leave.”

         She cupped her hands on his cheeks. “It’d have been disastrous if the worst had happened.”

         He took her hands off him. “It’s all right.”

         “Should I warm the soup and rice for you?”

         “Don’t bother.”

         “Why? It’s your favorite, afanga.

         “It’s late already.”

         “When last did you eat?”

         “Afternoon.”

         “That was a long time ago, Ej. There will be no food in your stomach now.”

         “I’m not hungry.”

         “Okay, let me heat water and make you a cup of Bongo.”

         “Don’t bother. It’s ten.”

         “Just a cup.”

         “You should be back in bed, or aren’t you going to take Ada to school in the morning?”

         He took his bath and got into bed. Isio snuggled close to him and soon fell asleep.

         The middle of the night, she woke to find Ejike’s eyes wide open. He was lost in thought. She tapped him. “You’re not sleeping. Is any part of your body hurting?”

         “No,” he said. “I was thinking about you and Adaeze.”

         She giggled slightly. “Thinking about me when you should be asleep?”

         “I was thinking of the things I should have done for you that I haven’t.”

         “It’s a quarter past one. This is the time to sleep and not to think. Please sleep.”

         A half-hour later, he fell into sleep. Or so she thought.

         When she woke in the morning, Ejike was gone. He must have risen when the neighborhood was barely stirring. She looked for him in the bathroom. He was not there. Leaving the bedroom she found him examining the framed family photographs sitting on the shelves in the living room. Green-painted walls. Chairs covered in brocade of the same color. Linen curtain with floral embroidery. Checkered carpet on the floor. Round polished center table with three pouffes underneath. On the table was a green plastic vase of flowers. Sometimes Ejike would push the vase aside and spread his copy of the Daily Times, Sketch, or National Concord out on the table and sit on a pouffe to read. He would sip his Bongo as he read, pouring cup after cup until Isio told him it was enough for the time being.

         “Bongo was for Ejike,” Isio would say as she cleared the tray with the cup.

         If he pushed his lips for a kiss, she waved him away as if shooing a fly. She wouldn’t lock her tongue in Bongo’s. Would she ever join the Bongo train? Not with the bitter taste it left on her tongue.

         Isio, arms folded across her chest, stood in the bedroom doorway watching Ejike who was oblivious to her presence. He removed a photo, took a look, and put it back on its shelf. He removed another and set it down. Then he noticed his own image sitting beside a black-and-white Sanyo TV on the third shelf. His eyes bore into the picture, taken the previous Christmas. In it, he wore a blue suit and was beaming.

         “Why are you looking at that photograph as if you had never seen it before?” she said.

         Her voice startled him, and the photograph dropped from his hand. He whirled around. “So, you’re awake.”

         “I’ve been watching you for some time now.”

         She came to stand beside him as he picked up the picture. He put it on the shelf below the TV, where a turntable sat.

         Like the photo, Ejike looked at his wife as if he’d never seen her before either. His eyes took in everything, from her hair plaited in five neat rows to the features of her torso beneath her transparent pink nightdress. Her orange-shaped, palm-size breasts were firm like a maiden’s anxiously waiting for the first caress; her nipples shot out like two groundnuts as if beckoning him to devour them. There was no reason for her to wear a bra or panties if her husband was in bed with her. If the weather was cold, his skin would give her warmth better than a wind breaker would.

         “You should still be sleeping,” she said, breaking the silence.

         “I couldn’t.”

         “Why?”

         “You occupied my mind.”

         “Please, don’t be obsessed with me. I beg you.”

         “It’s not a crime, is it?”

         “It’s not, but your health is more important now.”

         “You didn’t have to tell me that. Of course I know.”

         “Are you putting up a fight?” She dug a light fist into his ribs, to play-fight.

         “Fight? Fighting my wife is fighting myself.”

         She put her hand on his beard, a short five o’clock shadow, and then brought it down to hold his hand, as if she wanted to let him look at her pink neon-polished nails.

         “I wanted to tell you something before,” she said.

         “What?”

         “It was the dream I had before you came in last night. It was very strange.”

         He held her arms and gently lowered her to an armchair. He pulled up a pouffe and sat on it, facing her.

         “It’s baffling to nurse a wound in a dream and then see it in the physical.” Isio said as she rounded off her narrative.

         “Maybe you’ve become Joseph.” He smiled.

         “Don’t down play it, please. I was worried yesternight.”

         “It was nothing to worry about.”

         “I hope it’s a mere dream.”

         “I guess you dreamed about it because your spirit never leaves me.”

         The following three nights, Isio would wake up and find her husband’s eyes wide open. She had longed to get pregnant again ever since their daughter was eleven months old. She had wanted a male child to come quickly, to gain respect among the people whose tradition expected a woman to have a son. But Ejike had become a disciple of the wife of the military head of state, who was propagating the gospel of three years between births.

         “Let Adaeze turn three before we have another child. I want us to space our children very well,” he had insisted.

         Before her husband departed on his trip on that Monday, she had raised the issue again, telling him that Adaeze would have turned three by the time she delivered their next baby. Jokingly, he had called her a “Mathematician” but then had told her to have her birth control device removed. She respected him and would not do anything without his consent. Though she had gone to the clinic afterwards to have the intra-uterine device removed, she had reasoned that it would be unwise of her to press him to sleep with her so quickly when he had returned home to rest.

         However, on the fourth night, she reached over, under the blanket, and stroked his chest. He shivered as if he was not accustomed to her touch. Not minding his reaction, she worked her fingers down along his bicep and stroked the fine hair on his forearm. He growled, and she stopped.

         “Don’t you want to touch me? Am I no longer attractive to you?”

         He mumbled, “You are.”

         “Then why don’t you care?”

         “I always care.”

         She huddled closer to him and tried to kiss him, but he turned his head away.

         “Come on. I’ve had it removed.”

         “What?”

         “The protection.”

         “What was it?”

         Frustration swelled her face.

         “Why are you behaving so strangely?” she said.

         Ejike was quiet, his eyes on the still ceiling fan above.

         “Our new baby. You told me to get rid of the IUCD, remember?”

         He nodded.

         “So?” she said, giving him a “come-take-me” look.

         “I need to go to sleep now. I have to see my lawyer friend very early in the morning.”

         Isio lay back in bed and clutched her pillow, turning her back to the man.

         He tried to appease her.

         “I care for you always. You know that I never want to make you sad. Tomorrow is another time,” he said.

         But she didn’t fancy his reassurances.

         The next day, Isio returned home at two o'clock after fetching Adaeze from the Montessori school. Ejike, too, had just returned from seeing his lawyer. Adaeze beamed as Ejike threw her up, caught her in the air, and turned her upside down. Isio loved that, an indication that she would have her evening.

         People joked that Ejike must have cloned Adaeze because she looked so much like him, but they added that she would have long curly hair like her mother when she grew up.

         Once Adaeze drifted off to sleep, her hand in his, Isio took her from her father, and carried her into the bedroom.

         He went to the shelves and pulled a record out from the bottom cabinet. He wiped off a fine layer of dust on the sleeve before putting the record on the turntable. He touched the needle to vinyl, and “Double Wahala for Dead Body” by Fela Anikulapoti rasped through the speakers.

         He returned to the chair, and Isio returned from the bedroom and snuggled her head in his lap. Neither said anything for a few moments, then he began to stroke her hair. She closed her eyes, relishing the gentle movement of his hand. When the strokes became uneven, she opened her eyes. He was lost in thought.

         “Your mind is far away,” she said, touching his beard. “What are you thinking about?”

         He sighed. “What else could I be thinking about?”

         “I’m not a mind reader.”

         “I was thinking about the two people most important to me,” he said, after a few moments.

         She chuckled. “And who are they?”

         “Who else would they be if not my wife and daughter?”

         “You were thinking of ‘what you should have done for us that you haven’t done yet’?”

         Ejike closed his eyes.

         “That reminds me.” She sat up. “You haven’t told me about the meeting you had with your lawyer friend. Or don’t I deserve to know?”

         “I was there to prepare my will.”

         Her brown, inquisitive eyes dilated. “Your will?”

         “We needed to discuss the next-of-kin matter, and—” His eyes opened and his voice stopped abruptly when a car squealed to a halt outside. “Who could that be?” he asked. There was curiosity in his tone.

         She rose, went to the window, and peered out. “It’s a blue Peugeot,” she said, still looking outside.

         “A blue Peugeot,” he repeated, but nothing in his tone made the words sound like a question.

         When the first person got out, she hissed, “Jude.” Next came the driver, who wore glasses, followed by a woman, square-faced, with grey-flecked hair. Then the last person alighted. “Uncle Amadi is there, too,” she said, turning to her husband. “I don’t know the other two.” Ejike sprang to his feet and started toward the bedroom.

         Jude was Ejike’s best friend; they were practically brothers. They were fond of playing pranks, like sneaking up on each other. Isio assumed Ejike was off to play another one of his pranks.

         “This is no time for fun and games, Ej. Uncle Amadi and the two others are also coming,” she said.

         He entered the bedroom.

         Isio opened the front door and asked the visitors to make themselves comfortable. She went to the stereo and silenced Fela.

         There were quick, solemn introductions by Jude. The man: Mr. Aku. The woman: Mrs. Lawson. Both from Ejike’s company. Isio bowed slightly to them. She gazed at Mr. Aku whose eyes blinked repeatedly behind his concave lens with spindly steel rims and said, “Let me call him for you.”

         “Who?” Mr. Aku said.

         “Ejike,” she answered, “or are you not here for him, to console him about the accident?”

         The visitors exchanged glances, their faces showing confusion. They knew Ejike had been involved in an accident, but they didn’t know that his wife was already aware of it. They wondered who had come to tell her.

         “Isio, did you say Ejike was inside?” Uncle Amadi said, rubbing his balding head.

         “Yes, sir, he went into our bedroom just as you arrived.”

         Uncle Amadi sneered, his brush mustache rubbing his nose.

         “Unbelievable!” Mr. Aku said.

         “Ej, what’s holding you up?” Isio asked aloud, leaving the visitors as she headed for the bedroom. “You’re keeping them waiting now.” She entered the bedroom but did not see him there.

         “Are you in the bathroom?”

         No reply. She flung open the door to the bathroom, but found no sight of him. She stared around in bewilderment and then went back to the bedroom. Her forehead was clammy; her heart skipped as if it would burst out of her rib cage. She checked the wardrobe and under the bed; but would a mountain of a man like Ejike have conveniently hidden himself in either of the two places?

         Adaeze had wet the bed again, but Isio didn’t care.

         She returned to the sitting room, calling her man’s name. Her visitors had risen to their feet. She ignored them and hurried out of the house. She looked for him everywhere, but her search was fruitless. She returned to the four guests, her heart hammering in her chest. “Don’t tell me it’s real, that it still happens,” Jude said in a voice that seemed about to break.

         Isio charged at Jude. “What are you talking about?”

         Mr. Aku pulled her back. “Calm down, calm down, madam.”

         She turned to him “Where is my husband? Tell me where he is.”

         Uncle Amadi sat down on the sofa. “Come and sit down here, Isio,” he said, patting the space next to him.

         “Uncle, do you know where he is? Where he went?”

         “We’ll explain everything to you. Sit down first.”

         Looking at Jude’s dark face, Isio instinctively knew that something was wrong. But she didn’t want to think her man’s sudden disappearance had anything to do with their visit. When she had sat down, sandwiched by Uncle Amadi and Mrs. Lawson, Uncle Amadi continued, “Isio, God will keep you. He’ll be with Ada.”

         “Why the prayers?”

         Mrs. Lawson found her voice. “It was your husband, my dear.”

         “I don’t understand you people again.” She swallowed hard. “Where is Ejike?”

         “He had an accident when he was traveling back to the office last Monday week,” Mr. Aku said.

         “I told you that when you came in. But he was better.” She motioned to the love seat. “We sat there before you arrived.”

         Uncle Amadi took over again. “Isio, I’d never doubt that Ejike was with you before we got here,” he said and paused. “This thing is a mystery. You, too, might have heard that some people appear to their loved ones after—”

         “After what, Uncle?” She was filled with a dense, prickly confusion like dope on a first-timer.

         Mr. Aku took over. “Ma’am, we are sorry to tell you —” The terrible look in her eyes stalled him.

         “Sorry for what?” Isio cut in again.

         Mr. Aku inclined his head at Uncle Amadi, who raised his eyebrow, urging him to continue.

         “Madam, your husband died in the accident,” he announced.

         An awkward silence followed. The words seemed to take a few moments to find meaning in Isio’s mind. Glowering at Mr. Aku, she said, “You must be mad.”

         Until that moment, she had always been graceful in her words. She was not a type who was unthinkingly rude when she spoke, but the heat of the moment had overwhelmed her, and she didn’t much care about what she said.

         “You’re not serious. You don’t know what you’re saying,” she added.

         Jude’s face wilted. “Ejike died last Monday.”

         Still, Isio would not accept that her husband was dead. She would not accept all their explanations that Ejike had died on the Monday he left for Kano, that he had the wreck with the trailer in Niger and it took the police a long time to trace his office. How could she, when she had just eaten lunch with him, when she had just snuggled her head in his lap, when he had just stroked her hair affectionately? A giggle escaped her lips. When she tried to stand up, she was held back. She struggled with the hands that gripped her and tore free from them like a madman breaking loose from his fetters, stomping out of the house to look for her husband. The four followed her outside. When her search couldn’t produce him, she returned to them and sat on the step, squalling like a kid.

         They badgered her into going with them to the Central Hospital mortuary where Ejike’s body had been transferred a few hours back. Ebele returned from school. Seeing tears in Isio’s eyes, she asked, “What happened to you, sister?” Where is brother and Ada?”

         “Ada is in my bedroom. I don’t know where Ejike is, where he went,” she said.

         “Don’t worry, okay? Your sister will be fine,” Uncle Amadi said to Ebele. “She’s going out with us. Take care of the house.”

         An unusual calmness descended on Isio on the drive to the hospital, as if her husband was convalescing there. She spoke calmly with Mrs. Lawson, who was surprised by her composure. Mr. Aku pulled into the parking area of the Central Hospital. As they all started toward the mortuary, which was the last building on the expansive premises, Isio's body began to tremble, her eyebrows turning down at the corners. Mrs. Lawson held Isio’s hand as they neared the solemn house.

         Isio’s palms were cold, almost hypothermic, as if it was she who was locked in a refrigerated compartment in a morgue. The little composure she had managed to retain vanished when she saw a sign over the door of the building: MORTUARY.

         An attendant received them at the door. Isio’s heart thumped upon seeing embalmed bodies on rows of tables. The bodies were as dry as bonga fish, their eyes shut as though they never had those organs in their life. The attendant, who had tribal marks carved into the two sides of her cheeks, led them past those empty, next-to-nothing frames that still had the honor of having their limp private parts covered.

         Mrs. Lawson still held Isio’s hand. Uncle Amadi and Jude kept glancing back at her. Mr. Aku trailed behind them all.

         The attendant stopped short at a table. There lay Ejiro, the newest tenant in the house. Isio pushed forward to look at her husband. Her hands shaking, she moved his head this way and that. She had knelt over him in bed one morning and pushed his head the same way. Then, she had breathed in the sweet scent of his aftershave. He had grabbed her arms and pushed her over, so that he was kneeling over her. She had felt comfy and protected beneath him, like a chick beneath the feathers of a mother hen. It was one of those occasions when he had returned home to spend the weekend with them.

         Now there was no reaction from him, and she breathed no scent. A cut was on his forehead.

         “No, no, no . . .” she said, as if Ejike was whispering to her that he was dead, which she wouldn’t accept, until she let out a scream of horror. Before anyone could catch her, she crashed to the floor. Her man had drifted out like a wind to be seen no more. The Ejike who had returned home, who was with her just a short time ago, wasn’t the man she had lived with.

         Isio got into the back of the car with Uncle Amadi and Mrs. Lawson. Jude rode in front with Mr. Aku. Once they left the mortuary, news had already spread that the police had arrested Anini and Osunbor. They drove through jubilant, cavorting women and children, celebrating the arrest. In front of kiosks and stalls on Sapele Road was a floating mosaic of happy faces apparently discussing the end of the two bandits. Isio had told her husband that she sensed Benin City would soon be free of Anini’s terror. She had hoped that when the time came, she would join neighbors in celebrating the fall of the two robbers.

         However, she couldn’t celebrate anything. The sky was clear, but inside her heart bloomed a cloud of sorrow. She imagined what might happen in the aftermath of her husband’s death, the likelihood of her being sent out of the house empty-handed because she had not borne him a son. She had heard about widows who suffered such cruelty. When she had pressed for another baby, the one she had hoped would be a boy, she had never thought her husband would die so early.

         With her head on Mrs. Lawson’s shoulder, she imagined Ejike had lain with her without her knowing. Perhaps, he was as light as a sheet of paper when he lay on her. He had planted another seed in her womb, and the seed already was gestating now, soon to become the boy-child she desired.

         The former thoughts buzzed over and over again in her head. Her bosom heaved, her lip quivered. The cloud of sorrow which had gathered in her heart released its rain, which coursed down her cheeks in agonized rivulets. She wished she had his last touch.

Olusola Akinwale was a second runner up in the Nigerian Film Corporation (NFC) and the Chartered Institute of Personnel Management of Nigeria (CIPMN) Essay Contests in 2005 and 2009. His short stories have appeared in Saraba Magazine, Translit Magazine, Istanbul Literary Review and The Monarch Review. He is an alumnus of the Fidelity Bank International Creative Writing Workshop.







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