Rooster. Between two feet in the car where four people are hunched with pounding hearts because the sky has turned to ink and their tire has turned to flap. The bird is one of those bald ones with feathers that begin only from their necks. They are mainly found in that lowland of neem trees and decorated warriors.
Man. The driver. Standing and staring and standing. Thinking. How to change a tyre in the middle of this godless hour without spare or spanner?
Mosquito. Night hunter. Probing the depths of the flesh found wanting.
She slaps her neck and misses. Scratches with nails as tough as nails and just as sharp. Those same hands demonstrate a peculiar, desperate tenderness, travelling south to rest on her hump. She whispers a secret song in a tongue that no one around her knows. The same tongue he used to whisper to her as she slid down his throat to quench his thirst on a hot night: the one she chooses to believe is the father of her unborn child. Airy words. Mi alma. Amado. Angelico. In the haze of the love ballooning inside her, she began to learn it, that lilting, succulent tongue that fills your mouth like honey. Now she knows it, and it is of no use to her. She inflicts it like a lash upon herself, calling herself names.
Whore. She slept with the white man in return for a promise; to be taken to his own land. She never took a pledge for the promise, and she never saw him again. Two days later, a man who was black like her pried her open even though she begged him not to and also spilled himself into her. Now, as she sits in this car and stares down at this hump in this darkness, she has no idea what colour her child will be. She does know for certain, though, that men, black or white, are dicks. In the future she is planning for this child, he is male, his skin is as bright and soft as overripe pawpaw, hair black and wavy like his father’s. He becomes her totem of achievement, a ticket to heaven. She thinks she draws envy and admiration in pails from the hearts of the watchful; she does not know that she is a soiled skirt in their eyes. She tells herself she is happy; she does not know she isn’t. Her happiness is an armour that imprisons her. In another future, the true future, the one that would materialise if she could only reach the end of this black road, she thinks to herself that her son is a dick. But tonight there shall be no futures. And her son, for now, is only a piece of toughening tissue inside her womb.
Ole inu aboyun (Yoruba)
Male unborn child. Suspended inside the woman who calls herself a whore. In that true future, the boy is as black as this snaking road. When he becomes a man, it is his heart that will know what true blackness is. He will know many things. That he is unhappy. That his mother hates him. That women are a sickness to be cured. He will grow to become a man suspended, as he had been in his mother’s womb, between two natures, between someone who writes and someone who erases, between living and dying, endlessly, until he surrenders to his unchangeable spots. By the time he spills himself into his first victim, he is already blaming his mother for spilling him into this existence, for not undoing him from the moment she knew he was a clot in her belly, for allowing him to be the son of a rapist, for allowing him to become a rapist. He does not blame his father, an ellipsis that precedes the sentence that he is, the sentence that ends in an ellipsis trailing into space as he becomes frozen in this present night of no futures. He will remain a foetus forever.
Man. Half his head is on fire. He grips it with one hand. There is more than one reason for this, but they don’t come all at once; they take turns tormenting him. The other hand slides a thumb down his Facebook photo section. He has been looking at images of his three children, and their mother, uploaded to curate the sham of his happiness. Now there is no way to take them down without encountering the questions that will point to the other woman and her child waiting at the end of this black road.
The world is a place of wonders, he thinks to himself. So he wonders at many things. How the phone signal picks up in this least likely of places. How his white collar commands reverence in the faces of his sheep. How it haunts him. How it isn’t enough to keep his faith from ebbing. How he tried to transcend the base desires tickling his frayed edges in Jesus’ name, and how even that name could not pluck him out of his human mire. How his fall was so predictable; it could only have been a woman. How it is impossible to run away from your true nature. How it all reminds him of touching himself on the cusp of puberty in a toilet stall in the three-minute gap between Math and CRS periods, training his mind to hold the image of the breasting Samira as he climbs and climbs, finally spilling into a heaven of pure white softness that lasts only a moment before giving way to the graffiti on the toilet door and cleaning up in a haste fuelled by regret. How the guilt is what he remembers more than the pleasure, how the idleness of sitting in this car finally brings him understanding: in the showdown between wanting and regret, he has chosen to be crushed by the weight of guilt rather than be licked by the flame of desire. Every time. Whether it is in his own well-lubricated palms, or the truer, incomparable softness of a woman. Mighty, wondrous things.
Yet his true curse remains that he found love after the fact. His wife and his three sons are the fact, and facts cannot be erased or ignored. The woman at the end of this black road and her child are his light. They tip the scale. Two people against four. They tip the scale. The choice he is making is a continuum, and he is in the middle of making it. Once he reaches the end of the road, the choice will be complete. He will take off his collar and surrender his flock and take a boat south with the woman and the child who tip the scale against the whole world. But he can’t finish making the choice, because there are no futures tonight on this black road.
Akuko (Yoruba, Twi)
Rooster. Shitting like a shit factory on the shoes of the man to whom the chicken does not belong. It belongs to another man who begged and begged until the first man said yes. An undue thank-you to another man, a big man in a big house who has sent yet another man to wait for it at the end of this black road. The air around a rooster in transit is a problem, a stench crawling up noses and nipping at joy until there is no joy left in the small car. In the joyless wake of the stench, somebody is thinking thoughts of sweet vengeance against the ugly chicken, imagining roasting its plucked body marinated in groundnut oil and groundnut spice on a spit. But the thinker of the thought shall never again eat chicken or think about chicken. For the thinker of the thought and the rooster and the man who agreed to ferry the rooster to the end of the black road have become equals in the scheme of things. On a night when there are no futures, a rooster and five human beings are about to have the same end.
The man whose shoes are covered in shit. He now regrets the decision. He has been a bad man his whole life, or for as long as he can remember. If he thinks hard enough, he may come up with one or two past good deeds. He thinks and he remembers: he once found a boy wandering in the streets, lost, and he found the boy’s home and made sure he was safely under the beam of his mother’s restored smile, before turning away. That is the only good deed that sparkles in his sea of dark memories. Any other good deed would have been accidental, unintended, a cosmic ordering – like stealing someone’s car only to have delivered them from a fatal accident the very next day.
He has been many bad things; he has even been a hypocrite: he once broke the jaw of a thief with a single blow that left the man’s mouth gaping like a useless door. His last bad deed was of biblical proportions, Cain and Abel, earth and blood. Blood is crying out, blood is chasing him, and he is running. Running to the place where he will not hear the voice of blood calling his name. He will cross the desert, and then the sea, and he will plant himself in that land of snow and women who have flat buttocks and long straight hair. His friend married one such woman. His friend who sends pictures of his new life, but has never sent money. He will join his friend where the sound of the crying blood cannot reach him. It is on the heels of his last bad deed that the chance to be good again presents itself. An ugly rooster and a begging man. This rooster, ugly as it is, could be the beginning of his redemption, he tells himself. He decides that he will take the rooster and deliver it to its intended recipient as promised, and he will be kind to the rooster, even though it is only an animal. This will be the beginning of his kindness to all creatures, and he prays that this kindness, this goodness, is what he will be remembered for.
But your true nature is a hard thing to run away from. In the only future that he sees for himself, he does not see the armed desert bandit who revives his hate and his badness, or the platinum watch he steals from the wrist of a dead-drunk fellow migrant, or the lonely white woman he marries with the pretty face and small breasts he wishes were bigger, only to divorce her once his papers are ready. On a night when there are no futures, none of these things matter. All that matters is that he is a good man on a black road that shall never end.
Homo sapiens (Latin)
Boy. His exam is in seven hours. But seven hours isn’t enough time to traverse the length of this black road. In the future he is planning and willing to happen, he sits in the examination hall and writes ferociously, like a tiger caught in a fight for survival against the other students and the supervisors and the examiners and his teachers all put together. He fights and he wins. What this future also contains, although he cannot see it, is that he will sit between two girls in the examination hall, one in front and one behind, while a crush collects in a pool behind his lungs for the plainer of the two, whom he will marry on a windswept Saturday afternoon in the month of December, eleven years later.
There are two forces at work on him now as he sits in the car on this black road. One is behind him, propelling him forward; a force composed of a dead father who had only one child, a mother who continues to dress in black and sweep street gutters just after sunrise and weep through the wall in the middle of the night for everything that God gave her yet still took away, and the onus on him, not to become the full-stop in his family line, not to allow his name to die. This force looks at him every day through the photograph of his father he carries in his Velcro-strapped wallet.
The second force is in front, beckoning. Sometimes it taunts him, tells him he is nothing. But it is smiling all the time. It looks like a white coat and a stethoscope, and sparkling white tiles under brilliant white light where poor, sick people are healed; it looks like a long driveway guarded by snow-laden maple trees and a magnificent sprawling house that sits so close to the ground you would think it sprang out of it. Filled with soft, golden music that seeps through the walls, and woods in the backyard, and a dark blue passport, and seven children – seven, to be sure – to run around and grow up and see to it that his name doesn’t die.
Two forces, and they are constantly at work. This is why he fights like a tiger in an examination hall. This is why he is unstoppable. This is why he must get through the night, to the end of this black road. But tonight is a night that can’t be moved. It is an immoveable night. It is a night that has no futures.
Driver. He has travelled many roads to get here. Along the way, he has seen many things. He has seen a pregnant woman ripped open like a birthday present. He has seen diamonds as big as a child’s skull. He has seen a man urinate on the body of a woman he has just devoured. He has seen his own head in the mirror, uneven like a cracked egg, hair forever trying and forever failing to conceal the machete scar that runs in a furrow along his temple. So he forever wears a black woollen hat with a tufted tip. He has seen a night in which so many people died that when he closed his eyes and listened, he could hear their spirits rising through the roofs. The sound was like the small hiss a hand makes when it breaks the calm surface of water and slips under it. He heard it a thousand times that night. He left the next day with nothing but his clothes and walked until the roads turned brown and red and green, and when he was certain he had crossed the border, he found the nearest home and asked them for anything to drink.
A week later, he was still alive. So he decided that he would travel far and forget this land and all the blood. This is how far he has come. Here he has found a woman who loves him in spite of the shape of his head, and five children who fill his heart with a pure, earthen joy. He has learned a new tongue and has donned a new name and has become a new man. Now they call him direba. He has seen both ends of this snaking black road more times than he can count, and he knows it the way he knows the scar on his head. Three or four times a week, he wrestles with this black road for the food he will bring home and place like a sacrament in each of their mouths, each one he loves more than they shall ever know.
He is so confident he has taken to lending out his spare tyre, even with an impending trip, because he knows God will take care of him on this black road the way he took care of him on many other roads. He is a happy man, but the memories of death linger in his head like a song that refuses to fade. This is even what keeps him happy. His suffering distilled his ambition; he has no room for rarefied dreams. His dream is peace, a bed, a wife, five children, and some food. If he can achieve this dream for more days than not, it is enough. Though he is fearless tonight on this black road, he has one secret fear. Smack as he is in the centre of his happiness, he fears that his life is a palindrome patiently unfolding, that the same pain that burned him as a youth will return to finish him off as an old man. This possible symmetry troubles him, and sometimes he finds himself thinking of quitting while he is ahead, wishing that his soul would rise from his sleep and slip through the roof like a hand slipping into water, and drift to that impossible mountain place beyond the town, inside the door that cuts through a rock not far from the place he was born.
Night. Shrinking around them like a vice. The night is a home for many things. Dreams. Demons. Skulking hooded figures with guns and knives. Hooded figures that fly and drink blood in wooded enclaves (these are no vampires). Short, leering creatures that crawl out of folk tales and challenge you to a wrestling match. The night is a home for the fear that grips five stranded travellers, a home for something the size of two elephants that now hurtles towards them. A home for this moment that becomes a breath drawn into the chest and held there.
There is no name in any language for five people, a foetus, and a rooster in a small car with a flat tire on a black road in the middle of the night who are about to die.
Umar Turaki (@) is a writer and filmmaker living in Jos, Nigeria. His short films have screened at the Zanzibar International Film Festival, the Pan African Film Festival, and the Durban International Film Festival. His short fiction has appeared in AFREADA, Short Sharp Shots, Ake Review, Five on the Fifth and the SSDA anthology, Migrations. He was shortlisted for the Miles Morland Writing Scholarship in 2017.
This story was originally published by Short Story Day Africa.
Related country: Nigeria