During my life, people spoke very little of death because we were all brought up to believe that death was quick to answer to his name. But people always spoke about the afterlife; the glorious splendour that is the reward for all those who live well on earth, the fattened beef that makes the bitter soup of death bearable. Heaven was preached from the pulpit as the reward for those who said the loudest prayers and made the most generous donations to the collection basket on Sunday mornings. Heaven was also preached at home, every other day of the week, as the reward for the most obedient and dutiful. And, of course, the afterlife that awaited those who did not live for Heaven was eternal damnation to Hell.
Hell had always fascinated me when I was alive. ‘The lake, the second death, which burneth with fire and brimstone’, according to St John in the Bible’s book of revelations, ‘where the dead are tormented day and night for ever and ever’. It all sounded stranger than fiction but, I swear to the living and the dead, it has felt real since the day I died; the eternal burning, the weeping and the gnashing of teeth. As hazy as it might seem amidst this torment, I still remember the very beginning.
My voyage to my village – spanning seven states, seated in a shoogly shuttle – had finally ended at the motorpark by the roundabout just after midnight. Heavy rains had begun pouring down just before we arrived and so the dirt road was now dark and deserted. All the other passengers, except for one, had alighted at the big town before my village, so the two of us who remained had to struggle for the only taxi left at the motorpark. The other passenger and I were going in different directions. I was headed to my uncle’s house on the hills beyond the market and she was headed down the road that led to the cemetery, so the taxi driver demanded the highest bid. I lost, and then I cried, damned to the depth of despair. The other passenger squeezed my shoulders, consoling me, and she whispered, “I understand how you feel, why you would cry and shudder. I can never forget the chill, because this same things happened to me the night I was murdered.”
Maybe I should have taken her more seriously. I definitely could have. And, if I did, I would have wrestled her to explain and, perhaps, spare me from my fate. But how was I to know she was being serious? Would you not be just as doubtful if the only other person in the room with you right now said they were dead?
She had spoken with a polite smile and a fixed gaze, even as my face froze at her chilling words. Neither the smile nor the gaze faded from her face as she retreated into the taxi, and neither faded from my mind as the taxi’s tail lights vanished down the dirt road. I was cold and drenched in rain. I was alone. With my rucksack slung across my shoulder and fastened to my chest, my chest barely fastening my racing heart, and my heart quaking in tandem with my hands and the torchlight it was wrapped around, I soldiered on, up the dirt road, to my uncle’s house.
I had lived in my uncle’s house for a few months when my mother sent me to live with him after I finished secondary school. I would sit through Bible study with my uncle for a few hours from daybreak, and then I would take my wheelbarrow full of sugarcane and push it up and down this very road, from the cathedral to the motorpark and back, selling sticks of sugarcane to children going to school, men and women going to their farms or the market, and travellers arriving at the village motorpark. I would pause, to rest in between rounds, to watch idle men gamble over games of draughts under udala trees or to eavesdrop on gossiping housewives gathering to barter secrets at any junction. Life was so easy, so mundane, that the most severe issue to bother me was the weight of the sky I would be waking to and walking under.
On the days I finished selling all my sugarcane early enough, I would sneak around the back of the palmwine shack near the Catholic cathedral to meet with Claire. Her mother owned the shack and she served the customers through the day and night. From behind the shack, I would watch for her. And when she came out to empty the bins or wash the glass cups under the tap, I would run up to her and give her a scarf I had bought from a thrift trader at the market. I swear she had near a hundred scarves from me alone. And when I did not have enough money for a scarf, I would write a note to her and tuck it into her palm, running off before her mother noticed us. I was not certain if what I felt for her was love, but she was my idea of perfect. She was perfect, but only because I never seemed to have time and opportunities to talk to her enough, to laugh with her enough, to exchange love letters with her enough, kiss her enough, fuck her enough and, ultimately, know her enough. I am certain if we did these things more I would be able to spot her flaws, but the distance between us skewed the context of her truths, so she remained perfect to me.
I remember once upon a hot afternoon, I wrote a daring note asking her to meet me behind the shack at midnight when the village would be dead to the world and everybody would certainly be asleep. Properly frightened, I scampered off as I passed her the note. I did not watch her read it so I was unsure if she would agree to showing up. But what I was sure of, was that if we were caught, separately or together, by anyone at all in the village, it would be abominable to the point of punishments we dare not even imagine.
Allowing apparent love to prevail over clear and present danger, I escaped my uncle’s house through my unbarred bedroom window, arriving a few minutes before midnight at my usual spot in the bushes behind the shack where I waited for her. And a few minutes after I arrived, I spotted movements in the dark and watched her emerge from the worn footpath that I had used just moments earlier. She was wearing a scarf I had bought for her and a black dress that felt soft on my hands. And when she leaned in to hug me, my hand ran down her neck and along the hollow of her back. She asked, through her gapped toothed smile, why I had asked her out and I told her, unsteadily, it was to tell her I loved her. I remember her asking why I could not just say that when we met during the day, I remember because that is when things began to fall apart. First, I heard a voice. Then I spotted movements in the dark. And even though the night remained still for about five more minutes, I could swear to God that there was someone out there.
“Who is there?” I heard a bold feminine voice call out from the footpath, “Come out, I dare you. Come out and show your face”.
I tried to remain calm, I knew panicking never solved anything. But Claire, her beautiful fearful heart, it thumped so loudly I was sure it was give us away. I had put my hands over her mouth but it only made her heart beat faster, and much louder. Then from the footpath, a torchlight flicked on in our direction and we, Claire and I in each other’s embrace, stood there under its fluorescence, helpless as rabbits underneath the glimmer of the butcher’s blade. The blinding light did not let me see who it was, but I could not take chances. So I did all I could think to do. I lunged forward towards the light, even when it dropped to the floor and its owner turned away to flee. I pursued the stranger as fast as I could, even when she tripped while running before staggering to a fall. And when I caught up with her, sprawled on the floor, I pounded my fists into her head, even before I could look to see who it was. I swear I did not mean to cause any harm, I was only doing what anyone in my position would. There was no time and no one to ask for a second opinion. In fact, it is exactly what God himself would have done. God is not democratic, he never asks for a second opinion. I mean, the timings of the seasons are in accordance to divine laws not referendums, and angels do not elect who to take orders from. God is not democratic, so why should I have been? But God is merciful and, honestly, so was I. So when I was sure she had passed out and would not be in a position to expose Claire and I, I ran back into the bushes.
Now, as I walked, cold and drenched in rain, towards my uncle’s house, I remembered the stranger from that night, her bold feminine voice hidden in the bushes and her muffled scream even as I pounded her head. A rare nervousness came over me and I started hearing things under the sound of the rain, a deep husky voice whispering in the bushes. From the corner of my eye, I saw movement and my feet froze in its path.
“Who is there?” I called out as boldly as I could to mask my fright, “Come out, I dare you. Come out and show your face”.
And for a while I heard nothing. So I pointed my torchlight in the direction of the movement in the bushes. I swear I did not mean to cause any harm, I was only doing what anyone in my position would. But suddenly, a large woman lunged towards me from the bushes. I could see the rage in her eyes under the fluorescence of my light so I turned away to flee as my torch dropped to the ground. The woman pursued me relentlessly, even as I tripped before staggering to a fall. And when she caught up with me, as I lay sprawled on the floor, she pounded her fists into my head, even before I could look to see who it was. I cannot remember her stopping, I can only remember writhing in agonizing pain till I eventually grew numb. I can remember feeling the fire burning, I can remember weeping and the gnashing of teeth around me. I remember the woman whose face I had pounded all those years back, I remember because it was the same face that had foretold my death at the motorpark.
Nnamdi Ehirim (@MinoEhirim) is a fiction writer and essayist. His writing has previously appeared in AFREADA, The Kalahari Review, The Republic Journal and Brittle Paper. His debut novel, Prince of Monkeys, was published by Counterpoint Press in 2019.
Related country: Nigeria