Memoryby Bode Asiyanbi
Anna da Souza says that the problem of man is with his pathetic memory. Her husband never agrees, he insists it is selfishness.
We are a curious duo. Anna and me; disagreeing on everything. Well, everything except sex. What began as an hesitant courtship on the rocky hills of Jos became with time, a sure footed endeavour of grappling at ourselves in matrimonial fervour. Well settled now on the plains of Gbagyi, the intent tug of age has taught me amongst other virtues; patience, restraint, and the wisdom to give scant thought to Anna da Souza's roundabout talk. Especially when she goes at it in the dampness of lazy evenings, one stout leg on the parlour stool, until the day I started running in the dark.
It was not supposed to be a serious day. Drive to work, anchor a security training for new recruits, get a haircut and return home. But like they say, when it's coming, you don't see it. The first thing I always remember about that grainy moment, aside the drowsiness in my head and the circling army of vultures, was the smell of rotting flesh and the flippant manner with which he told me what I must do. I thought I did not hear him well. He turned, a slow smile emerging on his lean face; “One minute. You have just one minute my friend."
I looked from his dusty boots to his oversized battle fatigues; from his heavy beard to his worn Keffiyeh. I shook my head.
He got up from the prayer mat and stepped out of the tent. His masked minders hauled me after him. I hit the ground, taking in dust with the drying blood from my broken nose. Forest birds chirped in unsettling tones, dancing in swift circles about the arching trees that covered a sky bereft of clouds. I struggled to my feet. He leant on one of the three incongruous armoured tanks and smiled through his rough beard.
"A long time ago, a great teacher in Sudan told me how one of your heathen kings who tried to take Jerusalem from the great Saladin rewarded a stubborn captive. He tied his cursed legs, each to one horse, and whipped the horses in opposite directions."
My groin twitched.
He put a hand to my shoulder. "Here, my friend, we use vehicles or motorbikes. And we afford you the luxury of choosing which." He whipped me around. "In that hole over there, are the pieces of those who were stumbling blocks on the path to the will of the Almighty."
The dry wind carried the stench of dying flesh on its wings. I struggled not to retch. I failed. Green and umber rice vomitus. I didn't remember eating rice. I tried to wipe myself clean with my torn shirt. I failed. I was all disgust, shame and dirt.
"Just the first gate...?" My voice jarred at my ears. He patted me on the back.
"Just the first gate my wise friend. He will find his way and the will of the Almighty from there."
Anna da Souza says the world is far too complex to understand. Her husband is unsure, but he agrees people should always try the simpler things.
I drove with unsteady hands. My head and fingers had taken on the numbness of ice. I kept looking at him through the rear view mirror. Wispy beard, sleep-deprived eyes, a desperate sternness but a boy all the same. The narrow mouth of the assault rifle behind my seat was a gaping hole of fear.
An hour of driving through relentless savannah brought us to scattered villages. The sight of women with sunken babies on lean backs heading for the famished stream, earthen water-pots set on cushioned heads emboldened me. Come on, he was bloody well younger than my son.
"Look, do you really have to do this? I can bet with my life there are no virgins or paradise waiting for you. I have read the Holy Books and..." A metallic snap stilled my tongue. Didn't know if he cocked the gun or released the safety catch but whatever he did sounded like the precursor to pulling the trigger. I changed gear to the unruly madness in his head. "The Mujahid said the Hotel's first gate?"
He grunted in reply.
"... I get you past there and I go?"
He grunted again. I avoided an already crushed beer can on the potholed road and turned the bend that led to the Federal Capital. I could no longer see his head from the rear view mirror.
"...and he said you will give me back my phone once we are in the car, you have not..."
He threw the phone on the passenger seat. I picked it up with my free hand and dropped it into my breast pocket. I tossed him another glance. His head, covered in mottled Keffiyeh, was up. "Why don't they send their children to do this? They have children don't they and...?"
The muzzle of the gun rose to my neck. It wasn't cold as Hadley Chase or Ian Fleming had wired into my imagination. The coldness was in the blood my heart was pumping. I paced the next words with care. "If you do that, you will never get past the first gate, and the Mujahid would not be so pleased with you."
The gun did not budge but I knew he needed my head intact. I was of no use dead. I changed gear and marched the gas pedal as far as it could go; the Volkswagen Golf roared in response. I made to open my swollen mouth again.
"Left," he snapped. I nearly ran off the road. It was the first time I heard him speak. It sounded like a panther's growl.
"Left," he repeated. Left was a dirt road. I slowed down. "Look, that road leads nowhere and..."
He said the next "Left" with a vicious prod to the nape of my neck. My vision blurred. When I regained my sight and frayed nerves, I had by a certain inclination taken left. The rest of the journey could be summed up in the silence of unease, the gun muzzle to my neck, the groaning engine, and his growls of "left, right, left, left" until the towers of Capital Hotel loomed. The gun muzzle left my neck.
I flashed my security ID at the bald security guard at the busy first gate. He nodded with a smile. Wisdom told me to keep my face ramrod straight. He had only a baton. Despite several proposals and memos, they said we didn't need guns. The police point can always respond to extraordinary events. Your department is already a cost centre. We don't need more cost, Mr. Kome.
He waved me on with his crumpled peaked cap. I couldn't respond to his avuncular smile. I eased past him, foot twitching over the gas pedal, waiting for the next command. It didn't come. I stopped. My bladder was filled to bursting with urine urged on by fear. "Can I come down now?"
"Out," he hissed.
I got on the road shoulder, parked and jumped out, scrambling behind an abandoned fizzy drinks kiosk. I saw him get into the driver's seat. He reversed the car towards the bustling newspaper stand; the hub of early morning political arguments amongst hotel junior staff. A pregnant woman holding a restless boy was walking past the stand. A convoy of gleaming government cars was coming through the first gate. I fumbled out my phone, dialing the hotel security line as I undid my fly to let out the tautness of fear and urine. The connecting beep was followed by an unforgettable click.
The earth bulged. My ears failed as flames tore out from my car into the morning sky; everything became sepia. Unfurling steel, glass like knives, heated dust, blown out concrete. I landed face down on a refuse dump; bodies, body parts and debris piling up on me. My penis shriveled to grub size and the urine held back by the battery of blasts began to trickle down my broken thighs. That was the exact moment I began running in the dark.
Anna da Souza says the world is too hard, too hard to understand; it is always better to experience the simpler things.
I ran barefoot. It was drizzling. Warm rain stirring up dead dust. The streets and alleyways were dark. The sun had gone into hiding and the Mujahid was in prayer by a cornice. I picked him out of the darkness by his silhouette. His beard had grown wilder, his voice now had echoes trailing it. He asked if I got past the first gate. I lied that I was running there to meet his disciple. He said timing was important; he had seventy-seven of them waiting for his call to act. He needed me to hurry. I asked him again as I did outside his tent what he really wanted. He repeated the same answer through the tepid rain: the conversion of a lost world and justice for those murdered by heathens. I was curious how they get the funds to unfurl this conversion and justice. He smiled. We have men with means. Men in charge of our means you mean? He got up from the mat and pointed at deep engravings on the pocked pillars. The end justifies the meanness of means, you have to understand that. He turned but I had eased into the wind. Hand on the cornice, he sneered at my fading shadow. You are no different from your ilk. We knew you would use your phone. How did a senior security expert get so dumb in a moment of panic? If we throw you all into panic, we will sure have in our holy hands a nation of the dumb. His manic laughter rang into the hollow night.
I spat into the rain. He was drunk on power. Generals quake at his shadow. Politicians draft bills in his name. The masses wonder how many faces he has. He had all he wanted. Nubile girls for wives. Foot soldiers at his call. The nation at his mercy. Paradise was a ruse.
I ran past the dripping oak behind the train station, climbed the dunes, and waded through the warm marsh to where they had gassed me on my way to work. My car was not there anymore. I picked my broken glasses from the sand. I will run from there to the army post and take Sergeant Akilu with me. He was fearless unlike the others. He still had his morale stitched into his torn uniform and he had not been bribed by dark forces to fire blanks at moving targets. I will take him to where they held me; where they held the poor girls they took every twilight as wives.
I stopped running when two cold hands tried to close my eyes. Why would someone try to close my eyes? My eyes got stubborn. The hands tried again. My eyes had a stronger will. The hands gave up and left me. My eyes wandered in victory. I was on the floor. On the floor with others. Naked others. Brown like burnt cake others. It was no longer dark and the world now had colours because the floor was red. Red with fading blood. My blood was doing a Pollock, caking with others on the webbed floor. They had separated us. Some were on thin beds, but we were heaped like mottled yams on the floor. I was with people who had no heads, no arms, no legs. I was with heads, fingers, splintered bones and broken teeth. I slid down from the soulless heap and rolled on the delta of drying blood. By my side was a man tanned with fire like me. His eyes were closed but I still had my eyes. So I still had the pain. With my faded heartbeats, I could map the network of my veins in the trail of burning pain. The man with the hands that tried to close my eyes came with others. They had with them rusted gurneys which they dumped us on. They started to wheel us away. My fading brain did the maths. I started screaming for help.
Anna da Souza says the problem of man is with his pathetic memory, her husband says it is selfishness. But they now both agree it is all too complex, too complex to think through. It is far better to think of simpler things.
The problem was not simple. They couldn't hear me. But I could hear. I could hear the wailing of ambulances and relatives outside. I could hear the blood-stained lullaby of survivors. The hospital people wheeled us to the cold room, put a tag on my big toe and squeezed me into a long rusty metal cabinet. I tried to raise my arm, it didn't move. I tried my leg, same thing. I attempted a shout, emptiness returned. They just passed and kept working like sad, morose men. They started to push in the cabinets from the far left. When they got to me, helplessness had me in tears. The man stopped. I saw his beard twitch. He called his colleagues. They peered over me like I was a gold coin. Mr. Beard touched my eyes; he showed his colleagues the tears. He even tasted it to be sure. They pulled me out. Oh Anna, if tears could save me, it would save the world.
Anna da Souza insists the world is too complex to understand, it is always better to try the simpler things. Like tears.
Akpan the barman said absinthe is bad for my liver. I should try a highball. I told him I was not there to drink. And I'd even lost my liver. I came to find Sergeant Akilu who still had his. He told me the sergeant had left for the barracks and I should sit and drink. I told him I had running to do. He asked me why I was running in the dark. I thought he was dim. Why wouldn't he know? He asked why I didn't take light with me. I tapped the table in emphasis. What is the need of light when there is one burning inside your head?
Akpan was a simple man. All he wanted was sell drinks and fill his wallet and small vault, so he could not understand. He could not understand why I needed the Sergeant to raid their lair before they changed camp. We could even find the girls if we were fast. Akilu can do it alone. His morale was bigger than the potbellies of his Generals. Akpan did not understand. He is a simple man. In this country of simple men, Akilu was different. Life to him was not about vaults and swollen wallets. Life was duty.
I met him oiling his musket in the silver of twilight. His regiment had gone to sleep, or were in bed with prostitutes, or were playing checkers for money in the dark. I told him the route and the tunnel where the Mujahid sleeps. I told him where they hid the stolen girls. He was thoughtful. He said though it was no time to be a hero, he would go with me because he saw I was angry about it. He had seen the anger in the set of my broken jaw and the pounding of my heart. The only issue, the route was too complex. We could do with a simpler route. What do I think? I cried it was the only route I knew; the one I crammed with a Uzi to my neck from the bush to the Capital. Akilu said he would do some thinking about it. Thinking was a simpler thing to do. I glared at him. He resumed oiling his shiny musket. I slammed his door in anger. The rain had stopped, the sun was out and I was on a bed.
That was when Anna da Souza said it was God who saved me from being frozen alive at the mortuary. I told her tears saved me. She said it was God. I said it was tears. I said it was too complex to say it was God. Why did He save me? Why not the owner of the head beside me? Why didn't He stop my phone from setting off the bomb? Why did He make that boy believe he was going to heaven to meet Him? Why did He make them steal away so many girls? You see, Anna, it is better to stick to simple things. Like tears.
Anna said I should not think in anger. She said it kills the soul. I stopped her with my bandaged hand. I told her what happened to my soul on my way to work on the morning of the blast. She gripped at my bed, her eyes like almonds. She asked if I had told anybody. I said no. Her eyes came back to its normal size. I didn't want her eyes like that again because I know it would be followed by her heart and then they might give her a bed beside me. That was why I waited till I got home before I dared to tell her I had been running with my thoughts in the dark.
I was not wrong. Anna da Souza was alarmed. She started to mix threnodies with the care she gave. Dark songs about the children, about my aged parents, about my job, about money. Windy songs about the surrogate nature of danger. She sang so often and with a steadiness that made me lose my footing while I ran in the dark that night. I turned at the wrong cornice and I got lost. I could only remember Anna da Souza's songs of apocalypse.
Fear is a cougar; anger, a deer. The cougar ate my deer. Anna da Souza never left me as sympathisers came and went. She even kept the new phone she got for me beside her worn Nokia on the dressing table. I told her there was no need; the cougar had eaten my deer. But in truth, I tried. I closed my eyes many times but the door was locked. I couldn't go out into the dark to run. I couldn't trace back my path to the forest where anger had gripped my throat at the hijackers of piety. Hard as I tried, I couldn't exactly relive the moment I heard my phone click or the manner talons of fury gripped at my heart as heat baked me like ready dough. If only I could, it would sure strangle Anna da Souza's songs of anomie.
Only I could not.
Anna da Souza said it was the wise thing to do. The blast had killed twelve of my colleagues at the hotel's security department including the avuncular security guard. Fifty-two people in all, including the delegates attending a conference on national unity. The dead were out of it all. The true casualties were the maimed, the wounded, the bereaved, and souls with lost bearings. Souls like me. Whenever my heart quickens or tried to run into the dark, Anna calmed it with steady words. She said ours is no country for heroes. She showed me what they did to the families of those who whispered what they knew to the police. She showed me the bullet-riddled bodies in a newspaper. I stopped at the beheading. She said this was no country to play the patriot. When soldiers were embezzling money meant to buy bullets, only a fool would stick out his family's neck and she is convinced I am no fool. She asked for my thoughts. I said it was simpler not to think anymore. My anger seeped out of my eyes. I cleaned its tears with my burnt hand. The pain only brought more tears. Anna said it will stop. I believed her. It was the simpler thing to do.
Anna da Souza sang threnodies in her sleep. I couldn't sleep. The world had become a cemetery. Our breath now has the sound of a dirge. I hear it every time. I hear it when I take my painkillers. I hear it when the drugs play sudoku with my brain. I hear it when the politicians speak. I hear it in the Mujaid's rants. Now when it gets to the part of the evening news where they appeal for information that could aid the police, I switch off the radio. But sometimes I do reason if I could clutch just at the tail of how I felt when bodies were piling on me, Anna's songs would become my war song. It was not just about the cougar eating my deer. It was something more elusive. I told Anna it was like sleep or orgasm. You never get enough of it. You try to hold it. Grasp it. Feel it at that moment but no. You only come away with the feeling you could hit the bull’s eye on the next try; like eels slipping in and out of your grasp. Anna da Souza says the problem is with our pathetic memory. I say fear is a strain of selfishness.
I keep swinging heated questions in my bandaged head. Anna keeps saying it's all too hard to reason out, too complex to seek out and the best we can do is pause and then keep walking. Self-preservation, she says. I say it is selfishness. She says the world is too complex and dangerous to worry about; we should always opt for the simpler things. Simpler things like what? Her soft lips shivered. She put a finger to it.
Anna da Souza insists the problem of man is with his pathetic memory; her husband says it is selfishness. But they now both agree it is all too complex, too complex and dangerous to think through. It is always better to think of the simpler things.