By Eugene Odogwu
It was one of those downpours that made you think the world was angry at something. Sudden release. Like the sky had been holding its breath for too long. Without so much as a growl or rumble up there, and I was soaked before I could move an inch. Trying to get home under this would be inviting a cold, so I looked around for anything to shield me from the onslaught.
Wiping the rain off my face, I spotted a bush path. I could barely make out the tip of a rusted zinc roof somewhere along it. I dashed for it, running as fast as my soggy jeans and shoes would let me.
A few gasps along the path, I stopped to catch my breath. Up ahead an abandoned house, half buried in the bush, stared at me through empty window sockets. Its roof sagged like the face of a drooling old man. A rotting plank hung askew above the gaping doorway.
I braced myself and made for the building. Beggars weren’t choosers.
Inside was much like the outside; grey and decaying. The walls and floors bore cracks that crept into dark corners with grass growing in-between their narrow gaps. In some parts of the wall the plaster had fallen off, exposing algaed blocks that would crumble at the slightest pressure. There wasn’t much of a roof left and rain trickled through holes, forming puddles in the in the broken concrete. The ceiling boards hung like stalactites, some barely attached to the structure. The place was littered with garbage; bottles, broken toys, plastic containers, pieces of cloth, so much junk all covered in algae and mould. And of course to compliment the décor, vulgarities had been graffitied across the walls in paint, charcoal and what may have been shit. The house had a dank and rotten smell that teased your nose, alternating between decaying and pungent.
I found a dry spot on one of the crumbling windowsills and half-sat, half-leaned on it, staring at the junk around me and hating the tingling chill creeping over me through my wet clothes. I tapped the back pocket of my jeans to feel the reassuring bulge of a sachet. Arizona, the guy under the tree had said. Smiling with a mouth full of yellowed enamel he had added, you go feel am, I swear die.
Well, I had nothing but time to pass and the rain didn’t look like it was letting up anytime soon, so I pulled out the sachet, glad that it was water proof. I took out my plastic yellow lighter and the free joint the guy had rolled for me. Shaking off the dark bits of dried grass that clung to it, I lit up, puffed, then took in a proper drag. It was good herb: I could already feel the tingly warmth in my chest after only a single drag. I let it fill me up, rise from my belly and crawl into my head until I felt buoyed and the rain and cold began to seem pleasant. I smiled and leaned back. It was good, but I’d smoked better weed back in Uni. Ironically, smoking weed hadn’t been my vice of choice then.
The first time I smoked was in my second year of university. It was the only thing I could do to help me forget the guilt that had dug its roots into my chest.
Uche’s simple words had shaken my core and squeezed my heart. This was our second year of school. I was 18. I had no job. I was an only son from a Catholic family. A horror spread across her face as she realized I was as terrified as she was.
“What do you want to do?” I had asked tentatively, dreading her answer, my heart beating right against my ears.
“I-I don’t know.” She had started sobbing, “What should I do? I don’t know what to do. I don’t know what to do.”
I said nothing. I realized that day that I was the worst type of coward. I let her carry the weight of the choice alone. I started avoiding her calls and found a hundred reasons to stay off campus. Then one day she stopped calling. We never spoke again after that. I couldn’t bring myself to ask her what she did or how she was. On the rare occasions when we ran into each other I couldn’t meet her eyes. I couldn’t risk seeing the look of disdain I knew she felt. I avoided her like a bad dream until I graduated a year ahead of her. The last time I looked her up she was doing her masters somewhere in the UK.
I let time pleasantly drift past, listening to the sound of falling drops, and enjoying my buzz. I’m not sure how long it took but the rain eventually slowed to a lazy drizzle and the light violet of dusk now tinged the sky. I was still coming down from my high and my thoughts were everywhere. My eyes were roaming all over the room when I spotted something tucked into the roof, just on top one of the few unbroken ceiling boards. I got curious. I wasn’t tall enough so I dragged a cement block over and climbed on top of it.
It was an old carton. I pulled it out slowly, careful not to touch the filthy cloth on top of it. The box was already crumbling, any slight manhandling and it would break into so many pieces. Carefully I pulled it out, stepped off the block, and placed it on the ground. The box was just big enough to hold two pairs of shoes. I fished a stick from the corner of the room and carefully lifted the rag covering the opening. I jumped back. For a moment I wasn’t sure what I was looking at.
“What the hell?” I muttered to myself. I was staring into the dark hollows of a skull. A baby’s skull. The neat arrangement of an infant’s skeleton lay on layers of rotten cloth, grayed and stained with damp.
A sudden flicker between blinks superimposed the image of a baby over the bones. My knees felt weak and I staggered backwards. For a few incoherent moments I stared at the bones, the memory of Uche’s words drifting through the haze in my head. I used the stick to lift the filthy cloth and laid it back over top of the box.
I picked the box off the floor and lifted it over my head as I made to put it back where I’d found it. My feet had barely touched the concrete block when the bottom of the box gave out. The bed of rags, rich with the smell of mould and decay, landed on my head before slipping to the floor while bones rained down on me with tiny clatters, scattering like an ominous divination across the littered floor. If you don’t know what it feels like to be high then you wouldn’t understand the stark horror I felt. A chill crawled all over my body and my hands trembled as I forced a scream back into my gut. I couldn’t stop shaking. I heard someone laugh and I turned around to look, only to realize no one was there and I was the one laughing. I forced myself calm, though my heart thundered in my chest and I felt the irrational urge to laugh again. I was still high.
I was spooked; I needed to get out of here, rain or no rain. I bent down and picked up the skull. I’m not sure how long it took me to pick up all the bones I could find, place them in the carton, and put it back on the roof, carefully placing a hand beneath it this time to keep the bottom in place. By the time I began the walk home it was dark and all I could feel was the desperate craving for a shower. Times like this I was thankful I lived alone. I didn’t need anyone asking me questions.
The smell hit me as soon as I opened the door. My room smelled foul, like… like a stinky wet rat. No, like a wet, dead, rat. The smell hung in the air with no apparent source. I was too tired to start searching for the creature and I could already feel a headache building, so I opened up the windows, put the fan on full, and had the shower I’d been craving. Afterwards, sleep came easy, probably because I was exhausted and still a bit buzzed.
I stirred awake sometime in the night to find myself shivering. I felt a chill spreading through the room, I felt it most on my toes so I got and closed the windows, and got back into bed pulling a blanket over me. Just as I settled to sleep, I heard a click. I jerked up. I knew that sound: it was the window latch. Didn’t I latch it well? I pushed off the blanket and was just about to get out of bed when the windows started swinging open. I knew it was the wind but something made me freeze in place. The windows were opening with an exaggerated slowness, just like someone sneaking in might open them. But who would sneak into a window one storey up? The hinges didn’t squeak, no, just the drawn-out sound of metal grating on grit. It rattled the back of my teeth. The cold continued to seep in, finding its way through my clothes. I knew no one was there but knowing did nothing to reassure me.
Taking a deep breath, I pushed myself off the bed and walked over to the window. Something shifted in the darkness outside. Maybe I was imagining things but I thought something had moved towards me in the gloom. No, it was just my shadow shifting under the dim light from the security bulb outside. I smiled nervously and pushed the windows closed. What if someone is sneaking in? I knew no one was but, what if? I needed to satisfy that part of my mind otherwise I knew it wouldn’t let me sleep. What if? I opened the windows and looked out and down.
Two very wide and moist eyes were staring at me unblinking. The cold gripped my heart and prickles erupted across my skin. Something flashed beneath the eyes and it took me a second to realize it was a widening smile filled with yellow teeth. The eyes blinked and I tried to scream. My chest heaved and my mouth hung open, but no sound came through. I shot a look at the door. Would I make it before whatever was there crawled into my room? I looked out the window again. I saw nothing. No eyes, no yellow smile. Nothing. I was freaked out. I was seeing things. I was never smoking weed in a decaying building again, never-ever-ever again, definitely not one with a baby’s corpse in it.
I closed the windows and as my heart quieted its soundtrack, I realized the smell had returned. Dead, wet rat. Maybe not a rat, but it was definitely something dead and damp. There was no way I could go back to sleep without help so I rolled a joint and smoked myself to a soothing high that left me unbothered by the smell, then I went back to sleep.
I was standing in the middle of my room listening to echoes of a baby’s cry coming from far away. As I listened it grew louder and louder and with it, came an overwhelming sense of urgency until I felt I had to find the crying baby immediately or something terrible might happen. I ran out the door and found myself in my room back at my hostel when I was 18. Uche stood in the near the window with her back to me, her shoulders shaking with sobs. I reached for her. Maybe this time I could fix it. I put my hand on her shoulder and gently turned her around. Her face was exactly as I remembered it: red-eyed, streaked with tears and swollen from crying. She was holding a delightfully pudgy baby girl in her arms. The baby couldn’t have been older than a month or two. She nestled quietly in Uche’s arms, one little hand clutching her mother’s dress. So small, so fragile, so peaceful. She gurgled and I smiled, my eyes watering.
“You kept it,” I started saying, the weight in my chest lifting as I reached for the child.
“My pikin,” Uche said in an unusual raspy voice.
“What?” I stopped, looking up at her. But Uche just kept sobbing, her face concealed in the shadows. I started to tell her that everything was alright now that we were all together, when the baby’s gurgling turned into sudden shrieks – raspy, dry shrieks that turned my blood cold. I reached to take the baby once again, hoping I could calm it, but its face began to contort like soft clay and its lips pulled back over its teeth as its skin dried up into the hollows of its face. I pulled my hands back as the baby reached for me with bony arms, shrieking into the darkness that surrounded us. This was not our child. I turned to warn Uche. I froze. There was no Uche. I found myself staring instead at a woman with bulging eyes that oozed with puss. Thick tufts of unkempt hair framed her face; her yellow toothed grin seemed to glow in the dark. It was the face I had seen outside my window.
I awoke, clawing my way into the darkness of my room with a scream caught in my throat. My shirt clung to my body, cold and damp with sweat, while my heart tried to beat its way out of my chest. I breathed hard. My windows grated against the sill and my breath caught. The windows had swung open again and were continuing to swing, scratching like bone on wood.
“What the fuck is wrong with me?” I whispered into the dark. Why am I getting jittery over nothing? Obviously, something was wrong with the window latch, nothing more. I climbed out of bed trembling. I inched my way slowly over to the window and pulled it shut. I couldn’t trust myself to look out this time. My fear was far greater than my curiosity.
I climbed back into bed. Maybe all the weed I’d smoked to sleep hadn’t been a great idea after all. With a sigh I rolled unto my side, thinking of how groggy I was going to be in the morning.
She smiled back at me.
I screamed into the face breathing rotten air into mine. Her grin widened and I screamed again, throwing off the blanket as I scrambled off the bed and backed away until my back hit the wall of my room.
“Oh God, what the fuck!” I gasped trying to push myself through the wall. Her lying form twitched and she was suddenly standing on the bed, her arms outstretched and her eyes on me.
“My pikin…” The words drifted my way, laden with the smell of decay. I glanced at the door. I leaned forward to make a mad dash for it when the woman twitched again and she was now standing a few steps away from me, reaching.
“Please…” I shook with sobs. Tears rolled down my face in the dark as I thrashed against the wall. “Leave me alone!”
Bone-cold fingers wrapped around my throat and I froze like a broken mannequin as she pulled me towards her, our faces so close I could see the dirty bone of her skull through the cracks of the seeping gashes on her face. Her dead eyes were glazed over with a milky whiteness that leaked out the corners and her nose had an unnatural twist. She smiled again and I could see her dried up lips cracking.
“My pikin…” Her corpse-breath filled the air between us and I gagged, choking back another scream.
“My pikin!” she shrieked, grabbing my face with both hands. “Wey my pikin?!”
The stink dizzied me and for a moment, I thought I would faint. She wrapped her arms around me, cradling me like a child and pulling me towards her shriveled bosom.
My mind screamed and tears ran down my face as I prayed desperately that this nightmare would end but my body wouldn’t move. I was crippled in her arms.
“My pikin…” Crooning, she lifted a stringy breast, thrust it into my mouth and I wished I was dead.
I struggled against the fetid embrace, choking on the stinking brownish liquid forcing its way through my mouth and nose. I couldn’t breathe and for a moment I thought I was going to die after all. Eyes wide, I drowned in rotten milk from a decayed breast. Somewhere during my mental struggle, things began to blur. The screaming in my head grew distant as the rotten fluid clouded my eyes. Faraway voices drifted my way like echoes and then like a vague dream, I began to see things I couldn’t explain.
I watched two men walking quietly through a bush path, whispering words I couldn’t hear to each other. Their forms were distorted like images reflected off a desert haze, stretching and yawing with subtle ripples. The old house blurred into view, its image wavering, struggling to be still. It wasn’t quite as condemned as it was now but it was still in bad shape. The vision rippled and I saw one of the two men going around to the back of the hut. Ripple and blur. Inside the hut the two men were struggling to hold down a woman. I knew it was her – the one cradled me. Her tattered clothes ripped off in their hands as she screamed and bucked like a wild beast in their grip. Even then, I could see the madness in her eyes. The images of their act fell like angry rocks. Thrusts and screams. Grunts and frenzied laughter. Again the vision rippled and I saw her naked on the ground, her head to the side, nipples trickling with breast milk, feet apart and blood between her legs. Her breath came in rasps as her eyes searched the roof of the old house from where the distant cry of a hungry baby fell.
“My pikin,” she rasped. “My pikin.”
She wrenched me from her bosom and shoved me aside. The grotesque images still burned behind my eyes. She stood over me and pointed a decaying finger with a long yellowed nail at me.
“Wey my pikin?” And she disappeared.
The revulsion struck me hard and quick. I emptied my stomach on the floor, only vaguely aware of the cloying smell of half-digested food. Then, hugging my knees to my chest, I rolled unto my side and darkness enveloped me.
The next morning I spent hours in the bathroom trying to scrub the filth off me, gagging at the memories of the past night. Scrub as I might, I still smelled the rot clinging unto my skin. I felt violated. Scarred physically and mentally. A part of me wished I was dead. A part of me probably had died.
Last night I saw what happened to her. I felt her pain and fear as she was ravaged by those two men. What would drive a man to do that? She had hidden her baby from them before they came upon her. After bleeding out on the filthy ground of the abandoned house, her desperate soul stayed behind to watch her baby starve to death, crying in the roof where no one would ever hear it.
A sudden wave of anger threatened to burst through my chest. These men were filth. Less than filth. A slow painful death would only begin to scratch the surface of what they deserved. I wanted to scream and grab them by the throat like she’d grabbed me. I wanted to hit them over and over and over again till they felt half as much pain they had inflicted on her. I wanted to do something, anything to balance the tragic scales. I felt a dull throb in my hand and I surfaced from my anger to feel pain pulsing through my knuckles. I had been punching the wall and I hadn’t even known. I knew I was losing my mind but I was sure of one thing; I had to go back to that house. I couldn’t turn my back on another child.
I lost my way twice trying to find the old house, and by the time I did it was late afternoon. I was hot, tired and dripping with sweat. The building was as I left it, watching me through forlorn eyes that seemed to share my misfortune. I entered, making my way to where it all began, with my mind trying to convince me that every dark patch on the floor was the mad woman’s blood. The box was where I left it, half hidden in the roof. I took a deep breath, squatted and started looking for any bone fragment I must have missed. I knew she was watching me because the smell of rot filled the air. I picked all the tiny fragments of the skeleton that I could find in the dim light of the evening, and when I was really sure there was nothing left, I reached for the box.
Carefully holding its base, I lowered it to the ground and emptied its contents unto the dirty rag that had fallen on my head the previous day. Then with the care and calm of a resigned convict, I began to arrange the bones. When I was done, I placed them back into the box and gently returned it to its home, covered in the filthy cloth it had come with. My legs ached and I was hungry but my fear gave no room for an appetite. A thought occurred to me. I was wearing the same jeans I had worn the day it rained so I reached into the back pocket and pulled out the sachet of weed. Something dropped to the ground with a click and I looked down to see a finger bone: tiny and grey. And then it all made sense. She had followed me home, seeking out what was hers. I lowered the box a third time, picked up the bone and placed it where it belonged, then for what I hoped was the last time, I returned the frail carton to its resting place.
That night the air was warm, no rotten smell drifted my way and I slept without the sounds of grating windows.
It’s been five years now and things are more or less normal. I work in an orphanage, but I don’t intend to have any children of my own. I can’t be a father; I’ve already had my chance.
Last month I ran into one of the men at the shopping mall. I knew it was him. There was no doubt in my mind. The way he reeked of her. I wouldn’t mistake that smell for anything. He was much older now, carrying a pot belly like a trophy. That old anger flared like a freshly fed flame and it was all I could do not to inflict the harm I had dreamed of over and over for the last five years. I stalked him long enough to know where he lived and then I went back to the old house. It was still there. Not much worse off than it was the last time I saw it. The bones were where I left them too. I took a piece of her child and buried it in his compound. I had a feeling I would run into the other one in due time.