Tag Archives: new Nigerian writing

The 4:15 Appointment

By Rafeeat Aliyu

Olachi’s head popped through the back door startling Taiye. “Your 4:15 massage is here!”

Taiye pressed the red button, cutting short the heated conversation she had been engaged in. Work was calling, village matters would have to wait. She tried calming herself down as she followed Olachi into the building that housed the elite spa they both worked in.

“What were you doing there?” Olachi frowned. “Your client has been waiting for a while now. Better pray Madam doesn’t come in.”

What was on Taiye’s mind far outweighed Madam’s wrath. Her brother needed money for a new laptop since his old one had been stolen, her younger sisters needed money for their school fees, the monthly allowance she sent to her mother was behind schedule…this did not even include the distant aunt who had called just now to demand why Taiye was yet to send the money she promised her into her account, a day had already passed since she had asked. Taiye dragged her hand across her face; at this rate she would be unable to pay the rent.

“This is the woman who will attend to you,” Olachi’s words dispersed her thoughts in four different directions. Taiye looked up to find her client seated on one of the sofas in the waiting area.

The woman’s skin was as yellow as a bar of soap. She wore an incredibly short skirt and a flimsy top that exposed a curved shoulder, her eyebrows were perfectly arched, eyeliner wings steady and lips zobo-red. The air around her screamed affluence and sophistication, she was probably one of those young women running around Abuja being sponsored by their sugar daddies, Taiye thought maliciously. The woman’s lips quirked, one corner lifted up slightly as she stared back at Taiye studying her. The slight movement made Taiye pause; she was suddenly assailed with the uncomfortable thought that the woman could read her mind. Impossible.

“Good evening ma.” she played subservient as Madam said the clients expected. Then came the introduction, “My name is Taiye,” and the apology, “I apologise for the wait. Kindly follow me.”

“I trust this room is to your taste.” Taiye shut the door to the dim room behind them. The scent of sandalwood along with the soft sounds of a gentle rain from the music player surrounded them. “You wanted the shea butter massage, ma?”

“Yes, and I hope it is good.” She dropped her bag on the floor. “I am already unimpressed with your services. It is just unfortunate that my usual spa is closed, I wouldn’t even consider coming here…”

Taiye blocked out her words and commenced preparing the shea butter, warming it up so that it melted and adding a few drops of calming lavender essential oil to it.

“I apologise, ma.” She said finally. “I will give you some privacy now, please take off your clothes and lie face up on the table.”

Taiye stepped out; her hands itched from wanting to slap that woman. It must be nice not to have any problems in one’s life apart from when and where to have a massage. They looked about the same age yet life had clearly dealt Taiye the heavier burden. She walked to the extreme end of the corridor and leaned towards an open window dragging in the dust-laden air deeply. Focus Taiye, she told herself. Five minutes later she was back in the room where her client waited. Shortly after, she started her work first stretching her client’s muscles. As she applied pressure on her client’s stomach, she admired the little ring that adorned her belly button. Taiye worked, kneading at the muscles and imagining how many men must be chasing after this woman, how she must entrance them.

She asked the woman to turn over, that was when things got strange. Taiye rubbed more shea butter on her hands and looked down on the smooth expanse of her client’s back in preparation. Just below the woman’s left shoulder blade was what looked like a painful bump, the kind that Taiye associated with being hit badly. Before Taiye’s eyes, the swelling shifted under skin and disappeared. A sharp pain pierced Taiye’s chest as she stood rooted to the spot, her hands unwilling to continue the massage. The bump appeared again, lengthened so it resembled a snake and slithered across her client’s back.

“Is anything the matter?” Her client’s lulled voice was a testament to her calmed state.

“No,” Taiye breathed. Then she shook her head so her voice came out stronger when she repeated, “No”.

She had to maintain her professionalism in the face of hallucinations. Taiye pressed her hands onto the woman’s shoulders; she slid them down her back and stared in horror as her hands sunk through the woman’s skin. She lurched, moving her hands back and forth but all she felt was lightness and all she saw were her wrists. Crying out her horror, Taiye jumped back pulling her hands with her. The woman lifted herself up on her elbows and regarded Taiye.

“What on earth is wrong with you?” Her demand was harsh but a lopsided smile occupied half of her face.

“I am sorry madam,” Taiye ignored the heaviness in her stomach.

“You seem distracted,” the woman continued. “Is everything all right with you? At home?”

She looked into the woman’s eyes; they seemed to change colour from black to a light hazel. At that moment Taiye thought the woman knew all about her.

“I don’t have all day,” the woman said. When Taiye did not reply, the woman lay back down on her stomach.

Taiye had never seen anything like this before – outside her dreams which, when she had them, always veered into the weird. She was definitely not asleep now. Taiye reluctantly approached her client’s prone form and tentatively touched her shoulder. Her skin was soft but not soft enough for her hand to be submerged in it, Taiye resumed the massage. By the end of the day, she had convinced herself that it had all been an illusion. A peculiar illusion drawn from the horror movie her boyfriend had forced her to watch last week.

She must have looked over her shoulder a hundred times as she walked down the dark street to her one-room home. The prayers she said before sleeping that night were more fervent than usual. They were ultimately useless because when she slept, all she saw was her 4:15 client.

*

 The only business Taiye could do and excel in was in her trade. On her day off, she kept herself busy by borrowing clients from Madam’s spa, offering them home treatments at rates that were just slightly lower than the standard home-service rates dictated by Madam. She not only borrowed clients, but equipment as well and had her boyfriend drop her when she needed to make things happen.

That day Taiye found herself stranded outside the gates of a high-class estate tucked away in Maitama with a folded table to her left and a box of aromatic oils and butters in her right hand. She tapped her right foot; Gregory had promised to pick her up and he was already fifteen minutes late. Taiye knew intimately how the guards at this estate enjoyed mistreating anyone who they regarded as poor, Nigerian and local, she did not want to give them a chance to embarrass her. The guards had already given her a tough time when she had entered the estate and were shooting daggers at her from their post five feet away. Taiye wiped her sweaty palm on her side and observed a fancy Mercedes SUV drive past her. She admired the dark red colour of the car and thought she recognised the person driving it, which was out of the question; no one she knew personally could afford such luxury. There was a loud screech as the driver pressed on the brake and shifted the car into reverse. When the car stopped before her, Taiye remembered where she had met the driver.

A month must have passed since that fateful day, yet standing in such close proximity to the woman, it felt like only yesterday. In some ways it was only yesterday considering the nightmares that had plagued Taiye since then. Taiye never recalled the dreams in detail beyond the strong impression that this woman had been in them. She had grown convinced that the woman was involved in some kind of occult activity, and that the woman wanted to initiate her – if she had not already. There was no other reason for her to be dreaming about someone she had only spent an hour and thirty minutes with.

“Taiye!” the driver called her as if they were friends. “Imagine seeing you here. How are you?”

“I am fine,” Taiye dared not to look at her. She did not even know this lady’s name.

“How come you’re just standing here?” The woman eyed Taiye. “Come on, let me give you a lift.”

“I don’t think you’re going my way,” Taiye pointed in the opposite direction of the gilded main gate.

“Come on, I can drop you off afterwards.” The front door slammed behind her as she exited the car. “How much longer do you intend to stand under the sun; those look heavy.”

If this woman was engaged in evil, would she be so eager to carry the folded table and deposit it in her car in such a carefree manner? There was always the option to run away, to find protection between any hallowed walls. Then there was the option to succumb, especially if it meant Taiye would be sitting behind the driver’s seat of a car like this Mercedes. There was also the possibility that Taiye’s imagination had run wild. Taiye chewed on her bottom lip and decided: she would only put up the least resistance. She settled into the plush leather passenger seat and reached for the seatbelt.

“I’m Lila.” The car was filled with a strong heady fragrance as she closed the door with too much force.

“Nice to meet you,” Taiye replied.

Lila’s laugh was high-pitched. “Why are you so formal? See you.” She slapped her hand on the wheel. “Sha, don’t start calling me ‘ma’, this is not the spa.”

As the car lurched forward, Taiye was suddenly assaulted by a memory that could only have come from one of those nightmares she had had recently. Lila standing still and nude; Taiye recognised her even though her face was distorted, as if she was wearing a mask. Her eyebrows seemed bushier, her eyes bigger, her mouth wider and higher on her face and her chin long and pointed, curved outward. Despite her grotesque appearance, Taiye recalled shamelessly lamenting to the Lila in her dreams. Her issues with her family and her need for money poured out of her mouth like water from a kettle’s spout. It was always about money, right until she would find herself wrist deep in Lila again but this time Lila’s body took her arms, then her torso and her head. Worst of all, it had felt good. Heat flooded through her, but Lila was saying something and Taiye was not listening.

“…so I will just branch by my place and pick up a few things.” Lila finished.

“Excuse me?”

“I said I needed to pick something from my house, I live in this estate.” Lila snickered. “Or did you think I was here to meet my sugar daddy?”

Taiye squirmed in her seat; luckily Lila did not even wait for her to reply.

“We’re there already. See.” She swerved right and pressed on the car horn in a long and protracted way until the gate shifted.

The black gate was pushed back by an old woman almost bent double. The elder looked like she was going to fall over at any moment yet she continued until the gate was wide enough for Lila to drive through. Taiye’s eyes met the old woman’s sombre ones; surely there was a limit to who should be doing the work of a housegirl. Taiye sat still while Lila jumped out of the car.

“Mama!” Lila screamed at the old woman. “We have a guest.”

Taiye’s mouth fell open. She looked from Lila with her curly weave-on and shiny nail tips to the old woman modestly dressed in an old worn blouse and a faded wrapper around her waist, its dull print suggesting it was as old as the woman. The door to the passenger’s side jerked open.

“Don’t tell me you plan on sitting here, the windows are rolled up, you could die!” Lila laughed. “Abi you’re scared? Don’t worry, I don’t bite.” She winked.

The entire episode was too strange. Knees throbbing, Taiye looked at the gate that the so-called Mama was sliding shut. She could still run away. Then she mentally slapped herself; why, this was an opportunity! Even if there were no occult activities or initiation involved, there must be some goodness that would come her way from rubbing shoulders with someone like Lila. If she looked on the bright side, soon Taiye would cease her lamentations of poverty. She slid out of the SUV. The house was two stories high, and looked too grand for just one person, Taiye could not picture a family behind the bewildering Lila. Inside the mansion, everything looked new. There was no helping it, Taiye thought back to where she lived, her one room with the mattress she slept on in one corner and the stove she cooked on in another. It was a huge stroke of luck that she had her own bathroom.

Lila led her straight to her bedroom on the upper floor with its queen-sized bed overflowing with stuffed pillows.

“I just needed to change…but I’m sweaty, I should have a bath too.” Lila peeled off her jeans while Taiye averted her gaze. “I hope you don’t mind. Mama will bring something for you to eat.” She shouted the last sentence, as if she wanted Mama to hear her from downstairs.

Taiye found herself alone, her feet sunk into the plush carpet as she looked around. There were no personal effects at all; no photos on the walls, in fact apart from what looked like wallpaper the walls were bare. The door opened and Mama entered in carrying a tray of juice and small chops, she set the goodies on a low table beside the bed. Mama’s head cocked as she regarded Taiye.

“You are one of the ugliest that witch has brought home.” Her whisper was harsh and her English was peppered with an accent that suggested some time spent abroad, it completely contrasted with her image.

Taiye frowned as Mama fired on. “You should see yourself, standing and gaping like a poverty-stricken idiot. You must be a fool for choosing the company of that harlot.”

“Mama…” Heat flooded Taiye’s face.

“Don’t you dare call me Mama, do I look like your mother?” She kissed her teeth viciously. “You idiot.”

Taiye flinched at being berated by an elder for no apparent reason. The woman words cut like a knife and she fired on so Taiye had to block her out. She sipped at the juice and marvelled at the smoothness of the mango. Despite her best efforts as she nibbled on a samosa, words like “worthless” and “mumu” passed through her mental wall. She must have really looked like the fool Mama thought she was perched at the edge of the bed, eating quietly while being insulted when Lila emerged from the bathroom with a wrapper tied over her chest.

“Mama is that really necessary?” Lila stood akimbo. “You know better than this, go feed on someone else.”

Taiye watched as Mama shrunk visibly, and despite her harshness she felt sorry for the elder.

“Mama, you’ve grown horns to be insulting my guest in such a manner.” Lila pushed open the door to the closet. “Sometimes it is like your forget it is a blessing that you’re even alive.”

“I have done nothing wrong.” Mama’s eyes followed Lila’s movements, hands clutched to her chest. “I have not eaten in days and you forbade…”

“Will you get out of this room!” Lila eyes were white in rage. “In fact get out of this house, of this estate! Go back there and see what will happen to you. And if I hear that you fed without my permission…”

Lila’s glance fell on Taiye and softened.

“Leave this place, Mama.” Rolling her shoulders, she inhaled deeply. Two sets of eyes watched the old woman as she scurried away. Lila smiled at Taiye, her smile was so wide it reached her eyes.

“I am sorry about that.” She turned her attention back to the closet stuffed with clothes. “Mama can be unseasoned.”

“But should you…” Taiye’s voice broke, she pushed herself to continue. “Should you be talking to your mother in that manner?”

Art by David Motutu
Art by David Motutu

 

“I shouldn’t, right?” Lila extracted a red top. “But I give her all the respect she deserves by calling her Mama and providing a roof over her head. How did you feel when she was talking to you?”

“I…I felt bad.” Taiye lowered her gaze as Lila lowered her wrapper.

“Imagine, I grew up with that every day. That woman feeds on negativity.” Lila said. “She has not one loving bone in her body.”

Lila had mentioned her mother feeding but it seemed she meant it figuratively.

“Help me zip up, Taiye.” Lila showed Taiye her back. What Taiye had mistaken for a top turned out to be a dress. “Tell me, how do I look?”

She twirled round playfully. Taiye took in her bare feet and let her gaze travel up to the curls she had packed in a bun. She looked stunning. Taiye knew such a look would never befit her.

“You look great.” Taiye breathed. Such skimpy clothes would look horrible on her; there was no need to even imagine herself decked in such a daring fashion.

“Would you like to try something on?” Lila read Taiye’s mind. “Actually I have a dress that would look excellent on you.”

Taiye had to decline. “I have overstayed…”

“Nonsense.” Lila held a green flimsy thing in her hands. “Today is your day off Taiye, let me take you out.”

“The truth is my boyfriend is waiting for me.” Taiye swallowed.

Lila advanced until she stood in front of her. “Forget Gregory.” Reaching for Taiye’s hands, she pulled her up.

“I did not…” Taiye stammered. “How do you know his name?”

“I think you know.” Lila’s fingers were on the buttons of Taiye’s shirt, undoing them one by one. “At the very least you should have an idea. Now, are you coming out with me or not?”

Taiye held her shirt closed with both hands, nodded her consent and slipped into the bathroom.

*

“Taiye, you look gorgeous.” Lila remarked. “Your skin tone complements this colour.”

This was the first time anyone had complimented her on her skin tone, no one had teased her, but no one had offered her honeyed words for her sepia tone either. It felt akin to sacrilege to put a designer dress on her dirty sweaty body. Her dimpled thighs should not be exposed, and her father would roll in his grave if he saw her wearing a dress that revealed her back. But Lila had called her gorgeous. Taiye stared at herself in the mirror; she looked wild, like an alluring temptress. Was it possible that one dress and a bit of makeup could have this effect? Or was Lila’s aura rubbing on her already?

“Thank you.” She wanted to pinch herself, there was a longing in her voice; she did not want to give up this dream.

“You look delicious.” Lila’s head appeared beside her own in the mirror, her chin burrowed into Taiye’s shoulder. “Are you ready to join me for an adventure?”

Downstairs there was someone waiting before the front door, from the distance Taiye could make out a slim figure shrouded in a green caftan

“Olokunfemi,” the woman in the caftan cautiously turned to face them. “You’re going out to eat and won’t even show the slightest mercy to Mama.”

“Before you start accusing me sister, I have a guest.” Lila stooped to slip on her high heels. “Taiye, this is my sister Yazmin.”

As Taiye greeted her, she noticed Yazmin’s eyes were murky, unseeing. Nonetheless Yazmin was as beautiful as her sister, though plainly dressed in a caftan and without makeup.

“We will have this discussion when you come back.” A frown marred Yazmin’s brow as her blind gaze moved over the wall near Taiye. “I did not notice you had company.”

“That’s rare of you.” Lila let her bought hair down from its bun and dragged her fingers through its mass. “Before you disappear at least come and open the gate for me.”

Taiye would not ask questions. Her nails dug into her palms as her phone vibrated in the bejewelled clutch bag Lila had lent her. She would not ask why her sister had called her by that name, nor would she demand to know the sense behind sending a blind woman on such an errand.

“I can open the gate.” Taiye offered. Lila shrugged and headed for her car.

“Taiye,” Yazmin called out as Taiye followed Lila’s footsteps. “You should know that anyone you meet in this house is more than you can possibly imagine.”

Her hands stilled on the doorknob. “I don’t understand.”

“That is the least you should know if you are going to be hanging around my sister.” A blaring horn startled Taiye into action. She was out the door before Yazmin had the chance to say anything else.

As the SUV wound through the streets of Abuja, Taiye studied her phone. Eleven missed calls, most of them from Gregory. She turned off her phone; if she wasn’t here she would be at home preparing efo-riro for the dinner she would share with Gregory. At that moment Taiye decided she much rather preferred Lila’s company. It must have been the years of repression, the years of taking responsibility for her siblings as the first daughter, the years of looking for work so that money could be sent home after her father had passed away, it must have been a culmination of all her experiences that made Taiye this eager to give herself over to temptation unheeding. As night drew closer, Lila drove them to a inconspicuous-looking house. Past the gates and behind the multi-storied building, a party was in full swing in the backyard. Taiye kept her head down, ignoring most of the crowd as Lila wove her way through it.

“Ah there is Chairman.” Lila reached for Taiye’s hand and walked towards the short man decked in a pricey suit. She introduced him as the owner of a successful supermarket chain in Abuja and Kaduna. To the Chairman Taiye was “my friend.”

The three of them settled down on lawn chairs and as the evening progressed, Taiye felt more out of place. Her two companions were discussing things that were foreign to her, like the benefits in importing used cars from South Korea as opposed to China. There were servers carrying trays of colourful drinks that exploded in Taiye’s head making her groggy. When the Chairman rose to his feet and Lila with him, Taiye mirrored their movements. It was not long before she found herself in a room with the two of them, the intention of the Chairman clear as day.

The penthouse suite of D-Suites in Maitama was a muted affair. It was not exactly how Taiye would have pictured the most expensive room of such an establishment. She barely had time to scrutinise the brown and gold décor of the sitting room when Lila took her hand and dragged her through to the bedroom behind the Chairman. The fluorescent lights on the ceiling and the two lamps on each side of the bed were lit, all of them highlighting the queen bed in the centre of the room.

The Chairman lay on his back on the wide bed, Lila straddling him. It seemed normal enough when Lila lowered her head to kiss him. Taiye had to look at something else other than those two. The colourful clock on the wall by her left was a good enough distraction; it was frozen at five minutes past seven. Even with her gaze somewhere else Taiye could hear them; the wetness of two lips meshing, soft groans and low moans. Then there was a faint gurgling sound like the last of water going down a drain. The strange sound drew Taiye to tilt her head slightly in the direction of the bed in the hopes of catching a glimpse. She blinked. From where Taiye stood she could clearly see what looked like water spilling out from the side of Lila’s mouth, which was glued to the Chairman’s. Lila’s hands were flat on the Chairman’s chest and below her the prone man struggled. Someone as slight as Lila was, compared to the Chairman’s broad frame, should not have been able to hold the grappling man down, yet Lila did not loose her grip on the Chairman until his movements stilled.

“Finally!” Lila gasped, flinging her head back. She turned to smile at Taiye who shook in her shoes. “Taiye help me with this.” She was pulling at Chairman’s tie. When it loosened, Lila’s deft fingers were slipping buttons out of their holes exposing a hairy chest and a slightly paunchy stomach. The sound of her own breathing was heavy in Taiye’s ears. She should leave.

“There’s no way you can leave now Taiye.” Lila placed both hands on the Chairman’s still chest. “Sit down.”

There was a magnet in the lone chair situated near the bed and it drew Taiye’s behind. She sat on it just in time to see Lila’s hand sink through the Chairman’s skin. Lila moved her hands, drawing them apart and down, opening the Chairman up. Taiye tasted blood in her mouth; her teeth had gnawed at her inner cheek. She had seen this before, back at the spa and then again in those nightmares. Instead of guts and gore, a grey light spilled out from inside the Chairman. Lila leaned over breathed in this glow, inhaling the grey through her wide nostrils she moaned.

“Absolutely delectable.” Lila shifted off  the Chairman, kicking off her heels she stood on the bed. “Taiye, see you soon.”

With those parting words Lila stepped into the glow, slipped her foot into the open stomach and sunk into Chairman’s body. The gaping hole sealed behind her. Taiye stared at the bed unseeingly, persistent quivers racked her frame.

*

Despite it all, Taiye slept. She awakened to the sun on her face, she was lying tummy down on the bed. She was not aware of the exact time, but years of habit told her that she was late for work. It took two breaths for the events of the previous night to slam into her. Taiye jerked off the bed and was surprised to find it empty. The white covers on the bed, the marbled floor and the mahogany bedside desk let her know that she was still in the guesthouse they had driven to the previous night. There was no deadly stiff Chairman lying beside her, Lila too was nowhere to be seen. Taiye’s hand reached for her throat, last night definitely happened. She did not conjure it up. Something so unnatural was beyond her scope of originality.

The loud gurgle of a toilet flushing told Taiye that she was not alone. The door to the bathroom swung open and in its frame stood the Chairman, naked as the day he was born. The sight of his nudity caused Taiye’s mouth to fall open, panic to flood Taiye’s veins. Had something sexual happened between her and the Chairman? But she was fully dressed…

“Calm down, Taiye.” The Chairman’s mouth moved but it was Lila’s voice. “That did not happen, but it can if you want it to.”

The laughter was undoubtedly Lila’s. Flabbergasted, Taiye’s eyes followed the Chairman – no it was Lila that leapt across the room in a movement that would be considered strange on a pot-bellied man like the Chairman. Standing in front of a full-length mirror the Chairman looked at himself.

“No matter how many times I do this,” a hand reached between his legs. “I can’t get over it.”

“What…” Taiye’s voice croaked, she cleared her throat. “What is going on?”

“Haba, you should know Taiye. I thought you were perceptive.” The hand stroked and a light giggle burst forth from the Chairman’s lips. “I am borrowing Chairman’s body. Tell me Taiye would you let the Chairman fuck you?”

“No!” Taiye recoiled. “What are you?”

The Chairman pouted. “You’re no fun.” He stepped away from the mirror.

“Why involve me in this?” Taiye hugged herself bringing her arms across her midriff.

“Because I like you, Taiye…plus it always pays to have a human sidekick.” The Chairman pulled on his boxers but the eyes that were trained on Taiye belonged to Lila. “You knew there was something off about me yet you still came along with me. Now that is sexy and I shall reward you immensely.”

Her ears perked at “reward.”

“You’re not going to eat me, or use me as sacrifice…”

“We only eat emotions.” The Chairman laughed, high and feminine as he slipped on a shirt. “I like lust, Mama eats shame, Yazmin fear – although the goody-two-shoes likes to fast.”

“Do they borrow bodies too?” Taiye felt the knot between her shoulders loosen.

“That’s my speciality.” The Chairman knotted his tie. “I thought it was useless before I discovered that this is the least stressful way to learn personal information like account numbers, PINs and the like.”

Her knees did not feel wobbly; Taiye lifted herself up from the bed. “This is all to steal people’s information?” She helped the Chairman put on his suit jacket.

“At its core.” The Chairman smoothed the silver jacket. “You have no idea how nice this is. You should let me borrow your body.”

Taiye shook her head. “Haven’t you already?” At the Chairman’s raised eyebrow she continued. “I mean in my dreams, you…we…”

“That wasn’t me!” The Chairman dissolved into laughter, bending over and slapping his knees. He sighed. “I said you were perceptive, but could someone have been warning you about me?” he stroked his chin.

“This is not funny.” Taiye began to feel unsure again, just when she had gained some confidence.

“Okay Taiye,” the Chairman pouted. “We’ll investigate that later, now need to go to the bank to effect some transfers.” He winked. “Coming along?”

There were still questions that needed answering: What would happen when Lila posing as Chairman walked into the bank? What kind of reward would Lila give her? Taiye’s fingers dug into her palms, she nodded her consent.

Office worker by day, writer by day and night. Rafeeat is a huge history need who enjoys cooking from recipes, horror movies and the feeling of waking up in a foreign country.
Office worker by day, writer by day and night. Rafeeat is a huge history nerd who enjoys cooking from recipes, horror movies and the feeling of waking up in a foreign country.

Crocodile Ark

By Oluwole Talabi

Before my mother died, she used to tell me old Yoruba folktales while we huddled around the lower platform heating vents or waited in line for rations. As with all good African stories, they were always garnished with proverbs. That’s the unique thing about our stories, isn’t it? The proverbs. Well, that and the tortoises. But there is more. Even though as everyone who as ever read Achebe knows, proverbs are the palm oil with which words are eaten, sometimes it’s the palm oil that stains your clothes that stays with you long after the hunger had passed. My point is, many of those proverbs stuck with me long after I forgot the stories she told me. Some even stuck with me long after she died. But one of them will probably stay with me forever. It goes; Ọ̀nì ní ojú máa ńti òun láti gé nǹkan j, tóun bá sì ti gée j, ojú máa ńti òun láti fi síl̀.Ọ̀nì ní ojú máa ńti òun láti gé nǹkan j, tóun bá sì ti gée j, ojú máa ńti òun láti fi síl. What that all means, once you manage to translate it, is something like this; “The crocodile always says it is shy to bite, but once it has bitten, it is shy to let go.”

And that was exactly what happened to me. Not that I’m saying I’m a literal or metaphorical crocodile or any sort of crocodile really. It’s just a proverb. Actually, maybe I am a crocodile and maybe, just maybe crocodile nature is human nature too. But I’m not being clear. I suppose if I’m going to tell you this story, then I have to have to tell you about Ariannamaka.

*

By the time I met Ariannamaka in person, she was twenty-one and we’d already been friends for two years.

Our first encounter was online, in a government sanctioned voidspace chatroom. Her family was rich; they lived up in the Chancel, where gravity had been artificially adjusted to original Earth levels for the deacons, the ushers, the committee of saints and of course, those who gave the greatest offering to the Prophet. Her profile avatar was beautiful but grim. In it, she wore a crop-top, and lay in a plush, purple-sheeted bed, unsmiling. I’d seen it before, that look, it was common with the girls in the Chancel, the ones brave or bored enough to surf the open voidspace anyway. But there was something uniquely fiery and intangible about her that fascinated me in the bizarre way that fires fascinate moths.

I gazed at her avatar on my portapod for a few minutes, twiddling my thumbs, and then I swiped right on her profile and sent her a private virtual reality message.

[Hi], I said.

It only took her three minutes to reply.

[Hey there], She said. The voice and image that projected into my mind were so clear, I knew immediately that she was using a full VR resolution portapod model that most people down on the platform would kill me for having, assuming I could ever afford it. She was short at about five and a half feet; with wide, sensual hips visible behind the flowing silver gown she wore in her VR avatar. She had a mane of wild natural hair that looked like bunched-up brambles and her eyes were oak brown. My portapod model was a cheap second-hand so I probably just looked like a nondescript, boxy and angular stock character wearing platform rags in her mind.

[What’s it like, living up in the skydome, with the blessed richfolk, saints and the Prophet?] I asked, trying for sharp charm since I could obviously not impress her with my looks.

[Boring. That’s why I’m in here, chatting with lowly platformers like you]. The sarcasm slid smoothly off her high resolution tongue, and into the virtual reality we were sharing.

I laughed, and we exchanged a few more VRM’s about what it meant to be the last ones left, to be the future of the human race. Once she sensed that I shared some of her own sentiments, she ported me into a shielded virtual reality sharespace that she and her friends had written out of the government base voidspace network. It was only later that I realised she had been looking specifically for someone like me.

Everyone there was of varying resolutions, standing awkwardly in that dark corner of electronic shared reality. They remained silent as Ariannamaka introduced me to them one by one and when she was done, the messages started to come. Cautiously at first, then in a flurry as I echoed them as my thoughts too. Finally, Ariannamaka told me what they were planning to do and how they planned to do it. I was intrigued. I was excited. They encouraged me to join them; they said that they would need my help when the time came.

[This Ark is a corrupt, elitist system, and we have the chance to change it,] Elegebde said to me, gesturing energetically with his hands. His avatar presented a high resolution, big, bulky and solid fellow with broad shoulders, brown hair just verging on black, and the kind of face I was sure people would describe as intimidating if they saw it in reality. He did most of the talking after I ported in. [But we will need someone from the lower platforms to set things in motion. Someone the people of the platform will listen to, follow.]

[The kind of person we can make you if you join us.] Ariannamaka added.

Her voice was soft and pleading in spite of the harsh warping effect of the electronic VR filter convincing the Prophet’s eavesdropping spies that all we said was benign.

I asked to be given a moment and thought myself out of the shielded voidspace, back into the reality of my platform bunk. I took in the dark, cramped monochromatic space; a dilapidated old metal board on the door bearing an efficiently ugly poster that reminded us that “2077 IS OUR YEAR OF DIVINE DIRECTION”. Above it, the ubiquitous image of Prophet and Prophet Mrs smiled down on our, squalid and overcrowded quarters. The other twelve people I shared Ark platform sector A-589 with were also all plugged into their own portapods, killing time until ration distribution. They were probably chatting up random girls on the voidspace chatrooms or worshipping in one of the prophets many VR centres and praying that they would be chosen this year in the annual ‘blessing of the twelve’ ceremony where one twelve platformers would be declared saints and asked to go up into the Chancel and serve the prophet, helping to find a new home for our species and leaving this meaninglessness behind. And make no mistake that was what it was, meaningless. I looked back down at portapod, shook my head and thought myself back into the shielded voidspace.

[Fuck yeah. Count me in], I said.

I know now that it was a mistake, but I was sixteen. I was an orphan. I was a lower platformer. I was bored and my life had no purpose. I didn’t know what I was getting into. But even though all those things are true, now that I’ve had time to think about it, I think the real reason I agreed to their insane plan was that Ariannamaka was just beautiful and interesting enough for me to be that stupid.

*

Ariannamaka told me she loved me on the day we took the Ark. The same day, she also told me she was the Prophet’s daughter and that Earth was still standing; that it had never been destroyed. It also happened to be the first day that we met in person.

We were in the bright electronic embrace of the Sanctum – the Ark’s Control Bridge – and she had plugged her external mod disk into the Ark’s central control systems. The centrifugal artificial gravity generators, the air and water processing units, the Prophet’s central voidspace network – we were taking control of it all, and once the override was complete and the people of the Ark heard my voice, we would control them too. Outside, Elegbede and the others stood guard, they had killed a path to the Sanctum for us and were defending it while we jacked into the system and took over.

I had prepared meticulously for the day. I had read books; studied revolutionary histories of old earth; wormed my way into the right circles; seeded dissent in the hearts of the Prophet’s lackeys and even become Youth Leader of the lower Ark Church with the help of Ariannamaka and her rebel friends. I was primed to topple the government. Expose the prophet and his coterie. So you can imagine that being told that the earth was still standing and that my handler and best friend was both in love with me and the daughter of the man I had learned to loathe, especially at such an inopportune time, threw my mind into something of a tailspin.

“No,” I said, because it was the only thing I could think to say. I loved her, I always had but how could she be the prophet’s daughter? And why was she telling me then? Everything in my head was hazy, woolly and unsubstantial.

Arriannamaka made a strange, confused noise that sounded like, “Hoin?!”

So I repeated my own confused objection, “No, Ariannamaka, no. Not like this,” I said. “Not now.”

Her words seemed stuck in her throat for a moment like a fluid behind a pipe constriction and then, when enough pressure had built up, they exploded out of her, “I’m sorry. It just came out of me. It’s all just coming now. I mean, it’s been two years, and today when I saw you, really saw you, it made everything real. I really want real. I don’t care about taking control of the Ark anymore; I want to go back to earth, to have a real, normal life with you.”

I grunted in confusion. “What? Earth is gone. What are you talking about?”

She quickly flicked her eyes from me to her black mod disk plugged into the central control panel and the motion of her eyes pulled mine with them. I looked at the panel and we both saw we had six minutes and thirteen seconds before the program completed the override. Around us, the electric datascape blinked streams of binary rainbows. She turned back to me.

“Hasn’t it ever bothered you?” She started to explain with a question, such a uniquely Nigerian thing to do. “That all the survivors of the Earth’s destruction happened to be members of the same Church?” She pronounced the word ‘survivors’ as though it was not the appropriate word for what we were.

“Yes, it’s a bit odd but that is just because god revealed to the Prophet the coming of the asteroid in a vision back when his heart was still clean, before all this bullshit.” I crossed my arms. “Why are you asking me anyway? This is basic Sunday school shit, you are his daughter.”

She shook her head and her hair shook with it.

“My father has never had a clean heart. He has never spoken to god. This Ark is not just unjust, it is a lie. There was no asteroid. Well, not really.” She stared straight ahead and spoke efficiently, forcefully, as if the words had to come out of her then and there or they would explode inside her, the way one blurts out things that have been kept secret for too long.

“Asteroids used to hit Earth all the time, like maybe once a century or so, everyone knew it, and every few centuries, a massive asteroid would come by the planet and plop down harmlessly in an ocean or some artic wasteland. Sometimes scientists only spotted these asteroids like maybe days or a week before they made their close approaches to Earth.” She paused for breath, glanced behind me, and pressed on, “My father knew all this, so when a really fucking big one was spotted near Pluto, on a trajectory towards earth and no one was sure how close it would come to us, he started all this shit about god ending the world and he being some modern day Noah. He rallied his followers with massive offering collections, built the Ark and brought us all into orbit here, around Mars. He wasn’t the only one you know. Some governments did it too. Hedging their bets. But the asteroid just passed by Earth. It was a biosphere-altering event for sure but it didn’t destroy anything. Everyone went back once it passed but my father? He just did not want to admit that he had been wrong to his followers. That his god had been wrong. So he made up the stories you heard and created the faked recordings you have seen of the Earths destruction.”

“Hian!” The exclamation snuck its way out of me and made Ariannamaka jump; I turned around hyperventilating and saw that we had only one minute and forty seconds before the full override completed. I tried to say something but found I was only gasping until I said it again.

“No.”

“It’s true.” She assured me.

“No.” I repeated, the word, letting it explode like bomb in front of me. “No.” Another explosion. “No. No. No.” A chain reaction. I was shaking. I reached out and leaned on a Sanctum wall. The cool, smooth flow of the datascape passing through my hands in front of the metal panelling. My head was spinning. I understood then why my mother had given up everything she had to the prophet as offering just to be allowed a place on the Ark. She was pregnant at the time. But… Earth. It was there. We had been stuck on a metal tube in space because one man refused to admit he had been wrong about his divine delusions? My mother had died because of his lie? It was all too much.

“I will show you. Once the override is done, you will see.”

“How did you know the truth?” I said, turning back to her.

“I overheard him speaking about it with the deacons three years ago. That was when I joined the movement.”

“And you chose to keep it from me. From us.” I stopped. “Why?”

Art by David Motutu
Art by David Motutu

She advanced on me with arms slightly spread, ambient light caressing her figure. She stopped an inch from my nose. There was a rush of warm blood through my ears, my heartbeat rattled despite my shock and fear. “I love you,” she said, and it seemed to be a little bit of a declaration and a little bit of an apology but not quite either. “I just want to live a normal life. On Earth. With you.”

I stared down at her, breathing hard, until it occurred to me that I did not even know if I wanted this thing, whatever it was she was proposing, promising. Earth was a myth, an Eden from a genesis story, a folktale told by the first ones in the belly of the lower platforms by the heating vents to children. It was green, it was wet, it was paradise, they said and I had read. But in my mind, it might as well have been Oduduwa’s Ile-Ife or Plato’s Atlantis. I had no qualia for it. No sense of reference. And that scared me. I had been born on the Ark. Raised and orphaned on the platforms. Even if Ariannamaka was speaking the truth, what waited for us back on Earth? I had no idea. I had not been afraid to die taking the Ark but when I thought about this Earth that had been dead to me and was now risen again; I felt fear like a living creature claw its way from my belly to my heart and squeeze tight.

I pushed away from her and blinked rapidly, realising the mod device would soon finalize its override.  I asked her, “Who else knows about Earth?”

Her brow furrowed briefly and then she said, “No one, just my father, his wife and three deacons. Maybe a few of the older saints. My mother is in the choir but she doesn’t know anything.”

“Good, let’s keep it that way,” I said quickly, the fear and the countdown forcing the words from me. “Don’t tell anyone anything; we can go back to Earth once we have control.” I said. But not all of us, I didn’t say.

We were seconds away from taking over the Ark. Seconds away from being able to take everything that made up our unjust world and make it pure. I had a devoted following of people from the lower platform who believed in the visions I had sold them. There would be a revolt. That much was certain. What came after was less clear. But I did not want Ariannamaka to know that so I kissed her eagerly enough for her to think all was well and set my mind back to the revolution.

Behind me, the timer ran down to zero. The flowing rivers of data in the sanctum halted around us, then exploded in a kaleidoscope of numbers and logic, green and yellow and blue and white and silver and orange, the colours flickering and flaring in fanciful fits as they first separated from and then merged back into one another to reconstitute the river of data and logic that controlled the ark, their new commands in place. I pulled away from Ariannamaka and spoke into the vocaphone, slowly, with what I imagined to be stately voice that propagated throughout the Ark, piercing into ears and virtual realities alike, through portapods and inline earphones, throwing revolution and uncertainty into the prophet’s carefully constructed world of lies.

*

Our revolution lasted all of thirteen minutes. I guess the Prophet had grown complacent with his security, his control. Once we took control of the Ark, his lackeys surrendered without even as much as a good fight. Perhaps he had begun to believe in his own myth, his own lie and thought no one would ever usurp him. Perhaps he’d started to think he really was our god. Perhaps we had planned the entire thing perfectly, if such a thing can be said of any coup. Perhaps we were just lucky, I don’t know.

He cursed us all, of course, before we turned off his private vocapohone and killed him. He said that we were children of the devil, that Satan had sent us to destroy and confuse what was left of humanity. He called upon all his people in the Chancel and implored those on the platforms to rise up and smite us. To pray that god would show them our true forms. The platformers were too busy eating the in vitro steak we’d sent to them from the Chancel biotech kitchen labs to listen. We killed him in his own bed, choked him with his own collar under a blood-proof sheet.

Thirteen minutes to take the Ark. Another hour or so to quell the minor prophet-loyalists and the opportunists. Two hours after Ariannamaka told me she loved me, I was holding her hand in the Sanctum and speaking into my portapod with Elegbede and the rest of our movement. I told them what she’d told me about Earth. I did not tell them that she wanted to go back, but I asked if it was possible anyway.

[Does anyone know how disengage from orbit and pilot this thing?] I asked the voidspace full of high resolution avatars that controlled the Ark.

[I think I do,] Bamidele, the youngest one of our group said, with unusual seriousness. Raluchukwu who was overseeing the food labs for now and knew him from when they were just spoiled kids living in the Chancel, nodded sharply, a quick shake of her head to indicate she thought so too. She seemed nervous, even in virtual reality. I think they all were.

Elegbede spoke up, [Good. As long as someone has some idea, we will do it. We will go back to Earth. We will take our people home. No more of this foolish, delusional Israelite journey in space. E don do abeg.]

No one said anything. Everyone waited for me to speak. I knew it. I had watched the balance of power in our group shift as they taught me what I needed to know to become a figure of myth and reverence down on the platforms while they plotted and planned up in the Chancel. They had watched as the fabric of my personality had slowly been straightened, dyed and embroidered with knowledge, power and self-awareness. They knew that the people of the platform would heed no one but me, believe no one but me. And without me, there would be chaos. The problem was, I knew it too. I had taken my first few bites. I knew the taste of power.

[This is a democracy now, Legbe,] I said, [We will take a vote.]

[But Earth…] Arianamaka started suddenly before stopping herself. I did not look at her but I noted the other voices, especially Bamidele’s, murmuring. I pressed on.

[Earth is home to the prophet. To our parents. To the people that created this corrupt system we risked everything to change. Not to me and not to you. Not to us. I have never seen its sky or touched its soil. Neither have more than three-quarters of the people on this Ark. Why do we want to give up this world we now have the power to remake into something wonderful for an uncertain one we have no power over?]

Elegbede chuckled, [You’ve been reading and watching too many histories, friend. What makes you think anyone will want to stay here when they know that all of humanity awaits us? That we are not the last of our kind? Eh?]

With that statement, and question, he’d showed his bourgeoisie, and that was his mistake. The others knew it was a mistake too, I think, even if they didn’t know exactly why. So I pressed the issue and eventually, they agreed that a vote was the democratic thing to do. I knew they would, they believed in freedom and democracy and all that shit and that was why they’d risked everything for revolution. We agreed we would reveal the information to our people on the Ark, and let them make their decision. We would vote to decide if we wanted to go back to Earth.

I just made sure that Elegbede agreed to be the one to make the announcement; he was our leader after all, I insisted. Of course, he agreed without thinking it through all the way to the end. He always did enjoy talking, hearing the sound of his own voice. Although, I suspected Ariannamaka knew what I was trying to do by the way she unclasped her hand from mine during the discussion.

Although most of them thought the vote could go either way, I already knew what would happen. I was a lower platformer, when it came down to it. Born and raised, you understand? And I had felt that exact same fear that I knew would squeeze their hearts the moment they were told about the unknown. The same fear that had kept them, us, believing in the prophet and enduring his faith of deprivation in spite of our squalor.

Fear. It was like a shadow to a platformer. And I knew it well.

In the end, when we went to a vote, of course no one believed. No one wanted to. I’d spent two years slowly convincing them to stop bathing in the rain of lies and unfairness coming down from the Chancel. There was no way they wold believe Elegbede. It was the wrong message. At the wrong time. From the wrong messenger.

*

It all came back to Ariannamaka in the end. She forced my hand. They forced my hand.

I only did what had to be done.

To quote another of my mother’s memorable proverbs from a story, “Ìbẹ̀rẹ̀ kọ́ l’onísẹ́, à fi ẹni tó bá fi orí tì í d’ópin.” Which, I think means, “Starting a thing is not as crucial as seeing it through to completion.” I think it came from a story she told me about the tortoise, the squirrel and the leopard. Of course, in the story, the tortoise tricked the other animals. But at the end of the story the tortoise’s mother dies.

Arriannamaka, Elegbede and three others convinced Raluchukwu to try to sneak into the Sanctum, free us from Mars’s gravitational embrace and set course for Earth. If not for Bamidele’s quick thinking, and timely warning, they might have even succeeded. They had tried to subvert the will of the people. I had to have them killed. And have it done publicly. What else was I to do?

I did not turn away at her execution. We had equalized the gravity in the entire Ark so that from Chancel to platform, everyone had to adjust but we had the gravity in the central Chancel area reset back to earth levels for the execution to prevent any possible blood globules leaking out of the dioxide helmets and floating up and into crevices between the panelling.

The five convicted of treason were made to kneel in the centre of a circle that included many of their friends and comrades in the lavish Chancel central area where the Prophet used to bless and ordain his selected ‘saints’. It was a blue and brown room at the apogee of the Chancel with retractable rows of silver panel seats that was not unfamiliar with power theatre although I don’t think anyone had ever been executed there. I made a speech. It was a good speech, I think. There was much cheering. In this speech I proclaimed the importance of the will of the people over the will of any individual, over love, over everything, over even life itself.

“The prophet took away our right to decide our own fates for decades,” I said, “We will not have it taken again. By anyone!”

“Never again!” Came the chanting response of the circle, “Never again! Never again!! Never again!!!”

It went on until the crowd and the entire Ark was worked up to a red, pulsing frenzy.

Elegbede spat but said nothing. Sometimes I wonder what he was thinking in those moments before the dioxide helmet went over his head. Arianamaka’s thoughts were clearly written in her eyes like program logic in a flowing datascape. She hated me.

Perhaps it was for spurning her love. Of course, there was some of that but I doubt there had been much love there to begin with. Besides, there were rumours she had given herself to Elegbede before they made their attempt. I think she wanted to go to Earth more than she wanted anything else and she had betrayed first her father with me and then me with Elegbede for the chance. She probably thought I was an opportunist who had used her to gain power and maybe she was right. In a way. But I did not set upon this path with the intention of having things turn out the way they did. It’s just that there is no predicting the results when you court chaos, is there? And she did most of the courting. Everything changed in the Sanctum on the day we took the Ark. Maybe too many things changed at the same time. I don’t know. But I do know this: we had begun with one purpose – equality and fairness for the people of the Ark. A classless system of what we believed was left of humanity in space and an end to the Prophet’s elitism and dictatorship. I had committed to it hastily, yes; driven primarily by youthful exuberance and Arianamaka’s beauty, yes. But I had committed to it completely, even if my commitment was partly corrupted in the end by greed and fear.

Still, the hate almost burned my eyes as she gazed at me from her place on the intricately patterned floor panelling of the Chancel, at the centre of one of its silver whorls. Bamidele had volunteered to be the executioner. He placed the dioxide helmet over her head last and then he turned on the carbon dioxide recirculation tube. Hypercapnia first caressed, and then seized her. She didn’t even try to call out my name as she choked and coughed, her lungs begging for oxygen. I watched the fire in her eyes dim and die and I felt something in me die with it but I did not look away until all the embers were gone.

I could not show weakness. I still cannot.

The same fear that keeps me here even after seeing the Prophets records and realising that all Arianamaka said about Earth was true, keeps me up at night. Fear, and that first bite. I have seen how Bamidele looks at me. I have seen how he speaks to the same set of people that had initially tried to counter our revolution all the time in their own voidspace chatrooms. I know he always volunteers to work the rations distribution and he likes to talk, make himself heard and seen. He makes the people like him. That’s exactly why I have to get rid of him now. I have read enough histories of old Earth to know what comes next so I also know what must be done.

There was always only one tortoise in every one of my mother’s stories; there can be only one crocodile on this Ark.

Wole Talabi is a full-time engineer, part-time writer and some-time editor with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy. He lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His stories have appeared in the Kalahari Review, Klorofyl Magazine and others. He recently edited the These Words Expose Us anthology (2014) to which he also contributed the story A Certain Sort of Warm Magic.
Wole Talabi is a full-time engineer, part-time writer and some-time editor with a fondness for science fiction and fantasy. He lives in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. His stories have appeared in the Kalahari Review, Klorofyl Magazine and others. He recently edited the These Words Expose Us anthology (2014) to which he also contributed the story A Certain Sort of Warm Magic.