By Hymar David
There’s a man that comes to me in my dreams. His face is always shadowed, but I see his body. His hands are big. Big enough to swallow my head when he touches my face with both of them. Big enough to swallow my hand when he takes it in his as we take the usual walk on beach sand that swallow our feet to the ankles. His body is also big; the shadow he casts on the ground looks monstrous. But when he speaks, he sounds beautiful. Sometimes I would wake up with a vivid sense of being touched and I would lie in bed, morning light pouring in through the window, holding my hands in front of me as if in prayer.
My first memory of him was when I was fifteen and my father hadn’t yet died and we hadn’t yet moved from our house in Emu Onor to the one in Enugu where we could understand the neighbours’ Igbo, but they couldn’t understand ours. It rained the night he came to me. A hard rain with winds that howled like mothers of dead children and thunder that ricocheted across the sky with deafening rage.
Nepa had taken the light at the first gust of strong wind and my room was in darkness. I could hear my mother moving about in the room she shared with my father. Mother was always moving; folding clothes, stacking plates, shuffling things, reshuffling them. In contrast, my father was still, so still you almost forgot he was there. That was how he died, sitting on his favourite chair, facing the television and motionless for hours, watching us move about the house with sightless eyes. I remember clearly the evening he died, we were watching CNN, or rather, he was watching and I was thinking of taking the remote and switching channels to watch The Mechanic that had been previously advertised for the evening . But I was afraid of my father. I was afraid of his silence and stillness. So I sat there, stealing glances at him, praying for him to stand up and go into his room to do something. From six in the evening till around ten when Nepa brought back the light and my mother, after waiting in vain to hear the sound of the generator go off, shouted , “Dem don bring light!” from the kitchen.
“Papa,” I said, “Papa, they have brought back the light.”
The first time he came to me, I was sitting outside our house, under the guava tree that only sprouted flowers and leaves. The compound looked deserted the way it always did during Christmas season when the neighbours took their kids and travelled to their hometowns. But it was June and afternoons were almost always punctuated with the patter of little playing feet and the thud of a ball slamming into a wall and the scolding adult voice that followed each strike. He was tall and his walk was noiseless like he had feathers for feet.
I remembered the leaves of the guava tree falling as if someone was up there, shaking the branches the way we shook the trees when we couldn’t get at fruits hanging on branches too far to climb towards. The leaves were falling like a strong wind was blowing even though it was hot and dry and the sun was shining.
He stopped in front of me, his form casting a shadow over me. I found myself staring at his feet, for someone huge, he had the feet of a little boy. Feet that looked like they would give way under the weight of his big body.
“Ada,” he said, “do you know me?”
And even though I had never seen him before, I found myself saying, “Yes.”
My mother first took me to a spiritualist in a village close to Abraka. We arrived in the rain and the woman made us stand outside before a young boy brought two stools. My mother said water spoilt the woman’s juju that was why we were waiting outside. I wanted to tell her I read somewhere in Chinua Achebe’s Arrow of God that water only spoils bad juju, but I kept quiet as we sat outside the ramshackle-looking building that looked like it wouldn’t survive the next strong gust of wind. Rainwater trickled down my braids and formed patterns on the sand.
We sat there for a short while as the rain petered to a drizzle and then stopped. I had a stick of gum tucked inside my mouth, wary of chewing it around mama. She said only loose girls without home training chew gum.
We heard feet scrapping against bare floor and looked up. Moments later a young woman with a stained white wrapper tied across her breasts appeared at the doorway. I could see the exact look of surprise on my face sitting on my mother’s own. The young woman’s face was smooth and almost beautiful, but for a certain hardness in her eyes. She stared at me for seconds then stared at my mother who was already on one knee in greeting. I quickly followed suit.
“Mimah, the spirits don’t always make mistakes,” she began to talk in a voice low enough to be almost a whisper. “But this child ,”she turned from mother to stare at me, turning her head this way and that, “you have to go back.”
“Go back,” my mother said, “to who? To where?”
She gave mother a look. We waited for her to say something, to clarify. But she did her turning her head thing and withdrew. She moved slowly, walking with a slight stoop, like an old woman trapped in a young girl’s body. We stared after her, waiting, listening. But no whispers came floating to us from inside the dimness of the room.
We sat there for a long time, waiting, my breath heavy in my chest, my mother’s fingers interlinking and entwining the way they always did when she was restless or nervous.
“Ojeh!” the woman shouted from the room after sometime.
Moments later, the boy appeared and stood in front of us. He pointed at the stools. I stared at my mother. She looked like she wanted to say something, but she got up. I followed suit.
My mother kept muttering to herself on our way to find a bus. I chewed on my gum, the mint soothing my throat. We got to the park and found a bus heading home. Mother paid our fare and we got in, squeezing ourselves at the back.
“She’s a fraud,” Mother finally spoke. “All they want is to eat your money.”
I chewed slowly on my gum and said nothing. I wanted to point out that the woman called her by her name. I wanted to point out she didn’t ask us for anything. I knew the look in mother’s eyes well. It was the same look that took hold of her as she stood in front of my father’s body, calling his name as if she was afraid if she moved closer and touched him, the truth would leap from his body and strangle her.
I said nothing, instead I stared out the window as the bus began to move, feeling her eyes boring questions into the back of my head. Someone in the bus started to preach, then after a while, she started to pray. I heard mother’s soft Amen. I felt her hand creep to hold mine. I wanted so badly to pull away. But I all I did was stare outside the window and watch the world pass by in a blur.
I was sixteen when mother woke me from sleep, from a dream where he was there and asked me who I was talking to.
“Nobody,” I said, squinting at the light raised to my face.
“You were talking in your sleep,” she insisted.
“I don’t know.”
“Who are you talking to?”
I was still groggy from sleep. The words were out of my mouth before I realized it, “The man that comes out of the water.”
My mother was very still for a moment, then she dropped my hand and backed away from me.
I sat up. “What is wrong, mother?”
Her back was almost touching the curtains in the doorway, the lamp she carried held in front of her like a cross to keep vampires at bay.
My aunt Helen had a man’s voice. She had a man’s body too; thick wrists and toned arms and a stubborn neck. She was short and walked like she was about to bulldoze into something.
My mother used to tease my father whenever they disagreed on something that she would call aunt Helen to beat him up. My father never found the joke funny. Maybe it was because he wasn’t sure if he could actually beat her in a fight. Aunt Helen terrified everyone.
Her voice wasn’t hers as I listened to her speak to my mother. There was no boom to ricochet across the walls, no fire flashing in her eyes. She sat still in her seat, reminding me of how my father sat, and spoke as if the world was one giant classroom where words were rationed. I sat across them, listening to them talk about me as if I wasn’t there. As if I was still a child. As if two weeks ago, I hadn’t celebrated twenty-one.
“Have you taken her to Temple of God?” aunt Helen was saying, “Pastor Theo is very powerful. I have been in some of his services. The man is very strong,” she pushed a clenched fist in the air, “very, very strong.”
“That’s what they always say,” my mother said, her voice was tired.
“I don’t know about them, I know what my two korokoro eyes have seen. Dazoll.”
My mother gazed across the room at me. I pretended to be staring into my phone. It was hot outside and there was no wind.
“When we tell you people to wait on the Lord,” Aunt Helen’s tone bore a tiny hint of scorn, “you will not hear. Keep believing for your miracle, mba. Keep praying to God, you say “no” . Have you seen it now. The devil never gives anything for free. Sarah kept believing even though she was over seventy years. Just five years of marriage, you were running helter skelter.”
Something hot started burning in my chest as I watched mother sit there, head bowed, listening to Aunt Helen prattle on and on. I wanted to speak. I wanted to tell Aunt Helen that it was her own daughter that’s from the devil. I wanted to say there was nothing wrong with me and it was just dreams. They were not even nightmares. Nobody was chasing me with a machete. Nobody was trying to kill me. I didn’t wake up screaming and trashing. It was her daughter that came from the devil. It was her daughter that needed to see one pastor in Port Harcourt who groaned and screamed like a demented animal when he was praying.
But I just sat there and let the words smoulder in my chest. I tried to think of what my father would have said if he was still alive. What he would have done. My father with his stillness and unreadable face and quiet authority. I missed him.
“He always takes something back,” Aunt Helen was saying, “who knows if this has anything to do with the mysterious death of…”
Aunt Helen stopped suddenly and stared towards me.
I realized I had gotten up from my seat and was glaring at her, my chest heaving, fury throbbing a faint headache in my head. Her gaze locked into mine and I saw her features change as she absorbed the hate and resentment and anger that was burning inside of me. I could feel mother’s eyes on me too, but I didn’t look at her.
Aunt Helen’s lips trembled like she wanted to speak. But no words came . I turned away and walked towards my room. I didn’t remember banging the door hard, I only remember the picture of me as a baby falling off the wall and glass shards spreading across the floor as it shattered. I only remember the anger eating at me the way hot water eats into chicken feathers, stripping them to naked white flesh.
Pastor Theo paced the pulpit as he preached, wiping sweat off his face every now and then with a white handkerchief. Shouts of “Amen!” and “Thank you, Jesus!” punctuated his sermon. I sat between mother and Aunt Helen, feeling the way I always felt on the numerous trips I was forced to take with mother to Pentecostal churches, to spiritualists, to turbaned Iman’s houses, to wherever people recommended to her. Places where she almost always parted with something. Places where I was forced to cede control of my body. To hands that pushed at my head and gripped my shoulders hard. To mouths that chewed kolanuts and spat the mix into my face. To hands holding blades that made incisions on my body and rubbed black powder on the wounds, as if to mark me unfit for the man in my dreams; who still came anyway. To eyes that roved hungrily across my naked body on empty beaches on starlit nights.
Pastor Theo’s sermon went on and on, but I could no longer hear him. My mind was happier miles away; in class at Delsu, sitting behind the tall boy with tiny dreadlocks and the quick wink whenever he caught me staring. The tall boy with the very happy laugh that always came with his head thrown back and his eyes wide shut as if each moment of mirth was for him to savour alone. The boy I wanted to walk up to and say I loved.
Mother tapped me and brought me back to the church. Pastor Theo had begun to pray. I closed my eyes then opened them after some time. He had taken off his jacket and folded his sleeves as if in anticipation of a major spiritual brawl.
His voice was loud and clear as he prayed. He rebuked sicknesses, he bound diseases, he shattered demonic padlocks, he beheaded evil spirits, he cast out demons and banished them to the bottomless pit where there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. He commanded locked wombs to be loosened. He prayed for the blind to see.
Suddenly, I was filled with a strong urge to leave. A strong urge to walk and keep walking till I was outside this place. I stole a look at mother and Aunt Helen, their eyes were closed tight in prayer, their amens coming out loud and powerful, matching the pastor for aggression.
I slipped past Aunt Helen, past worshippers with their hands raised up as if expecting blessings to rain on them. I slipped past ushers in matching black and red outfits and started walking towards the exit. Then, before I knew it, I started to run. Then I was out of the church and into the open, the heat warming my face, the thunder of the prayers of about four thousand people fading behind me.
I walked to where Aunt Helen’s car was parked. I realized in my sudden rush to get out, I had taken her bag instead of mine. Her car keys were inside. I opened the car and sat down. I turned on the AC and closed my eyes.
He stood outside the window and watched me. I was aware of him there but I didn’t open my eyes till he tapped on the glass. Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap
I jerked up and stared sharply outside.
The boy I wanted to tell I loved was standing there, smiling, saying something that bounced against the closed glass and dispersed in the heat. I wanted to wind down the glass, but something held me back. I just sat there and stared at him talking to me outside. His smile never changed. He didn’t even seem to realize I couldn’t hear him.
Tap. Tap. Tap. Tap.
I opened my eyes, Mother and Aunt Helen were standing outside, staring through the glass at me. I had no idea how long I had been sleeping.
“Why did you leave the church ? We have been looking for you.” Mother’s expression was pained.
“I didn’t feel too well.”
I saw them exchange glances. I read the look. It was a look that testified to the mighty power of pastor Theo’s fire prayers that made me that kind of uncomfortable. I read the almost gloating, Shey I tell you? Look on Aunt t Helen’s face, the searching, pathetically hopeful glance my mother threw at me as if expecting me to double over and vomit the man who came to me in my dreams. The man they called my spirit husband.
“I’m fine, mama,” I finally said, getting out of the car to take my place at the back seat. “I’m fine.”
3RD PRIZE – ALITFEST21 PRIZE FOR SHORT STORIES
Hymar David grew up in Ogun and Lagos states and briefly studied at the University of Benin. He’s the author of the memoir ‘I For Don Blow But I Too Dey Press Phone.’