By Gbolahan Badmus
We were standing in an empty space, but a force pinned us from floating and sinking, fixing us stable in midair. A white light surrounded us. What I saw was not what I had believed I would find in the place of the newly dead. I had always assumed it would have a foul stench, people with tattered clothes who were hobbling with outspread arms, their mouths dripping blood and speaking sluggishly. So when Padjonsin had instructed me to wear a black gown and high heels, I had thought he was crazy but here they were: the smell of nothing, black suits, black gowns, and black shoes. I could say I blended in, but there was that blank expression they all wore that I could hardly mimic. A quick facial sweep would immediately reveal I wasn’t one of them. But I wasn’t to worry about that. Focus on your goal, Padjonsin had said.
They all stared ahead, waiting. No side talk. No catching up on old times. The silence was brittle, anything would have shattered it. A pin drop would have been thunder. Padjonsin had told me not to be surprised by this. Even people who lived all their years together would be unable to recognise each other after life. Their memories were no longer theirs; it had been taken for examination. After 90 days, their results would be ready, determining their final fate: Rest or Torment.
Who did I know that had died in the past 90 days – apart from Kemi? Maybe seeing a familiar face would give me hope that I would find her, but I quickly killed that thought. All I wanted was to save her, and by my timepiece—handmade by Padjonsin in sync with the life of the red moon—I had 15 minutes left. Fifteen minutes before the rain stopped falling and the redness of the moon faded. Fifteen minutes to leave here with her or else I would become one of them.
Lightning flashed, adding a brief blinding brightness to the warm glow of the red moon. Rain kept falling, like pellets shot from the sky, chasing everything with legs indoors. Aluminium rooftops became drums. Potholes pooled with rainwater. Drainages threw up forgotten refuse. The streets were slippery traps, streaming with nylon wrappers, plastic bottles, and cans. Deafening thunder ripped the air.
Inside one of the aluminium roof-toped houses, Alade rolled on his bed, his rumbling thoughts preventing him from settling into sleep. The glow of the moon sifted through his window pane, dousing the darkness in a shade of red. That was when he saw the figure standing by his doorframe. He squinted at the figure; all the while rubbing the left side of his chest like it would slow down the beating of his heart. Could it be her? he thought. Her name hung in his throat. He pushed it out. “Ke-Kemi. Is that you?”
Then the lightning flashed, and his room—green carpet, peach walls—lit up for a brief moment. The figure was slim with a shaved head, in contrast with Kemi’s pudgy frame and plaited hair.
Alade took deep breaths, disappointment calming his nerves. “Yomi, what are you doing there?” He said, suddenly feeling guilty at his disappointment in seeing the expected.
“Daddy, it is the rain. I am afraid. Can I sleep in your room?”
“Come here son.” He adjusted himself on the bed, creating space.
Yomi peeled his frame from the door, shuffled into bed and pulled the blanket to his shoulders. “Where is Mummy?”
“She will join us before the rain stops.”
“Where did she go to?”
“She went out.”
Before Yomi could speak further, thunder blasted from above like an explosion from the sky. Father and son froze, slowly thawing to the music of rainfall drumming and splattering.
“Daddy, please tell me a story.”
Alade fell silent for a while, searching his thoughts, and then he spoke. “Once upon a time, a woman loved her children…”
I was the only one moving, looking at faces to pick out Kemi. It was difficult to describe the state of the people here. There was something alive about their dead faces, like if you tap them they would look back and ask you, “what?” It was like being stuck in both worlds, neither here nor there.
Since Kemi had been dead for almost 90 days, I had to keep moving forward. Padjosin had said they arranged themselves according to their time of death, the older ones at the front, and the more recent ones at the back. A new being popped in every few minutes, never filling this empty space. The last one I had seen had suddenly appeared, dripping wet. Fresh scratches were on his skin and he had been missing a head. Then his head emerged from his neck, a flawless brown skin replaced the scratches, and his drenched shirt transformed to a black suit. After that, his expression became blank, and he stared ahead like the others.
I imagined how Kemi would have been on arrival. Did she discover the ease of standing that had evaded her all her life? What about the ease of communicating with words, instead of groans and cries? Did she discover why she got here early or the blankness took over before she could process her memory? Shivers crept down my spine.
I pushed through the cluster of staring beings. I was tempted to shout her name; maybe she would turn and recognise me. But who was I kidding? Without memories, how would she even know what her name was? How I wished there was a faster way to pick her out, but there wasn’t, I had to rely on facial recognition. She was twelve, big eyes, full lips, and about five feet tall. I’d have to take my eyes off the tall ones and target the short ones.
I stood between two women, who happened to be tall and muscular, probably bodyguards or soldiers in their lifetimes. I stood on my toes, braced my hands on their shoulders for support, and lifted myself up so that I had a better view of those at the front. Although, it was still difficult to catch those at the uttermost front, I could see an assembly of heads: grey, black, brown, red— none of them with plaited hair. And that was when I saw her—between a taller man and a child—hair in a puffy afro, with a black gown clinging to her chubby frame. My heart flipped with joy.
I jumped down and began running, stopping myself from screaming her name. Kemi! Kemi! I kept shouting in my mind. Wild with excitement, I pushed through beings, only for them to take their previous position after I passed. I got behind her, and turned her to face me and whispered her name. But the face that met mine had tiny eyes, like she was falling asleep, and thin lips that looked like straight lines.
“No, no, no,” I whispered, trying to catch my breath. The strain of running slammed me and everything around me started spinning. I felt dizzy, like I would throw up or faint, or both. My timepiece said five minutes more. I remembered Padjonsin’s words: Once you have five minutes left, save yourself. But this was no time to succumb. I didn’t get this far to give up. I could still save her, I could still save her. Tears began gathering in my eyes.
Before Alade got halfway through the story, he heard his son’s snoring, like a soft brass solo to the melody of rain in the background. Apart from these sounds, his house was quiet. Usually, this was the time he and his wife would eat of the fruits of their privacy, partly freed from the constant monitoring Kemi demanded. It would be just the both of them planning for tomorrows and rediscovering their sensuality, until few months ago when Kemi died.
After her death, his wife hardly got out of bed. He spoke to her but she would only stare at him with indifference, like he was a brick wall. It was the same way she treated all those who came to mourn with her. It was like her sense of recognition had vanished. During those days, she would only speak in inaudible mumblings, then she’d utter a shrill cry for Kemi and begin a frantic search all over the house, looking under the couches, in cupboards, under pillows, inside wardrobes. All he could do was force feed her and ensure she did not step out of the house. He thought with time she would become her old self.
But she never did.
One day during one of her frenzied searches, he took a chance to bring her back.
“Darling, can’t you see?” He hesitated, considering the weight of his next statement, and then he said it.
She turned to look at him. Her hair had locked into rebellious dreads. Bags had settled underneath her eyes, and trails of dried tears traced her cheeks. “What did you just say?”
“Can’t you see you’re free?” he asked. At her silence, he pushed further: “You are free from all the carrying, cleaning, and monitoring. Now we can focus on Yomi.”
He didn’t know what she would do or say, but he hadn’t expected her to get up quietly and leave the house. “Don’t follow me,” was all she said.
Yomi had appeared from the bedroom then and took his hand, leaning into him. Alade had put his hand around Yomi shoulders as they watched her shut the door.
After she had left, he began regretting all he had said. Maybe he had been harsh. Maybe he sounded like he didn’t love his child. Yes, it was true that he was relieved of the shame he felt when she would shit herself, even in the presence of visitors. How those visitors would view them with pity, like they were asking what offence he had committed to be afflicted with such a burden. But he had loved his daughter.
He missed the way she smiled when she was full, how she laughed at the sound of her own farts, and then would begin crying once she caught wind of the smell. He even missed her constant calls for attention that made him feel like a father even though her cries would demand attention when sleep was at its sweetest, leading to scuffles between him and his wife about who should attend to her next.
He had loved his daughter but he could not let his wife continue to hurt herself in mourning, starving their surviving child of the care he deserved.
After two days, his wife came back. He wrapped her in an embrace, apologised for his words and promised to always be by her side. She also apologised for leaving. He didn’t ask where she had been, he feared it would push her back to insanity. But he had always suspected there was a catch to her sudden change, because after she came back, she would whistle happy songs and would always have a smile ready, like a woman who had not just lost a child. She proved him right a week later.
“Remember when we were children and our parents told us not to do bad things or else Padjonsin will carry us away?” She asked one morning.
Alade smiled and nodded. “Which child wasn’t afraid of him? Back then, I would see him walking, mumbling to himself, and I would hide behind my mother.”
“That man has been around for a long time,” she agreed. “Anyway, he told me I can bring Kemi back, not only that, he said I can bring her back whole.” Then she told him everything, rushing out the words like if she paused, her courage would flee.
His first response was to reprove her for having anything to do with Padjonsin, but the thought of bringing back Kemi, free from the pity and disgust she evoked from onlookers made him smile, then the smile faded immediately. What if it failed and his wife relapsed into madness or, worse still, he lost his wife in the process? So he carefully pushed her away from that thought.
But she had seen his smile, and it was this she used as an entry point, moving and prodding, until he finally succumbed.
Yomi’s snores suddenly became louder, lifting him out of his thoughts. Had the snores become louder or was the rain receding? He peeped through the window. The red moon was slowly draining of its colour, merging back to silver. Quietly, he slipped out of his room and stepped out of the house.
I threw away all concern and began shouting her name. The only response I got was silence. But still, I ran past these statues of flesh, blindly pushing forward.
My husband would never understand this need to save our daughter, saying I should let her go. He would never understand that the umbilical cord linking a mother to her child doesn’t get cut off at birth; it still remained, even after death. That was why Kemi, dressed in glowing white, had appeared to me after her death. When she disappeared, I would search for her everywhere. Now I was here, still searching. But coming here to bring back Kemi was beyond the umbilical link, it was much more than that.
After discovering Kemi’s shortcomings, I had to close down my market stall to give her the full care she needed. There were selected foods she had to eat, a particular way we had to position her after eating, the periodic adjustment of her body while she slept, and many others. My husband assisted at night, while I bore the daytime duties alone. Even naming our next child Oluwayomi: “The Lord has saved me,” did not save us from the hardship of catering for Kemi.
The care drained my youth, or rather what was left of it, faster than time could. The sides of my hair sprouted grey. Wrinkles marked my face. My cheek bones popped out. My steps slowed to the dragging of feet, worsened by back pain that visited as frequently as the rising sun. It was during this period that my husband started going on business trips. If it wasn’t trips, then work would suddenly become so hectic that he had to stay the night in the office. I was bearing the hardship all alone. Any time Kemi laughed, it seemed like mockery; any time she cried, I blocked my ears. Sometimes, I cursed myself for pushing someone like that out of me. When she became too troublesome, I calmed her with sleeping pills. Then one day I fell sick and needed rest, and so she wouldn’t disturb me, I made her sleep – perhaps for too long.
The guilt and grief almost killed me, till I met Padjonsin. It was after I left the house, wanting to be as far from it as possible. Walking down a narrow path, he loomed over me, blocking sunlight; his gaze like a knife piercing my skin. I wanted to run, but fear held me to the ground as tears dripped to my feet. He lifted my chin and asked what was wrong, his voice like a slow massage calming my nerves. I told him of Kemi’s death. He asked of the date of death. I told him. He said there was a way out, that I should follow him. My head kept telling me to run away, but my legs refused and found their way to his home.
He told me that when rain fell on a night of a red moon, it opened a rift between the place of the newly dead and the world of the living. And it was then that a living being could go in to bring back the dead. He said the next occurrence would be in two weeks time, but to prepare me for the journey, I would first need the blood of the one who fathered the child. When I got home, I convinced my husband to give in. What I didn’t tell him was if I failed to bring back Kemi, all the years I have lived on earth would belong to Padjonsin.
With this in mind, I turned their heads forcefully not caring if their necks snapped, but no match. Two more minutes. Maybe I should save myself and get out? No, let me give myself a minute more—
Alade was out on the deserted street. He stumbled, fell, and rose, screaming his wife’s name. Confusion directed him to different paths until he finally succumbed to helplessness, kneeling down in the middle of the street. The rain water soaked his trousers, cold on his knees, and calves. He hardly felt the droplets on his skin. He looked up; the moon was mostly silver with only a faint red crescent.
Then he fell flat to the ground, his tears merging with the wetness of rain.
She suddenly remembered her husband, the joy they had felt at the birth of Kemi, one of theirs in this world, a proof they would live beyond their death. Kemi, her name meant “care for me,” and they tried to. She pitied Yomi, who had always been eclipsed by Kemi, his wholeness an excuse used to ignore him. She hoped her husband would do a better job alone than they had together. She held on to these memories and thoughts till they became too heavy and painful, like a migraine. Then the migraine faded, and all she felt was relief.