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The Barcelona Review

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Someone you know once said that every day is a scar. Some you remember, others you forget. Some you don’t forget so easily, and others you forget for a while, and then remember, the memory burned into consciousness like a steaming iron against flesh, so that you think, just as the pain tears through your brain, I will never forget this day, never! But you do, in the end, you always do. You forget and you remember, just as you sleep and rise, and die and live again. There is no truth to any of this. And yet, you think, as you lie on the ground, trembling like a child caught in a storm, that it was truer than anything you had ever known. Because these were your thoughts, formed by you, forgotten by you, and now remembered.
       It happened on a Wednesday in August. You attended Fellowship right after work and were on your way home. It was at about ten p.m. A familiar feeling of weightlessness swept over you as it often did after hours and hours of prayer and worship. Maybe it was the connection with God as He strengthened your soul or maybe it was just the release from the physical strain of gyrating and dancing, spiritual cardio, one slim parishioner called it. There was a crowd of people at Tank, the nearest bus stop, all folding their arms, frowning, for there were no departing cars. A few sped by, and when you tried to flag them down, their drivers glared at you, murmuring into their steering wheels at the sheer insult of being mistaken for taxi drivers. But who could blame you? They were driving old cars.
       Before five minutes, a taxi would surely pass, you declared to yourself, exercising your usually reliable powers of prophesy. After ten minutes of no taxi you began, grudgingly, considering the prospect of the long trek to Rumuodara junction. What other choice did you have? Could it really be ten fifteen? You couldn’t get your mind off the time.
       It was a long walk to Rumuodara, longer than you imagined. Along the way you were approached by a man, asking if you had a phone, claiming he needed to call his home. He might not have been a crazy person, he certainly didn’t look it, but as it was that time of night most unsuitable for random acts of kindness, you uttered a firm “No,” and shuffled away from him.
       By the time you reached the bus stop your shoes had begun to bite in all the usual places. To your surprise, you found it no less desolate than Tank. You looked for taxis headed towards Eliozu Junction and there were none. Save for a couple of shops in the business of cigarettes and Tesh and such, everywhere was deserted. A light scent of roasted meat hung in the air, but try as you might you could not spot a suya man nearby. A low growl in your belly reminded you that dinner was way overdue. The black sky, the empty street, the naked flame on the wick lamps in the shops, the lonesome breeze that blew, all joined voices and whispered to you, “Get far away now.”
       But another voice, this one within you, said, “Be still.” And so you were.
       It was hard to be still. It was late. You normally didn’t stay out this long, not even at Faith Clinic. But who could have anticipated that Sister Ibiwari would take to the altar, weeping like a war widow—which she most definitely wasn’t. When she began recounting her ordeal, no tongue rose to interrupt or remind her of the time. Her husband, known to all as Brother Pius, was no longer interested in her, hadn’t touched her like a man should in over nine months, and she suspected he was carrying on an adulterous affair. This all sounded strange to you, though not the act of adultery, for there was nothing strange about that. After all, your own father had adulterous affairs all the time, often with married women. His boldness, his righteous belief that he was doing nothing out of the ordinary, saw him bringing his whores home. He even wedded them sometimes under the guise of “staying true to his African roots.” Recently, you heard that he had taken a fourth wife. Indeed, there was nothing strange about the act at all, rather it was the way Sister Ibiwari put it, the words she chose—adulterous affair. It evoked a picture of stones and Mary Magdalene, but mostly stones.
       Sister Ibiwari had done everything. She confronted him at home, made a scene, flung on their matrimonial bed the lipstick-stained shirt that bore the repulsive fruity scent of the other woman. Brother Pius did not deny the affair, not in light of the evidence. He apologised to Sister Ibiwari, promising to end it with the woman.
       That was six weeks ago. Yet she noticed all the same little signs, the late nights, the sneaking off into the guest room to take phone calls, the oddball excuses. “It was a call from” One night she caught him in the toilet, sitting on the chamber, pants down, whispering urgently into his phone. “What are you doing, Pius? Who are you talking to?” With a cold stare, he ended the call, pulled up his trousers and stalked away to bed without a word. What was she to do? she cried. It was almost as if he was being remote controlled by some force. To make matters worse he still wasn’t responding to her in the bedroom department. When she reached for him, he remembered all of a sudden some headache or spine injury. She implored everyone in church to pray and banish the spirit of adultery from her husband’s groins. So that was what you all did. You prayed, you all prayed, time be damned, banishing, casting, burning, destroying. His poor loins. But through it all you did not think about his groins or his loins; you thought about stones, stones and Mary Magdalene. Your prayers were the stones and you hurled them at her adulterous husband, who stood, singled out, appealing, like Mary.
       It was 10:35 p.m., and getting chilly, when four young girls in short skirts appeared, strutting around like they were on some runway. One of them had rubber slippers on, and they had been recently mended too, you could see the white threads. One by one they shuffled into one of the shops, and shuffled out again, clutching lit cigarettes. “At night this city turns into something else,” someone from church had said.
       Trooping down the road they picked a spot and stood there, frowning, shifting their weight from leg to leg. Clouds of smoke rose above their heads. It was clear there was more at stake than just the road. This very air, they seemed to say, belongs to us!
       Once, you got the sense they were talking about you. One of them gestured in your direction and the others were quick to laugh. Why did they always seem so nasty and angry at the men they enticed? It occurred to you that you could probably answer this question best, you who were once so close to being one of them. In the first year of your arrival in the city.
       It felt suddenly cold. You wrapped your arms around yourself, glancing about, eager as ever now for a taxi, but your attention kept returning to the girl with the mended slippers. There was an intelligence in her eyes, in the way she moved her slender body, clad in a skin-tight top and what was possibly the shortest skirt you had ever seen. She seemed really young, sixteen maybe. A sachet of gin hung from her mouth. It might have been a sachet of FANice ice cream they way she sucked on it, without wincing, and if it had been, then she could have been Mmachi, your little sister, here, with you, instead of back home in Orlu with your mother.
       The first taxi of the night appeared in the distance. From your quick assessment it was old, and although there was no such thing as a new taxi in this city, this one seemed like it should never have passed a road worthiness test. It was smoking profusely, one of the headlights was broken, and had you the luxury of time you would have let it cruise by. But those girls. Sticking around, you ran the risk of being mistaken for one of them. You raised a hand, and the smoking, half-blind hulk of metal ground to a halt beside you.
       Sitting in front was a thin scowling man who did not so much as glance in your direction, his eyes and ears fixated on home, his body an empty vessel, merely present. There was a girl in the back. When you climbed in she too made no move to acknowledge your presence, her attention directed at a BlackBerry mobile that struck you instantly, probably maliciously, as scratched up and worse for wear. Holding it with both hands, head slightly lowered, she was gazing at it in that adoring way mothers regarded their newborns. As the car sped off, you looked out the window at the prostitutes. You sighed, glad for the first time that day that you were you.
       Now that your thoughts were yours again, they steered homeward, to your three little sisters. You are the firstborn and they look up to you, as does your mother, in a strange way. More so now that your father’s other wives had given him the sons she couldn’t. You recalled the night she left, how your father had tried to reason with her, pleading with her to stay. “You are my first wife. Don’t break up this home.” Behind him, his sisters clapped. “Witch, witch, witch! Let her go!”
       Why did she leave again? You no longer knew. In the end, the neighbours held him back, as she said quietly, and with much conviction, “Chidi, my God is not dead,” and then swooped you all into a taxi, much like this one, and into a life much more difficult than the one you had living with your father. That look in his eyes as you all left. It said, Why can’t you stay and suffer a little? Like the look one sometimes gave a mad person. Why can’t you just be normal?
       How baffling it was, a ten year old, trying to make sense of that. You remember, coming down from the taxi, riding the bus to your uncle’s house, staring at her thinking there was nothing remotely witch-like about your mother. She was just your mother. She should have stayed.
       A gust of wind blew against your face as you listed all the things you could have been if you had only had a brother in time. If you had had a brother, you could have been at the university by now instead of mopping floors and washing plates at Noiseless Corner. It wasn’t too late though. You could be somebody. It was a long journey getting here, nine years. But you could still be somebody. If prostitutes were making similar calculations, you thought, smiling, why shouldn’t you? The wind blew again in your face, as if to agree with you. In that moment you caught a glimpse of Eliozu Junction. You had reached your stop. “Drop,” you said, reaching into your handbag for the fare. But the car showed no sign of slowing down, if anything it was going faster.
       I said drop. I’m stopping here!”
       The driver looked straight ahead, as if he hadn’t heard you. Just as you began to wonder if the man was deaf, the passenger in front slowly turned around to the lady beside you, saying to her, as though it were the most natural thing in the world, “Bring that phone.”
       Her reaction was delayed, understandably. And then it became one of immediate rebuff. She muttered something like, “If I poke your eye…” but then he drew out a shiny hand gun, waving it in her face like it was a present. “Surrender the phone now, both of you!” You could hardly believe this was happening, and so close to your stop too. In a moment of confusion, you considered arguing that you be allowed to get out on the grounds that technically you were already home. This wasn’t right.
       I said bring it here!” The whiplash of his voice rid you of any such notion.
       You cowered in terror. Of course you would surrender the phone, it was a piece of crap, of course you would wilfully, gratefully, give it up, but when you instructed your hand to reach into your bag, it refused to comply, trembling uselessly instead, the way your Grandma’s fingers often did when she reached for a glass of water or for your shoulder or beckoned for you to bring her hot drink from underneath the bed. Grandma’s hands trembled all the time.
       Don’t kill me,” you stammered, “Please, don’t kill me.” Tears streamed down your face. You turned to the lady beside you, checking that she was still there, your ally, even if in helplessness.
       The man snarled, “Of course, I will kill. Am I not here for blood? If you want to survive the next ten minutes, just do as I tell you. Don’t prove stubborn. You see this mark on my hand?” He glanced at his left palm then held it up. You stared hard, but failed to see any markings beside the normal palm scrawls. “It will tell me who out of two of you will live and who will turn to food for my master.”
       The other lady gasped.
       He shoved the gun in her face. “Shut up or I waste you! You hear me?”
       She cupped a hand over her mouth, nodding frantically.
       You became aware of the tears on your cheeks, streaming down your nose, into your mouth. It was strange how even with that you did not feel anything or taste anything outside the foul breath taste of being yourself. Going at full speed, the car began approaching the constellation of lights that was Rumuokoro roundabout. Not once had the driver turned around. He seemed to trust not only his knowledge of the destination, but also his idea of how events would play out. Where was he headed? Passing Rumuokoro, the lights seemed to fall behind, the darkness ahead infested with grim possibilities.
       If I hear pem, I waste you, you hear me? You think say I dey joke here? Try me, try me first!” Wielding the gun, his eyes bulged with every word, full of menace, and what seemed to be terror. He was speaking pidgin, he explained, so there would be no room for misunderstanding. Her brains would be splattered on the seat. His breath stunk, of marijuana, of alcohol, of poor hygiene. So far his attention seemed directed at the other lady, for which you felt a shameless gratitude.
       Phones!” he barked again, reaching for hers first. “Bring them here, now!”
       With trembling hands, you held yours out, a willing sacrifice.
       Please,” the other girl said, “don’t take mine, please.”
       I say put the thing here now!” He thrust his palm out, the one with the supposedly predictive marks.
       Please, I just bought it last month.”
       Put it here!”
       Let me just take my SIM.”
       You shot her a look of incredulity. It was all you could do to keep from reaching out, snatching the thing from her grasp and pressing it into his hands. Was she stupid? What was there to beg for? The phone was ancient, her life unlived. There would be other phones.
       I said bring it!” He lunged at her, and in the ensuing struggle you started to scream. He tugged, but she wouldn’t let go. “Help, help!” Her screams joined yours, filling the car.
       The driver was glancing over his shoulder now, at you, her, his partner. “Shut her up,” he was saying. “Shut her up.” And to the lady, “Take your time, oh!”
       It came to you then to act, to say something, but there were no words as yet. Your brain was paralyzed, your mouth limp. You couldn’t pray if you wanted to. Maybe it’s a dream, you told yourself. Yes, maybe.
       There was a sharp crack as he struck her on the mouth with the butt of the gun. Blood spurted out onto her dress. She cried out. This was no dream.
       An explosion rang out. She fell back in her seat, blood gushing out of her chest where the bullet hit, some splashing onto your lap. The red spread quickly through her blouse, drenching it. It appeared as if someone had spilled a bowl of stew on her. Her head was bent to the side, eyes glazed, empty. Her lips quaked. She was alive, trying to speak. “Help,” she whispered.
       When he spat and shot her in the chest a second time, the entire car briefly illuminated, you screamed in fright. Not only because what just happened was akin to watching someone beside you get struck by lightning twice, but also because in that photographic flare of light you were afforded a glimpse of the men. They had seemed inhuman. Watching the blood pour out of her chest, something warm flowed from between your legs. It soaked through your skirt, down to the seat, dripping onto your shoes.
       He trained the gun on you. “You will scream too, abi
       No, no, I won’t scream.”
       Go on, scream.”
       No, I promise.” You pressed your palms together, pleading with your eyes, your wet skirt, with every drop of unshed blood in your veins. “I won’t.”
       Still, it seemed to please him to point the gun straight at you as he had done her, to watch you squirm under its authority, knowing that you could not look into the hollow parts without imagining that sitting quietly in the chamber, awaiting the instruction of the cold trigger, was a bullet.
       With a crooked smile, he stretched forth his hand. You handed over your phone.
       The bag.”
       You gave him that too. When he gestured at her, you caught on quickly, lifting her limp arm, prying away the old scratched up phone and handing it over. He slapped you across the face, and it didn’t even hurt. It didn’t cross your mind to scream either, maybe because you were so grateful, maybe because somewhere inside you felt you deserved the slap. Another one even, two more, just not the gun.
       Open the door,” he said. “I want to see you fly.”
       The wind tickled your face and neck. All you could see outside was darkness, an empty night waiting to devour you whole. You glanced ahead at the morphing shapes of trees in the forest beside the road, and then below, at the lightening-speed conveyor belt of the tarred road. Your heart pounded in your ears like thunder before a storm. You could smell dirt, the trees, and something that up until then you would never have known was the smell of blood. Terrified as you were at the thought of jumping, the idea of not jumping, of staying behind with a corpse and two murderous men, filled you with dread, more effective an enticement than gold. Clamping your eyes shut, you readied yourself.
       You leaped, crashed, rose. On that highway, the trek back to the city began. It was midnight, although you could not be sure. Cars sped by, none slowing when you raised a hand or tried, in frustration, to scream the nature of your distress. You understood what it was: human kindness and warmth deferred to a more appropriate time and place. Plus, there were probably wet marks on your skirt. You understood, but still.
       After several attempts you gave up shrieking like a mad woman and learned to endure the intermittent whining and the windy blasts of speeding cars, trudging down the grey infinite stretch of road with some kind of dignity. It took two hours and finally you made it home. Outside you ran into your neighbour, James, a boy you’ve always kind of liked. “What happened?” he said, gripping your shoulders.
       You response was a jumbled version of everything. Faith Clinic, the four girls with their cigarettes, your sisters, your mother, the taxi, the lady with the phone, the gun shots. The words you ended with sounded alien, even as you mouthed them. “Don’t forget. We’re not safe in this city. No one is.”
       James held you in his arms for a second, and then leaned in to kiss you. As you pushed him away, your head felt like luggage. Every patch of skin throbbed with pain. Staggering into the tiny room you shared with Ngozi and Isi, the sisters you first met at church, you locked the door, peeled your clothes off, and stood firm under the assault of the shower. You cried hard for half an hour. Blood comes off easily enough, likewise urine and tears, as you would discover, but the voices, the screams, they remained, fresh wounds ever bleeding.
       Back in the room, you tried to pretend all was normal. You struck a foot against the metal box where Ngozi kept her special clothes, stumbled and cursed. You tried to conjure an image of Sister Ibiwari, but found her as faceless as her husband, whose sin in hindsight seemed trivial. You pulled the mat out from under the bed, lowering your bruised body onto it. Through it all, the voices kept playing and replaying: Phone! Now! Please, don’t take it! The shots: Twice, loud, the splash on your dress
       The city turns into something else, someone said.
       How could you possibly sleep now? How, with all this horror inside you? What kind of monster would that make you? You sat up long into the night, rocking back and forth in the dark, slapping your face repeatedly, flinching at the sound of doors creaking and toilets flushing. A terrible war waged inside you, fought by fear and gratitude and shame and guilt. Gratitude won.
       A picture came to you whole. Of your eleventh birthday. Mama doing a dance around you. Your sisters gazing on the scene. The cup cake had cost twenty naira. Beside it was a torn piece of paper with the number eleven scribbled on it. Mama held out to your sisters slices so thin they crumbled in her hand. Scars are the only things we own, she said, making no effort to hide hers. The only thing you owe yourself now is to survive.
       And you swore then to choose her, to despise your father. The way you swore now that you’d never sleep again, but you did.

© Zino Asalor 2016

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Author Bio
Zino AsalorZino Asalor is a writer of fiction and poetry, based in Port-Harcourt, Nigeria. His work has been published in several literary magazines including New Literati, Saraba Magazine, The Missing Slate and Waxwing. He is working on his first novel.