Published on December 23rd, 2012 | by The Alchemist21
The woman came out of the bush at dawn, her hair wild and her face strewn with tears. She wasn’t heaving or looking about wildly, as one would expect from one so haggard. Her brown skirt and blouse were torn in places. The child in her arms was crying loudly and passionately. She calmly looked up and down the express road. No cars were coming yet. She began walking down in the direction she had been going before the unthinkable happened.
December 21, 1994.
The car sputtered and shook. The man was suddenly nervous. He stepped on the throttle. The car only vibrated some more, and then the engines went off. The car kept moving down the long and lonely road on its own momentum. He swerved to the side of the road until he reached the bottom of the slight hill. When the car finally stopped, he stayed in it a minute longer, contemplating his dilemma. He turned the key, and a sputter erupted. The engine didn’t catch. The notification ENGINE FAILURE was blinking wildly on the dashboard. The man knew he wouldn’t get to a Nitel telephone until he reached the next small urban area. He had wanted to surprise her by coming back the day before Christmas Eve instead of on the eve itself. He had felt guilty since some construction oversight work had taken him to Owerri in the first week of December.
Strangely, his wife had seemed indifferent, and in the bid to liven things up a bit he had promised to come back on Christmas Eve to take them out to the new park out on Servile Road.
Leaning over, he took out the torchlight from the pigeon hole and opened his door cautiously. The night was cold and the long road was lonely. He even fancied he could smell approaching rain. He had always been an advocate of night travel. He hated getting into traffic on the federal road because it made his motion sickness worse. He was very aware of the security risks of having your car break down on a lonely stretch of road in the middle of the night, four hours from the nearest city.
He got round to the bonnet of the SUV and popped it open. He didn’t understand much of what he saw, but he felt better doing something other than sitting in the car, thinking. As he touched the battery terminals, he was jolted by a sudden memory.
He looked up now, frightened. His wife had been robbed here about a month ago while she was returning with their infant daughter from her village where they had gone to visit with her sick aunt, her only surviving relative now. She had arrived with Linda and a dazed look in her eyes a day later without the Honda, thanks to a Samaritan. She had calmly told him of her ordeal and gone upstairs to freshen up. After that incident, she hadn’t seemed the same. She hardly spoke and he had to push himself to try cheer her up since she wouldn’t see a doctor. She also began having nightmares. She didn’t say so, but he sometimes heard her susurrating savagely in her sleep. Her words made him suspect the unthinkable, and he usually shut her off in his head. He blamed the trauma of the accident. She hardly spoke of it, and even then, in disjointed phrases which included some sort of concern for their daughter. He hadn’t enjoyed the two weeks they spent after the robbery before he got called off out of town work.
He grimaced in the darkness.
The sound of a car jolted him from his reverie. He was not proud of his absent-mindedness when it was least needed. What he needed now was to get out of here before some group of marauding robbers found him a sitting duck between threatening maws of the forest which lined the road on both sides. Maybe he should get in the car before he trampled a passing snake. The predominantly cloudy sky was slightly blue in places, and sort of illuminated the road with a ghostly hue. Of course the light didn’t penetrate the forest. He looked up the hilly road.
Two headlights in the moonless darkness.
He moved closer to the centre of the road, keenly aware of the night noises all around him. He raised his arms as the car drew nearer, hoping to draw attention. He could see the silhouette of the car’s lone occupant.
If the man would give him a lift….
The car suddenly picked up speed and zoomed past the waving man.
Couldn’t blame him.
He probably looked like a bait dangled by highway robbers. He went to his boot, and wrenched out the C-Caution sign, placing it on the ground behind the car. He was getting scared now. He had a feeling of dread creeping slowly upon him, and he was compelled to think of terrible childhood tales. He got into the car and started it again. The engine only coughed and died. He looked reluctantly into the bleak darkness of the trees beside the road. He left the headlights on -thank God they still worked- and came back to the engine. Trying to remember everything he knew about how an engine worked and engine maintenance, he began caressing the damn thing. He worked feverishly, doing little more than running his hands up and down the hot metal and thinking of his wife and kid.
His mind wandered, as always…
They had gotten married five years ago. It had been more of a battle than a marriage if truth be told. Her parents didn’t like him. They didn’t say it in as many words, but he knew it was because thanks to a spitting cobra incident in during his University days, he was blind in one eye and had to wear glasses all the time when visiting with them. His wife – whom he had met while she was acting as the junior representative of her organization during a Building Better Buildings conference in Enugu- had stood up against her parents (now of blessed memory because of an automobile accident), denying herself food and water until they had finally accepted the small truckload of yam and oil he had laid outside their compound as a gift during his third awkward visit.
He jumped out of his reverie when he realized he was absent-mindedly unscrewing the radiator lid. No car had come down the road in the past 10mins. He was about to get inside the car and try one more time when a sound jolted him. He moved to the side and looked down the road. He could certainly see the three points of light from flash-lights of an approaching party. His heart jumped into his mouth as he heard an incoherent shout from the group of rapidly advancing men. Without pausing for thought, he launched himself into the nearest cover, which happened to be the foreboding darkness beside the car which looked like the jaw of some malevolent night demon. He ran more than he looked, throwing the light before him, and soon he tripped and fell, all the while holding onto a mental image of his wife and child in his head, and believing he would never see them again. The tall grasses tore at his face in the darkness. His torch was being shaken too quickly to be of good use now. He came to a halt, listening for the thrash of disturbed vegetation that would alert him of his pursuers’ location. He heard nothing except a slight trickling noise. Perhaps a small stream was nearby. Partly relieved, he was suddenly aware of his surrounding. His light beam quickly fell on the tall grass and the sparse trees. He was on a thickly vegetative incline. The last thing he wanted was to be bitten by a snake, though he felt a little safe because of his jean trousers. He cocked his ear as he heard a car pass somewhere behind him. He began moving off to the side, hoping to walk for a few meters and quietly exit the bush and get back to the road, no doubt to find his car- ah! it couldn’t be stolen because it had already broken down.
He thought he heard soft noises. The robbers! Maybe they were treading softly. He turned to his right, and began moving parallel to the road, softly treading the shorter grasses. Bush plants were high around him, but they were small paths between them. After walking for some meters with his heart pounding from fright and sweat stinging his one good eye, he decided to make for the road. He could hear the sound of water and didn’t want to mistakenly fall into a bog. As he made to turn, his light fell on something in front of him on the grass.
Something white. They were things all around him. Square and ghostly in the weird beam of his torch. He felt a chill descend on him as he prepared for something to go wrong, his superstitious mind conjuring novel horrors. The man looked again. They were pictures.
His light fell on one which was inclined face-up on the grass a few feet away. Just enough for him to appreciate. The picture was back and white. Perhaps some old discarded photos.
Maybe someone had dumped…
A chill ran down his spine as he recognized the image of his wife and himself smiling at his wedding ceremony.
Things were happening too fast for him. His face broke out in another wave of sweat. What was his picture doing in the thick of a roadside bush? He looked around at the upturned photos. His pictures? He flipped the nearest one over with his shoe. His daughter’s washed-out face smiled at him. His eyes run over the scene, following the beam of his light, his sense of urgency, utmost now. It felt like a really bad dream. The fidelity of the roar of a plane passing overhead did not nothing to reassure him of the absolute reality he was experiencing. Had his family been robbed here? The night sounds around him seemed to fade as his mind quickly raced through the shocking evidence. There was a stark-horror quality to finding your photographs strewn about a forest floor in the middle of the night. His light danced around the small clearing as he heard a car zoom past up ahead. He was still too near to the road, apparently. He noted his wife’s small pink purse and what he assumed to be his daughter’s shoes while his mind raced with difficult questions. Why hadn’t his wife come back home with these things? Weren’t women almost inseparable from their purses?
And of all the chance things to discover on a terrible night like this, why this? It was no doubt a coincidence, but it was terribly uncanny, happening on this night of all nights. A twig broke somewhere nearby, evidence that someone was stalking him. He nearly urinated on himself as he ran off without thinking, crashing through a tract of scrub vegetation. The strong forest smell stung his nostrils as his harsh breathing thundered in his ears. He heard a shout from somewhere behind him.
He had been a great runner in his youth, and still jogged some morning, but exhaustion crept in slowly, his petrifying terror a disadvantage. He was going to make them sweat before they got to him, though. He switched off the torch. They wouldn’t be able to track him with it. He was blind now, but so were they.
Then he remembered they had lights…
The man’s leg hit something which gave way slightly and stumbled. His heart nearly gave out in the darkness. A large snake? He let out a small shout as his face hit the soft earth. His open mouth fell on something small and wiggly. He spat it out. His torch had fallen out of his hand in the confusion. His hand found it again in the darkness, packing sand along with it. He hurried to his face, a new wave of dread coming over him as he felt movement inside his trousers. Had he fallen on an anthill? He had the presence of mind to throw his light on the location of the thing which had tripped him. He stared in terror.
He heard a shout, but it sounded like it was coming from miles away.
The feeling of disembodiment filled him and the ground rushed up toward him.
The doctor walked into the small cramped village clinic room and stared at the man on the bed. He was still in a drug-induced sleep. He held the man’s left hand, taking his pulse.
A little low.
It was Christmas, and he wasn’t sure what to do with the man yet. The night-watchmen who had brought him here had seen his car and had wanted to help him before he fled from them. He had probably thought they were robbers. He was brought unconscious, early that morning. His car had been fixed by Adole, the night watchman whose brother was a mechanic.
A minor fault.
They had found the man unconscious beside a rotting corpse after having tracked him through the outer edge of the forest which lined Akuja road. It was the man who interested the doctor. The ID card of a construction company found in his wallet identified him as Anyokwu Maduekwe, Deputy Foreman. When he had first come awake, he spoke a lot of gibberish, giving the impression of a serious trauma. Perhaps he has seen the corpse before he passed out. Not everyone could stomach a thing like that, the doctor thought, remembering all the fainting he witnessed among his mates in medical school. Well, he had to be leaving now. He moved out to the squalid reception, and instructed the lone nurse – his nephew -in the care of the man. He then left the hospital, anticipating his drinking session with Chief Ajiba.
The man moaned, weakened by the drugs dripping into his system. He rocked his head sideways slightly, as though refusing the evidence of his dreams. The darkness was unraveled for the umpteenth time. He was running from the robbers again. The photograph was not in his hand. Instead, the whole lot of them where floating around him in the darkness, a circling hedge of faded photographs. They followed him like a shadow. He tripped over something and crashed to the ground. He turned and threw his light on the ground.
This time, he didn’t faint as he stared at the corpse of his wife. Her clothes hadn’t completely rotted and the form was grotesque, but the person on the ground who was being devoured by ants and worms couldn’t have been any other. The gold necklace with the customized pendent he had given her last year on her birthday reflected the beam of the light.
Who then was the woman waiting for him at home? Who had he been sharing his matrimonial bed with?
This time, he didn’t lose his mind, screaming. He simply stared, his one good eye wide with shock, but while the empty socket, lacking an eyeball to display simply allowed a tear drop roll down his cheek.
Then there was that welcome oblivion again.
When I am ill, I look at healthy people and wonder, ‘How the hell are these people strong enough to even walk fast?’. I wish you and your families excellent health this Christmas, for even a sick man cannot feel hunger. My gift to the next writer is a drop of water (._.)