The Mad Dance of Fantastic Phantoms
About the Writer
Ajinomoh Ozovehe Caleb is a freelance journalist, screenwriter and novelist. A finalist for the Book Doctors’ 2016 Pitchapalooza for his debut work of fiction, his short stories and essays have appeared/forthcoming in Threepenny Review, Africanwriter.com, Compose Journal and Virginia Quarterly Review. Currently at work on a novel and a first collection of short stories, he pours his days into the scribbling. He tweets at @queerpants.
Anaza dies on June 2nd. But on that day, he will walk into Aunty Orahachi’s bar and buy drinks for young men who are tired of looking for white collar jobs, who cut grass in homes where all the virile adult men have gone off to big cities, who impregnate bread hawkers’ daughters and argue with their own mothers and lock their sisters out for keeping late nights, who barricade themselves in their ignorance of how politics works and will slit their own fathers’ throats if the man whose name is installed underneath “Donated by” at the community tap or borehole requires it. He will also buy drinks for his peers, far less successful men, who although they’d seen life for as long as he had, were not lucky to have two wives who loved one husband equally, or six children who had all brought men home, or large fields of cocoa plantations and gigantic yams and palm trees which bled wine and red oil in equal quantities. They will sing his name, raise dirty hats and clap their tough hands as he walks back out into his 1960 Mercedes, which had belonged to his father, which he renovated every two years and would not, no matter how much he earned, or the children complained, buy another car. His driver, Adayi Obembe, a stout fellow of imperceptibly noble arrogance, will accept the worship on his master’s behalf and throttle the ancient engines to life and honk all the way as they back out into the road.
He will instruct Adayi Obembe to drive past rows and rows of spare parts shops to the old appeal court at the edge of the LGA secretariat where the cocoa farmers and yam sellers and palm wine tappers and red oil merchants are in a Community Development meeting. There, he will observe Mallam Echechi expressing his disgust with the council elections and the imposition of candidates by the local government chairman whom he will call, “daft, mad and the product of a witch’s ineffective spell.” Adayi Isevor will cut him short and remind him that they are not gathered for political discourse and that calling another man names will not improve the community’s fortunes. Mallam Echechi will continue speaking. They will nearly come to blows. Anda, a man two feet from his own six, will declare his embarrassment and shame at the behavior of these adults, then proceed to remind them both that rich men survive on the petty squabbling of poor men whose inability to see their own insignificance enslaved them perpetually in the darkness of abject indigence. This he will do before concluding with the poor market prices and steps which need to be taken to urgently address it. Somebody else, a thin-bearded man much younger than a majority of the men in the room, will ask for Anaza’s presence to be recognized. They will applaud Anaza loudly and beat their feet into the ground so hard Adayi Obembe will hiss from the car and mutter certain invectives.
Anaza will smile and wave and walk up to the front and situate himself on the podium. He will, unasked, share his secrets to more prosperity. He will tell the men to toil day and night, rain or sunshine, send their children to school and whatever God they choose to believe in – and this is important – they better be sure they’re faithful to it. Then he will make a cash donation in words which the thin-bearded man will accompany him to the car to retrieve from Adayi Obembe, who, while counting crisp notes from an envelope will grumble as though it were coming from his own pocket.
Anaza will leave there for his sister’s shop where he will have soft words with a plain woman with graying hair, wrinkled and squelched in every portion of flesh, as though someone had neglected to iron it. They will laugh like old people do: careful not to lose a tooth or sear a rib or crack a cranial line. But they will laugh about everything. About the drama with his first wife, who their father wouldn’t let him marry because her father was Muslim, and how he, Anaza, went ahead anyway and his mother nearly died of grief at the horror of his ways. About their struggles, being cut off from both families, and having a child so quickly. She will remind him that truly, poor people have the most productive reproduction facility. Adayi Obembe will clear his throat and make his entry. He will slap the sales girl on her small backside, and press her knotted hair and call her his wife. The plain little girl will roll her eyes and move away from the counter to sit on the mat. Her employer will ask her to fetch her abuser a bottle of cold drink. She will get up, shuffle away briefly and return to announce, petulantly, that nothing is cold. She will then continue sitting on the mat.
Then a young boy of no more than five will, on his way back from school, kicking rocks and nylon and newspaper balls, strike an unintended blow into the windshield of the Mercedes. Adayi Obembe will swear and give chase. Anaza’s sister will get up to answer her daughter’s call from America. She will tell her to hold on for her uncle. Anaza will take the phone and speak to his niece who lives in the same city with two of his own daughters in the American city of Baltimore, where they are all doctors married to gimlet-eyed men from other continents. He will ask how she’s faring, how her work is, and when last she visited with her cousins. He will bless and pray for them, all three of them, and their husbands and children. He will remind her to not forget to bring all the kids next Christmas. He will return the phone to his sister when Adayi Obembe returns, fuming and dragging a scruffy-looking boy with browned uniform, pleading his sincerest apologies. Anaza will rebuke Adayi Obembe lovingly, tease him about his own son who could’ve been this nameless kid in another life, then instruct his sister’s maid to bring the boy a stool and a cold drink. She will saunter up, too happy to be kind, disappear and reappear with a bottle of Coke so cold droplets of sweat bedecks it on all sides, dripping to the floor. Adayi Obembe will lampoon the girl for her petulance, for denying him the drink earlier. He will use this opportunity to smack her fondly somewhere private again. Anaza will look away and so will his sister who, upon returning from her international phone call, will cast a disapproving look at the strange kid with ruffled hair and torn shoes sitting in her store drinking her beverage. She will however sit with her brother and continue chatting away until Adayi Obembe tells the boy its time for him to scram home and Anaza, dipping his hands in his breast pocket, will deliver three one hundred naira notes in the boy’s hands and tap him on the back. Adayi Obembe will eye both of them and the money in his hand and nearly burn the boy with the heat of envy. Then the sales girl will giggle and giggle until he moves over to her and threatens with a curled hand.
After now, Anaza will receive a call from the community chief, who, long unable to do much ruling since his wife’s illness, spends all his time by her bed and consults regularly with close confidantes and well-to-do members of the community in shared rule. Anaza will announce his departure shortly and the sales girl will roll her eyes as Adayi Obembe tries to touch her before they leave. Adayi Obembe will find that the car will not start.
Anaza will go back inside to wait. Adayi Obembe will kick and kick and open the bonnet and touch wires he has no idea what they do, but it won’t respond. He will sit for a while and contemplate the situation. Anaza will send the girl to find out if the car is ready. She will make her own judgments from afar off and return to give her report. Anaza will walk calmly out and try to hail a motorcycle. Adayi Obembe will spring to his feet and ask that he be patient a little longer, that he has called the mechanic who is speeding on his way to them. Anaza will instruct him to just ensure it is looked at properly and to not touch wires recklessly, then to pick him at the chief’s house when the car is ready.
On the way to the chief’s house, Anaza’s heart will flutter and drift. He will realize, with choking intimacy as if suddenly pressed upon him, that the last time he was on a motorcycle, he was a young father with a new wife, and their small luggage pressed together, running from his father’s house. He will smile at the thought. He will ask the kid to meander easy, that the potholes are famished mouths and that every human on its surface is potential meat, that the goal is to make it difficult for the famished road to fill her belly. The kid will chuckle at the metaphorization of a thing so simple and his bandana will rock to the wind in appreciation of the weight of his special passenger.
At Aunty Orahachi’s bar, there’ll be a sharp metallic screech heard from a distance, like a long piece of metal being pulled across a tarred surface. A young boy in a tattered uniform will enter the bar, clang against a table and three hundred naira notes will drop out of his hands. A tough man will seize him by the neck and almost strike him. The boy will tell them that two men on a bike have been felled by a shiny big motor car with tinted glass. The men will know the only big shiny car that passes the community road belongs to the LGA chairman. They will therefore abandon their drinks and dash off to the road where they will find that the chairman is struggling to remove himself from the car. They will learn from two young men standing over the motorcycle, tires still rolling, that the chairman’s driver had escaped.
One of the men will now observe closely the bodies on the street. He will find that Anaza is not moving. He will find that Anaza is in fact already gone. He will raise the battle cry and throw the first stone. He will bash the chairman’s head against the glass just as he finally manages to free himself of the back door. The rest of the men will get clubs and pump the car. Others will rend his clothes and choke his fat bulging neck. Some will say it is God who has designed this event. Others will say he has to vomit all the monies he has eaten there and then. They will beat him like a thief, like he killed their mother, like he stole their yams, like he slept with their wives, like he kidnapped their sons. They will beat him until his flesh, once bright and plum, becomes peppered with redness and their original thickness crumbles into fragments of red edges. They will kick and slap and flog and whip. They will not stop. No they will not. Until one of the men will step back and, expressing his horror, indicate with a trembling finger, that Anaza has moved. The men will stop at once and look towards their undead kinsman. They will pause to observe him close. Anaza will move again to confirm his aliveness. They will not know what to do. Adayi Obembe will arrive and judge the matter. He will rebuke them for their drunkenness but regret that the deed is done. He will remind them that justification for the chairman’s mobbing is predicated entirely on Anaza’s death, and hence, if Anaza isn’t, aren’t they all murderers deserving of a similar fate in the eyes of the gods? The men will consider the idea briefly, consider how much truth there is in it and realize that Adayi Obembe has spoken truly. They will remove their attention from the dead politician and, bearing bloodied clubs, eyes rawing with a strange new conviction, muscles aching for justice, feet hasting to redemption, draw near to their kinsman. Adayi Obembe will return to the Mercedes and never look back.