“Middle of Nowhere”
by Walter Dinjos
People often squeeze their faces in disgust and tremble in fright whenever the name Boko Haram is mentioned. They put their hands on their heads and cry, “Tufiakwa! Abomination!” over the daily bombing and slitting of throats in the north.
I wonder what they would think when they learn my father is the founder and leader of the sect’s southern division. That knowledge, for me, is a nightmare. That knowledge, along with a series of misfortunes, was how I arrived at wanting to kill myself.
It all began two weeks ago. And I will try to tell it without any sugar-coating or seasoning.
I was returning to Enugu from the University of Nigeria Nsukka and had to fling the newspaper I was reading out through our minibus’ window because it had ‘Boko Haram’ plastered to the front page and because I didn’t want anything to ruin my excitement that day.
I cupped my hand over the small box in my breast pocket and, with a smile, imagined my girlfriend’s reaction when I crown the news of my successful job interview with the engagement ring which I had been carrying around for a month now. But the urge to protest the absence of air conditioning on our rickety Peace Mass Transit bus was beginning to manifest itself in the sweat that drenched my blue shirt. When you now consider that we were crammed four-in-a-row on the Toyota Hiace, you begin to understand why some people are claustrophobic.
As if that hadn’t ruined my excitement enough, a dull explosion escaped our bus halfway through our one-hour-thirty-minute journey and it droned while the driver expertly pulled over. I knew what the problem was–a flat tire, and in the middle of nowhere.
We all alighted and I decided to empty my bladder in the nearby bush while the driver changed the tire. I believed in keeping things that were private private–that was including my private parts–so I scanned my surroundings while I relieved myself. This was how I discovered that there were people in the bush.
My urine stopped flowing at once and I zipped up my fly.
There were dozens of them–timid looking, with chalk markings on their skin, the women dressed in rags that left disquieting portions of their stomachs and legs naked, the men swathed in only tattered loincloths. One, a female, pointed a finger, a very short finger, at me.
I recoiled. They charged towards me. So I ran, forsaking the brutal hand-to-hand combat training to which my father had subjected me after my mother’s death.
“There are people in the bush!” I found myself shouting as I reached our bus and sprang inside. The driver had finished replacing the tire. “They are coming!”
Leaves rustled. It was like the sound of an approaching forest fire. Then my pursuers leapt out of the bush and surrounded us. The passing vehicles didn’t care to stop. That was odd considering that when such a crowd gathered by the roadside in Nigeria onlookers usually began to gather too.
The girl that pointed at me came forward. She was an ugly thing, in her late twenties, had charcoal black skin and eyes, maybe missed the fifth foot by an inch, and her markings were mostly circular. She jabbed a finger, that short black finger, into the bus. Since I was the only one inside, everyone regarded me with faces that asked, ‘What did you do?’ Two men from the savages pulled me out and dragged me into the bush.
“No! Please!” I begged. When I then glanced behind, I wanted to cry. My co-travellers were jumping into the bus. One actually tossed my backpack out of the window and onto the roadside. Engine roared, then buzzed and, as the sound tailed away, I gave up the thought of not letting anything ruin my excitement, because I was certain I was going to be sacrificed.
The savages hadn’t dragged me too deep into the bush when an old man popped out of nowhere, nearly giving me a heart attack–something I very much preferred to being sacrificed to some deity. I swear he hadn’t been standing before that white tree a moment ago.
My captors stopped and unhanded me, and the old man, obviously a jujuist, ambled forward in his blood-stained clothes which were made of animal hide, his steps animated and in sync with the shriek of the cowries tied to the head of his staff.
“Ndewo, Mazi Ibe,” he greeted.
With a sigh, I thanked God he spoke Igbo, although I couldn’t understand how he knew my name.
He said, tipping a finger at the dirty black girl, that I was destined to marry her and liberate them from some kind of blindness–one that reminded me of my late mother’s nightly eye problem–a curse wreaked on them twenty-five years ago because their last ruler’s betrothed absconded with a foreigner.
“Blindness?” I said, inspecting their eyes and quickly deciding that to the right–not many savages standing there–was the best direction for me to run.
The jujuist shook his head and picked a thin leaf off my shoulder as if to show me what a bad idea running would be. So I simply slouched, making do with the fact that I wasn’t going to be sacrificed. Marrying a midget who was probably a year or two older than me and becoming king to some uncultured idiots, however, was no less distasteful than being sacrificed.
“You no be prisoner here,” he said. “But if you decide you go abandon us, your people, you go suffer o.”
Your people? I winced. My father had some explaining to do. Without sparing the dirty girl a glance, I told the jujuist that I had a fiancée and that I was from Anambra State and not Enugu State. Hence, they couldn’t be my people.
After a long, scrutinising look at me, he waved his hand and the crowd behind me parted, making a bushy corridor for me. “You go return.” He said that with such certainty that turned my newfound relief into uncertainty and dread.
If I had fifty percent certainty of getting out of there and fifty percent dread of not, they soon turned to ten percent certainty–the rest was dread. This was because I had been standing by the roadside for two hours and all the vehicles I had tried to flag down wouldn’t pull over. I had even downed my spittle and tried calling my terrorist of a father, but had found no mobile reception.
Two hours. No Good Samaritan. Not even a greedy one. It wasn’t natural. I thought of praying. But I wasn’t consistent with church attendance and other religious stuff. So I doubted God would care.
Or would he? For a moment, I imagined that he would sympathize with how confused my family’s switch from Christianity to Islam had left me. It wasn’t my fault. It was, in fact, my father’s.
It was disturbing how everything now seemed to tie up–everything; my mother’s nightly blindness, my father denouncing Western influence and turning to terrorism following her death during an eye surgery in America, and the things the jujuist had said. They all seemed to tie up for the sole purpose of haunting me.
A Nissan bus, to my surprise, pulled over and the conductor sprang down. “Oya! Oya! Enugu! Enugu!” His shoes were from different pairs and his grubby jeans were frayed in the knee.
I grabbed my backpack from the edge of the bush where the Peace Mass Transit passenger had dropped it. The bag was intact–not stolen or touched; something very un-Nigerian.
“Oya! Enugu! One thousand five hundred naira.”
One thousand five hundred naira? Outrageous! I had paid one thousand naira from Nsukka. Still, I jumped in and smiled at the six passengers on the bus.
The engine went off.
Imagine the new percentage of my dread when the sun-burnt-faced driver turned the ignition and the engine refused to come alive. I was already trembling, sweat sketching dismay on my face. The albino woman beside me asked if I was alright and I nodded sharply.
The driver tried the ignition again, but nothing happened.
Now I was really going to have that heart attack.
The conductor alighted and took to the bonnet. I anxiously followed him and the engine came on at once. I should be happy about this, but something told me that the vehicle only started because I was no longer inside it.
I gingerly boarded the bus, a foot at a time, and the engine went off again. I groaned. The discovery that everyone was looking askance at me made me cower out of the vehicle. They began to mutter, their eyes hardening into glares. Therefore, I backed further away.
The engine roared.
“I said it,” one blurted.
“It’s him,” another said.
The conductor hadn’t even drawn the door and the bus zoomed off as if I was a suicide bomber. I could have broken down and cried, but I had to save my tears in case the strange occurrence repeated.
And it did repeat. Once. Twice. Thrice.
I slumped to the ground and let the storm in my eyes out lest it ripped me apart.
A Toyota Sienna pulled over beside me and a portly man with ashy black skin stepped down. He was in his forties, maybe missed the sixth foot by a few inches, and wore a red traditional cap and brocade that touched his knees.
I should be excited, but I simply sat there by the roadside. That the man had stopped of his own accord didn’t mean the result would be anything short of disappointing and dreadful.
“Their god is powerful. I can feel it.” He flashed the gap between his central incisors in a disarming smile. “But I can still carry you to Enugu.”
I perked up, although his words stirred more suspicion than hope. He knew too much for a Good Samaritan, and the many rings on his fingers suggested he was a jujuistof some sort.
“But, of course, it will cost you,” he added.
Ah, a Greedy Samaritan. “How much?”
“You really want to get out of here, eh?”
I frowned. “How much?”
“Five hundred thousand naira.”
Outrageous! Too outrageous! I quickly pulled my chequebook out of my backpack.
“No cheques,” he said. “Do a transfer.”
I frowned again and told him there was no mobile phone reception in the area.
“With me there is network. See?” He displayed his mobile phone. The signal bars were all green.
I pulled out my Android phone and, on discovering that even its 4G reception was strong (impossible! 4G reception hadn’t even entered many parts of Enugu State yet), I spared calling my father only a thought, because I didn’t want to find out the hard way whether the signal was a coincident or if the jujuist had conjured it for the transfer. So I collected his bank details and did the transaction.
“That god… He is really angry with you, and now with me.” He grinned as his phone sang the Nokia tune. Credit alert, I suspected. “You know you could just marry the girl.”
Of course, I was aware jujuists had a flair for knowing things that didn’t concern them, yet my suspicion grew. But I didn’t want to jeopardise my chances of getting out of there. Hence, I parried his remark. “Are you sure your car will start?”
“A bu m oke dibia,” he said in Igbo and gave me a business card that read ‘Nkalagu Shrine’.
We entered the Sienna and I greeted the four passengers inside, not surprised that they were so calm about I and the driver wasting so much of their time. The driver being a jujuist must have got to them somehow.
He turned the ignition.
I held my breath.
The car vibrated to life.
I sighed and stared through the rear view mirror as we left the middle of nowhere behind.
We had barely covered a mile when a Dangote Cement trailer barrelled out from the bend ahead and careened towards us. I screamed, but it was already too late. Perhaps I should have stayed and married the short-fingered girl.
I opened my eyes. I had a choice to make: return to my daytime nightmare or remain in my precarious position until the shard of glass above me carried out its threat against my nose.
I closed my eyes. Vehicles were screeching and honking, and hasty footsteps and alarmed voices were gathering around me.
“Is he alive?” a man asked.
“Yes, o di ndu,” another replied.
I swung my eyes open again, inciting numerous sounds of exclamation. I could just drive my face into that shard. Instead I inched to the side and managed a glimpse of my feet. They were covered in a mix of blood and flesh and what I was sure was brain matter. Crushed bodies, broken bones, bent metals, and jutting glasses made a fitting tunnel leading out of the wreckage around me.
Not at all strange anymore.
I pushed myself toward the mouth of the gory tunnel. The crowd there pulled at my legs and began fanning me with newspapers as soon as I was in the open. Ignoring them, I pushed to my feet and looked around to grasp why the word ‘miracle’ was in the air.
God, unless I was made of steel, I didn’t see how I could have survived that trailer crushing our Sienna under its massive weight. The jujuist didn’t make it. Blood was splattered everywhere, dismembered body parts lying about on the asphalt.
My head began to spin, not only because of the sickening feeling and guilt that accompanied the sight before me but also because I didn’t want to be conscious to find out if the approaching ambulance would refuse to start once the crowd put me in it.
So I crashed to the ground and fainted halfway, and feigned the rest.
The following morning did nothing to soothe my guilt and worries. In fact, it did everything impossible to include pain and grief and then fire them up. Just between 7am and 11am, I received four miserable calls, all while in bed at the Annunciation Hospital Enugu.
Call One: the HR at the University of Nigeria Nsukka said that their offer of employment to me had been rescinded.
Call Two: my business partner informed me that my establishment, including the twenty million naira worth of electronics inside, caught fire around 4am and everything was reduced to ash.
Call Three: my bank, having heard of my misfortune, had frozen my account and confiscated my residential house to recover the loan they had given me.
Call Four: my girlfriend had an accident around 8am on her way to see me in the hospital and her body was crushed to death.
Without a word to anyone, I checked myself out of the hospital and rushed down to my other property, the bungalow at Independence Layout, in the hope that my presence there would prevent the savage jujuist and his people from striking the house with whatever juju they were using.
I didn’t grieve. I didn’t weep. I wasn’t even miserable. I was just numb, only for a half of the day. Then when the engagement ring, which had somehow survived the accident, came to my notice, my body and heart began to burn with anger.
Then I called my father and swore to join his terrorist group on condition that we paid the savages a visit with guns and bombs.
We wandered for hours in the bush, looking for the savages, but all we found were sparsely growing trees and fleeing rodents. At times, however, I couldn’t help but feel that we were being watched; the thicket was too windless for my liking.
I led the group back to the white tree about a hundred metres from the highway. There I halted and, for the second time, warily surveyed the area with the anticipation that the savage jujuist was going to pop out of nowhere again. All the while, I wondered if the sweat drenching my khaki was because of the searing heat of the sun or because of my growing foreboding.
“What is it?” my father whispered, his two dozen men spreading out behind him.
I didn’t respond. I just pulled back, emptied a whole clip on the tree’s bark, and then fell to my knees, panting. “That should bring them out.”
He placed a stone-hard hand on my shoulder and squeezed. “I didn’t think you had it in you, son. But you do realise that we are not ready for this kind of exposure in the southeast?”
“We go in, burn a few huts, gunfire in the air, and get out. No harm done.”
“The girl,” I blurted. “I kill the girl and her jujuist.”
“Just the girl and her jujuist–”
“There!” One of the men pointed at the Savanna forest we had just finished scouring.
There was a black, bare-chested man standing by the margin of the woods and, as soon as he saw that we had noticed him, he sauntered into the forest. For about thirty minutes, we tailed him, and he led us to a village of mud huts at whose centre stood a gathering of those savages.
“Primitive indeed.” My father grinned. “This should be easy.”
The short-fingered girl stepped out in the front of the crowd and extended a beckoning hand towards me. “Bia, Biko. Come.”
This made me flinch and my heart thump, but as soon as I regained my nerve, I pointed my gun at her and pressed the trigger, shouting, “Bloody witch!”
Nothing happened. No gunshot.
My father groaned, snatching the pistol from me. “Idiot. Give me that.” Releasing the magazine and pushing in another one, he shot at the sky whose western horizon was painted a deep orange by the setting sun. The villagers didn’t stir, despite the gunshot. They just stood there staring blankly at us.
This made my imminent revenge seem dissatisfying. I mean, I needed them to be frightened out of their skin. I needed them to crawl on the ground before me. Nevertheless, I grabbed the pistol from my father, took a step towards the villagers and fired a bullet at the girl. Someone fell behind me. Imagine my horror when I turned around and found my father moaning on the ground and pressing his left hand against a bloody right shoulder.
“Idiot!” he growled.
I returned my dazed face to the girl. I didn’t understand. How was she still standing? How was she unhurt?
“Idiots!” my father barked at his men. “Fire at them!”
Gunfire assailed the air. I was about to join in the shooting when I discovered that the massacre was happening behind me, and I could only scream, “Stop! Stop!” as my father’s men continued to fall on their own bullets. The villagers simply watched, some curious, some others apathetic.
The gunfire died, the remaining men staring at their fallen comrades, over a half of our force, in horror. Some of them even let fall their guns.
“What is this!” My father must have managed to stand up as his voice was so close to my ear that I could feel his hot breath on my nape.
I shivered, not turning around. The rage on his scarred beige face was the last thing I wanted to see at the moment. “I told you. Nothing here is natural.”
“We could try the C4,” one of his men suggested. “Plant them and then detonate them from a safe distance.”
I started and then quickly voiced my dissent. With the way the shooting had gone, why would anyone want to find out what would happen if we detonated the C4?
My father shook his head. “This is useless. Plant them anyway, one on every hut. They will come in handy when we figure this mess out.”
The men scattered, some moving from hut to hut and doing as their leader had commanded, the others gathering the wounded and the dead. The villagers didn’t seem bothered. I shook my head. They really believed nothing could harm them.
After planting the C4, we retreated and made a camp in the forest behind to strategize and figure out the savages’ secret. And while a thug suggested that pouring some grains of sand into the muzzle before shooting usually neutralised the juju of one’s target, I pulled out to a lonely corner of the forest to get some air.
I sat on a surface root, brought out the box in my pocket and tossed it to the ground. The case burst open and the ring inside wheeled to my feet. I prodded it with my gun. Those savages… I sniffled, a bead of tear tickling my cheek. They took everything from me.
“I fit have it?” a voice said and I jerked to my feet, wiping my tear with my palm. The short-fingered girl stood a few steps away. How had she sneaked up on me?
She indicated the ring on the forest floor, saying, “It fine.”
Without a word, and with clenched teeth, I picked up the ring and threw it as far away as my muscles could manage.
With a deep frown, she stopped short of dashing after it, probably because the sun had just disappeared and the forest was now devoid of enough light that would have helped her find the ring. “Why you do that?”
“You killed her!” I could rip her apart right there. But I stayed my balled fist, as I couldn’t risk ripping myself apart instead.
“No be me kill her. You disobey.”
“Disobeyed? I have rights for God’s sake. You ruined my life! And I will not rest until I–”
“You no fit kill us. Why you no want obey the gods?”
“And marry you? Ha!”
She winced. “I no want this life neither. The way I see you, you be arrogant. You no be the kind man I want marry. But the gods… We go obey them o.”
“Not the kind of man you would want to marry?” I said and was contented to discern her jaw tighten in the deepening gloom. Then I leaned closer to her. “Mark my word, witch. I will kill you. For all the things you and your people have…”
Something caught my attention and I jerked backward. Her black eyes were changing. Her irises were turning white. I could see this, despite the gloom, because a faint glow accompanied the transformation, leaving her eyes looking like two tiny full moons hovering over a black world.
I cowered further away from her, more from shock than from fear, my heart juddering as if trying to break out of my chest and abandon me there with her. Yes, I couldn’t contain my shock, for I had seen another set of eyes go that pale before–my late mother’s eyes.
“We be blind for night,” the girl said. “Abeg, help us. Abeg.”
“Don’t worry. I will put you all off your misery.” Those words came out tentative, as I couldn’t extricate my mind from the thoughts of my mother being linked to this village.
“I tell you. You no fit harm us,” she said. “Nobody that come from outside fit harm us.”
“But I am one of you. Your jujuist said so.”
“It only for your mother’s side you take be one of us. It only when we marry you go be one of us.”
“Is that a fact?” I got a hint. “When we marry, eh?”
I had been thinking about my mother and her nightly blindness. Her hailing from the village changed everything–or rather, it ruined everything. I had asked my father about her origin when I informed him of my discovery that marrying the short-fingered girl was the key to neutralising the village’s magic, but he would neither comment on it nor look me in the eye.
As the villagers and I processed into their shrine for the marriage ceremony the next evening, I carried only a half of me along. The other half just wanted to go home and mourn my girlfriend. It didn’t want to murder these people, especially with the possibility that they were my blood. It doubted that killing them would heal my grief.
Still, once inside the shrine, I propped my backpack against the orange tree at its centre. I couldn’t let the place–with its walls of palm fronds and bamboos, its ungodly statues and altar, and the dead goat dripping blood all over the black floor–not have its own share of C4.
When I rose, the wedding began.
It wasn’t the normal ‘I do’ stuff you see in modern society. Fortunately, it didn’t involve kissing the bride–if not, I would have betrayed the charade already–and I was the first to sip from the calabash of honey which replaced the kiss in their culture. As for what replaced the ring, the jujuist had us puncture our thumbs with a thorn from the orange tree and touch our blood together.
Immediately, I felt something. Whole. Yet a part of something larger. I can’t explain it, but I could hear something thumping, like water droplets on a drum, inside me. I could also hear it thumping inside my… my wife and the other villagers. They were afraid. And somehow it seemed that fear was mine too.
They began to sing and dance, despite our fear, some drumming their udu, some others striking their ogene. An old woman shook her shrieking ichaka, and the jujuist began to blow his oja.
“Oya, come.” Adaora, my wife–her name was Adaora–grabbed my hand. “Make we dance.”
I smiled and moved gently with her. She seemed happy and danced innocently. In fact, she leapt around like a child. Like me, she was just a victim. And as we pranced around like monkeys, I wanted to understand why I suddenly felt the way I did, but that thought seemed shrouded by something powerful. A bond. Blood. Magic.
Soon, the sun set and the torches were lit and the frenzy began. If our dancing had been monkeyish before, now it was baboonish. As darkness covered the sky, the villagers began regarding and touching one another’s faces. That was when I realised that it was night and they could still see.
I had liberated them. I was happy. Very happy.
I glanced behind me to find my father standing by the bamboo door with a deep grimace. He looked different. No, he seemed intrusive to me. He stomped forward, four of his men following behind him.
“What are you doing?” he growled.
“Dancing,” I replied, but as I felt his hot breath on my face, I pulled away from the music and the villagers who thus stopped dancing and began watching us. “This is wrong.”
“We had a deal.”
I glanced at my wife. The thumping emanating from her was accelerating. “Why do you want this so much?” I asked my father. “Last I checked you sect didn’t need this kind of exposure in the southeast.”
“My sect? We had an understanding.”
“You haven’t helped me kill anybody, have you? You and your men can all walk away from this. They haven’t done anything to you.”
He cursed. “Why do you suddenly feel this way? Have you asked yourself that question? They did something to you. They ruined your life.”
“Mine! My life.” I jabbed a finger into the night. “Now go. You don’t belong here.”
“No. I lost over a half of my men to those barbarians. How do you suppose I explain that to the group? As of right now, this has become an official operation.” He shoved a detonator towards me. “Now take it!”
I shook myself. “I won’t do it.”
He exchanged looks with his men and they grabbed me and dragged me outside, about forty metres away from the shrine.
I couldn’t help it; I just laughed loudly. “I’m not going to do it. And I will very much like to see what happens when you press that button yourself!”
“You are one of them now, right?” he asked.
I hesitated, but then nodded.
So they gripped my hand and he pushed my thumb down on the red button on the detonator. Explosions boomed around us.
I felt empty. Disconnected. Like a phone without a network. And the knotted rope hanging from my ceiling fan, the empty bottle of hydrocyanic acid on the redwood table, the kitchen knife still stuck in my stomach, and the patches of blood on my Persian rug didn’t only testify to that, but also suggested that I was beyond absolution.
Death wouldn’t have me. Neither would the law. We shall see about that.
I tossed a third gallon–the last gallon–to the floor after splashing its petrol in my parlour. With my thumb, I rolled the wheel of my lighter. Fire exploded from my hand and engulfed me. And I sat on my couch and watched my house turn into a close depiction of hell.
Yes, I had seen hell before, right after my father forced my thumb down on that detonator. I had watched the villagers get thrown into the air along with mud rubble. I had watched them all die. And I couldn’t do anything about it, except let my father’s men shoulder me away from the scene.
Well, I had gone to the police as soon as we returned to Enugu. But after their investigation, they had claimed they found no trace of a village ever existing there. I figured it was either the place had disappeared or my father had his Boko Haram claws deep in the force.
I stood and ambled outside, through the fire roaring in my house, my clothes falling off my body in flaming scraps, my flesh yielding to neither pain nor decay. The neighbours were gathering, each person carrying a bucket filled with water mixed with detergent. And right in their midst was my father, his bearded face overcome with shock as he scuttled forward.
He halted a safe distance from me and the burning house. “What did you do?”
“You did this,” I cried, touching my smoking body. “You did this to me!”
“No. Can’t you see, son? It’s a gift,” he said. “This is perfect for our schemes. With you, we’d no longer have the need for suicide bombers. Your ability will even inspire more followers. ”
His words made my stomach turn and tighten up with repulsion and anger, and I fought the urge to grab him and pull him into the burning house, mostly because the neighbours had all lowered their buckets and now stared at us. They seemed too captivated by my unburnt body to do anything about the fire.
“The police may not be interested in my story,” I said, “but the press will.”
“About a village that doesn’t exist?”
“About Boko Haram and their plans in the southeast. About you.”
He stifled a wince with a chuckle. “You have no evidence.”
“Son Exposes Father as the Southeast Leader of Boko Haram. How is that for a headline?”
His expression darkened. “You dare not.”
He pulled out a pistol and pointed it at me, inciting numerous sounds of shock from the crowd.
“Go ahead,” I said as everyone began to run out of the compound. “You know what will happen if you pull that trigger.”
“You are not one of them,” he said, but the sweat sluicing down his face betrayed his conviction.
“Come on. Let’s put it to the test.”
Cursing, he withdrew the gun, and for a moment I glimpsed a medley of disappointment and terror hovering on his face.
“And you were right,” I said as he made to depart. “This is a gift. And with it I will hunt every one of you down even if it means venturing into the north. I promise you.”
Walter Dinjos is Nigerian, a Writers of the Future winner, and a runner-up in the Writers Bureau Writer of the Year 2017 Award. His stories have appeared, or are upcoming, in Writers of the Future Volume #33, Galaxy’s Edge, BSC, Deep Magic, Lamplight, and elsewhere. His poems have appeared in three The Literary Hatchet issues, and he hopes to portray the peculiar beauty of Nigerian cultures through his writing. When he is not writing, he travels across Nigeria, visiting the country’s many historic sites and communities to experience their diverse cultures and traditions first-hand, and when he writes, this rich cultural heritage becomes the heart of his prose. www.dinjos.com