Descending the stairs was a man filled with life and love and perhaps something more. Halfway down, he smiled at himself and to everything he’d been able to accomplish so far. For the first time in this man’s life, his father had proclaimed his pride for him. All along, the old man had been far too demanding, wishing the best son had lived. Finally being able to hear his father tell him how proud he was felt better than heaven.
He strode into the kitchen and took the time to stare at the sky filled with beautiful shiny stars. There were so many of them but he chose to count.
One. Two. Three. Four. No!. He started again and when he failed again, he started to laugh.
‘Its a beautiful night isn’t it Tom? ‘
Tom turned around so quickly he thought he’d fallen. He was pretty sure there had been no-one in the house but him…until now. In the dim light, he saw the silhouette of a man leaning on a wall in the kitchen.
‘Who are you?’ Tom chose to ask. He was scared but he’d learnt first hand the riskiness of admitting you’re scared. It’d also been the first rule his boss had given him when he’d finally jumped from being a rookie reporter to a full-fledged journalist.
Twenty years ago seems so close, Tom mused.
A low chuckle rose through the darkness and fear, hot and demanding, scalded him. He flinched unexpectedly and wondered if he’d let his guard down by being overly emotional. It had always been the same feelings; the same discarded strings he’d pulled to avoid situations such as being afraid in front of a predator. Although now he suddenly realized there was really no need for it since now he was scared.
‘Just here to give you a message’ the man spoke soft but his bass tone was challenging even to the defiant Tom. He continued, mockingly, ‘Your daughter has a bright future…you won’t see the future’.
‘ What do you mean? Who are you? What do you want?’ Tom was already showing fear, he knew and the man standing before him knew that too. It brought a grim smile to a face barely visible in the darkened kitchen. The only light in the room was the light from the moon. The man said nothing. The only sound was from the other compound, his neighbor beating his wife.
‘That is the message as I was given. You won’t see the future’
At this, the uninvited man walked out of the house. Tom wanted to cry, the feeling overwhelming him until he could barely breathe. He’d written about the government’s failings and one thing was sure for him as he stared at the stars: the government was after him and his family.
There appeared before him just one solution. He had to take his family away to safety. His phone rang then and with shaky hands, he took his call.
For the first time in a long while, she began to laugh. Though her voice sounded hoarse from the crying previously, she cared less. She dared to look down at the body on the floor by her feet. She thought to do this would somehow make it blur into oblivion like it never existed but the more she looked, her legs felt weak. Her baby stared back at her with her mouth opened in a half O. There was pain in the eyes of the child seeing nothing but death, the tears glistening from them told her as much.
She suddenly stopped laughing because it was not funny. She had pushed at the men, attacked them, promised her daughter safety and she’d failed. She’d watched as the men wrung her daughter like a piece of rag. She’d begged, yes, cried at their feet and they’d called her pathetic. They had come for her husband but he’d been away. They couldn’t wait. All they needed was baits, lots of it, to bring the journalist out. And slowly the killing had started. She was next, they’d said and yet it meant nothing. Her baby was dead.
She sat by her pretty daughter and touched her cheeks. It felt eerily cold and disturbing. But then again, her daughter had been dead for five minutes now. She brushed shaky hands through braids she’d plaited for her baby an hour ago. She’d looked beautiful. Baby’s screams had shaken her, still did. Two men had pulled her thighs apart and one had slipped his large hands inside her. She’d stayed like that, half moans escaping her tired lips. Because she’d hoped to deceive them into forgetting about her baby. They were smart. They knew the bait well enough and one had pulled the trigger. She’d stared numbly at her daughter’s small frame falling to the floor by her feet and the men had laughed like it deserved to be funny for all their sakes. One had called her a slut and somehow she felt that way.
She’d failed woefully.
When the men came, she’d given her baby the phone to call daddy or the police or anyone worth calling and then she’d locked her baby in her closet. Her daughter only got to call her father before the men caught her and dragged her to see her mom one last time. She’d seen the fear in her baby’s eyes and she’d promised safety. How could she have failed?. Now she did not feel as a mother should. All mothers protected their children no matter what. But she’d not done enough. Somehow she knew wholeheartedly that she’d have been able to save her child had she not allowed fear rule her.
She slowly stood up and moved away from her daughter. To her, it was beyond clear that she was not deserving of the role of motherhood. She strode to the kitchen and poured for herself a glass of cold water. She drank little from it, then absentmindedly turned the rest over her head, noting that she had a throbbing headache. Not the everyday type, she was quite sure. She did not go to the room where her daughter lay, dead. She did not need to see her failure and yet she was constantly drawn to the room; a room where her daughter still lay oblivious to the life and dreams that had been carved out for her years before she’d started to crawl; a room where her daughter’s small screams still pierced through her very soul, the sound still echoing in her head, her heart and every corner of the house.
Somehow she very well knew the reason why the men had come to her. Her husband had been constantly revolting against the present government. A year ago, he’d found out some really bad things against the government and had threatened to tell the world. He had been given money to stay quiet, a few millions just to kill the story. But Tom had been too observant, too engrossed in the fight against corruption that he’d refused the money and gone ahead to write against them. His punishment had been quite severe, a few beatings so that he was hospitalized for a month.
That had been a warning, they’d said.
But once Tom left the hospital, he’d pretty much decided not to cower before any master or flinch at any threat. The rules of the game: Stay and fight. Recently, he’d found out about something more threatening than the first. Tom called it ‘The Scoop Of A Lifetime’. When he’d told her of what he found, she’d woken him up from sleep in the middle of the night with four words tied to her lips ‘ Tom, do not write ‘
But he’d written. Tom had written and betrayed their right to live, their right to a happy family. Everyone wanted a family right? But deep down, she knew she would never be able to forgive Tom or herself or life or death.
* * * * * *
Tom rode home blindly, hoping against hope that the fear he’d heard in his daughter’s scream was just an illusion. But even thinking about it as simply an illusion felt wrong, felt eerily like a sordid betrayal. His six-year-old baby was never scared and yet last night, he’d heard her scream his name in a sure panic. What had happened to his wife, he did not know but he was scared and rightly so since he’d been trying to call her all morning but kept coming up with nothing. He drove through roadblocks and hungry policemen who flagged him down, asking for money to buy beer. It was bribery and on other occasions, he’d have become angry and talked to them. But today was not like every other day. He pulled out rolls of Naira, barely counting them but knowing it was probably too much when the policemen looked at him wide-eyed for a second before letting him go through all the while hailing him with voices improved by the thoughts of a chilled bottle of beer.
He told himself he would not cry but he felt his cheeks go wet. He told himself he wasn’t crying and yet he could not hold himself up. When he got home, he ran into the house calling his wife and daughter. He ran up the stairs into the room he shared with his wife but stopped dead in his tracks with the image he saw before him. On the bed where he’d spent happy years with his wife, lay a child so pale he could barely recognize her. His wife sat on a chair by the bed reading from their child’s favorite storybook. She was laughing as she read on, barely noticing him. He walked fully into the room and peered into the baby’s white face. He noticed something much too quickly that it took the life out of him… momentarily. It was something so clear he’d need no seer to tell him: all the life was drained from baby’s face.
‘Oh Edith, ‘ Tom’s voice shook as he called his daughter’s name. She did not answer. She did not get up to tell him welcome. She did not get up to hug him and kiss him and love him.
She did not lean on him. And it tore him deeply.
Aisha looked at him then and Tom could barely recognize the woman he’d spent fifteen years with. It had taken them years of patient waiting to have a daughter after Aisha fallen off the staircase and lost their first pregnancy. And now they’d lost their child. Again.
He started to cry as he said, ‘Yes…yes. It’s I, Tom. ‘
‘I am reading her the princess party. It’s her favorite, Tom, Ah! You know that already. She loves it so much, don’t you see she’s smiling?’ Aisha laughed again and then continued to read on. He looked at Edith but she was not smiling. She was as lifeless as death, her face pale from sleeping with no blood. Her shirt was stained with blood, old and sticky. Her eyes were still opened, dutifully looking up at the ceiling and rolling fan. And then he realized his wife had refused to close his daughter’s eyes to avoid reality crashing in. It appeared Aisha did not want to accept her daughter’s sudden death.
‘ She’s dead Aisha. Our baby is dead’.
At this Aisha stopped reading and looked up at him. She said nothing to him, instead she stood up with her book and placed it on a table by the bed. With her back turned against him, she began to sob. In between sobs she said ‘My baby isn’t dead Tom. Don’t you see she’s awake? ‘ But Edith had been dead for hours now, she knew and yet she did not want to acknowledge it. Losing a child killed her completely. It certainly was the worst pain on earth; and death taking her child was the worst kind of treachery.
Tom stepped forward and took her in his arms because it felt wrong not to. He was sorry, really sorry but he wondered if she’d want to hear him tell her that. It was his fault, all his, because he’d always been too obsessed with putting out corruption in his own little way. Now he wondered if he’d been right all along. Had he forgotten the more important things just for his profession?.
Aisha tore away from him like he was some monster and not the man she’d spent fifteen years of her life with. He felt the urge to cry and stop bottling up his emotions. But he also knew he had to be strong for his family.
‘Aisha please… we’re in this together right? ‘
She asked him, ‘Together? Tom? I begged you not to write. I begged you, Tom and yet you wrote. You destroyed our baby, this family, me, and now you want me to do what?’
‘I… I’m…I’ But Tom did not know what to say. It was true he’d written but he’d done it for the fight against corruption. How could everything feel so wrong?
‘Edith was so beautiful, ‘ She said and turned to her beautiful baby.
Did Tom feel sorry for causing his wife pain? Did he feel guilty for his daughter’s death? Yes. But he would never sit and watch?
He said,’ We’ll go see my editor tomorrow morning and… ‘
She interrupted him with a wave of anger he’d never seen in his wife.
‘Oh, and go do what? Do you have another story about the government? What are you going to call it this time? The blood bath? Taking sides with the devil?. I got a good name for you Tom… Cliché. How does that sound?’
‘Aisha we’ll get through this together’ Tom had started to cry and it would not stop. He missed his family.
Aisha screamed, ‘You do know you’re not the only journalist the country has. There have been many before you and many more will come after you. You wrote knowing the consequences. You remember Mr Edwards? He wrote about an impending teachers strike a few days before the election. Do you remember what they did to him? They shaved his head publicly and spat on him.’
‘We don’t do it for ourselves, Aisha. Journalism is…we do it for everyone. ‘
‘Where is everyone then?’
He sighed deeply, ‘Aisha I love us and my work will help us…’
‘Damn journalism! Tom, damn you! ‘
Tom did not think her total rejection would ever hurt him as much as looking into her eyes and seeing the pain. But it did and he felt like dying and never waking up. She did not let him touch her and he very soon realized why. Truth was, she detested him and his work and everything they’d ever shared and Tom realized it was worse than hell.
‘ Aisha please…forgive me. I did not think it’d come to this I swear.’
But Tom had always known this could happen. He’d known it the moment he decided to write and when his article was published. He’d known it when his father had patted his back and said he was proud. He’d known it the moment his mom laughed into his hair.
And maybe he’d always know.
‘ Our baby is dead Tom.’ She said to him and started to fall. He caught her just in time and because he could not place her on the bed where his dead daughter lay, he took her into the next room and watched as she lay, dead…Temporarily.
More than once, he caught a glimpse of his daughter’s small hands waving up at the sky and every night Tom dreaded sleep because he knew he’d always see his daughter calling out for him. He had not saved her and often times he wondered what her last thoughts had been. He wondered if she’d seen him as a failure that he was but he would never know.
More nights passed and Edith’s pretty face became distorted by sharp screams that left him screaming in bed. The nightmares would not leave and pretty soon, he stopped believing in a God who cared about him. He stopped writing too. He stopped being the Tom who had written against the government. He became Tom the ordinary man.
He took Aisha away to a friend’s apartment where he believed they would be safe in until he could find something better. His friend, Ashas, had left the country a week before and the apartment was empty. Aisha had said nothing since Edith’s death but he wished she’d tell him something so he wouldn’t feel like he was walking an empty road.
She was preparing breakfast one cold morning when he decided it was time she talked to him. He said ‘ You have not said anything since…talk to me Aisha, please.’
She turned the pottage and started to arrange the table. She placed two cups on the table beside two spoons. She served the food in two deep bowls and sat down to eat. He got the cue as he took his seat and stared at the food in front of him. It smelt delicious.
‘ It looks and smells amazing,’ Tom said.
She did not acknowledge him or his compliment. She continued to eat and he watched her. Later he said again,
‘Talk to me Aisha’
‘What do you want to talk about Tom? ‘
She was exasperated and Tom was sad. They both had mixed emotions. Tom said, ‘About this family’
‘What family? You mean the one you destroyed?’
‘ I messed up okay? I want to clear this mess up but I can’t do it without you.’
She said, ‘If you had simply listened to me, you wouldn’t even be in this mess’. Silence. Then she continued ‘We cannot hide forever. Let’s come out…surrender.’
‘What do you mean to surrender? We should just forget about everything and give up and let our daughter’s death be for nothing?’
‘What do you want us to do then? Hideout here forever?’
‘No, I’m going to work out something.’
‘Why don’t I feel ecstatic, I wonder. Perhaps it’s because the last time you figured something out, we lost our daughter and family’. Sarcasm dripped from her tone and Tom flinched unexpectedly because she was right and the truth hurt.
‘We’ll survive’. He said to her and to the part of him that still disagreed with her. Then they ate the pottage that had grown eerily cold.
* * *
Tom walked into his Editor’s office with a renewed hope despite the fact that he now constantly looked over his shoulders. He did not know what had to be done but he knew something had to be done. He’d sat on a chair for minutes that seemed like forever just watching Sanusi scribbling words on off-cuts and looking pissed.
Then Sanusi looked up at him like he’d only just noticed him for the first time. ‘Work, ‘ He chuckled and then looked at the copy of The Post Watch on his table. Later he continued, ‘Journalism needs men like you otherwise we are just one common profession like the dentists…come on, who needs those people? I can do the work alright.’
On other days he’d need to say something on that cause, comment and argue but today the need was gone, replaced by a fear so strong it left him half paralyzed. ‘ The government is after my life. They killed my daughter’.
Sanusi said, ‘Oh I heard about that. I’m sorry for your loss.’
It felt bad enough to know that his editor had known of the situation and had not called him once but Tom let it go because it was wrong to forget the more important things. ‘I don’t know what to do.’
‘I wish I could help you, I really do but everything is at stake here. There are only two options here. You either surrender or go into hiding.’
‘I wrote an article about the government’s failings, they killed my daughter and all you got to say is this?’
‘Look I’m sorry Tom, you know I am, but that’s the way things go around here. I promise you that I will do anything for you and your family.’ But Tom knew quite plainly he was all alone. The editor was too crafty to mix words. He had nothing to help with.
As Tom walked out of the office, he began to think about the article, the first lines triggering a big fat tear from his tired eyes. Tom did not need to think far to know that he was all alone. He had written something and he would pay for it with blood.
THE RULER’S MASSACRE
Today history repeats itself in the flow of blood and blue as in the case of Hitler. But to be sure of the conservative rulers, a piece of horrifying news is brought before the masses.
Hitler and the colonial masters have risen again to spite us and spit at our independence. Only this time, the Hitler's have a skin peculiar to ours. They share an origin we all share. They have our colors.
Had it been too much, his quest for finding the truth? Perhaps it had led to this. There was nothing more disheartening than knowing it had led to nothing. He had done what he’d thought was good and had failed. He started to believe what his wife had declared:
As he walked home, he recited the words until he meant them. At his door, he took a deep breath because he suddenly understood that his once perfect life made no sense. He had nothing of what he’d had before and he called it cliché.
Aisha was cooking when he came in. She did not need to ask him how his meeting had gone, she knew. ‘They abandoned you. But you have me and we have us. We’ll fight until our breath stops and we may not win. Truth is, we won’t win…’ she laughed nervously then continued, ‘but we fought and that is better than giving up.’
Tom hugged her tight, refusing to let go. In her arms he cried for the child he could not protect and the life he was running from. He did not recognize himself or the life he now lived but her hope was refreshing.
‘Hope is a strong rope. Let us not fall.’ That was all Tom could say for that was what his dry throat could permit of him. He did not let her go nor let her hope waver but he had cracked open at the editor’s office. Tom was a man of action and fewer words but he wished now that he’d kept the truth to himself.
She left him afterward to continue cooking and he strolled into their room. Beneath the bed was a box of a colour known as aquamarine. He pulled it open to reveal the things he’d kept in it: a red ribbon, a card he’d gotten from his daughter two days before her death, a wand from his daughter’s collection and an old copy of The Post Watch where his last article still stood out, in it was the failure of the government crested like a sacred engraving. He pulled it open to read and told himself not to cry or regret it.
THE RULER’S MASSACRE
...the Hitler within us has infiltrated our defenses and has sucked us dry. Our independence is at stake as well as our dignity. Our government is the new Hitler and it has embarked on an oath to destroy the future of our country.
Reports reaching The Daily Post from a respectable and authentic source is that the government has entered a debt that is threatening them individually. This is something that will drown them soon if they do not sell us and our independence. To them, we are all godforsaken citizens which is why they have ultimately decided to sell the country to our neighboring country bordering in the North. They have betrayed us as an independent state who fought to come here.
They have invariably forgotten the fight by great men in the past for our independence. They seem to have forgotten the deaths of mighty warriors whose backs were bent in the sun as an engraving for our independence. They have forgotten the blackness of our skin. They have forgotten us… ‘
Tom stopped reading because he’d failed on his promise not to cry or regret anything. He soon realized he had started to regret his every actions. His published article and the pieces of evidence had created quite a stir and so far the government had done nothing concerning selling the country. They were obviously waiting for the ruckus to die down. And they were taking clear precautions to tie up loose ends like the stupid journalist who had taken his idea of a clear state too far. He should have kept his mouth shut and watched on.
He should have.
He went back to eat and as they ate, Aisha said, ‘Your mother called. She was really worried.’
Tom did not think about her being worried. He said, ‘ We should destroy the phone. I don’t want anyone to know we are here. The government could track us down.’
Aisha started to laugh. Then she said, ‘The government will track us with what? They are broke as hell. They have nothing.’
‘Still, we should destroy the phone.’
She nodded and tossed him the phone. He started to open it when it suddenly rang. Sceptical he was at receiving the call but seeing as it was his mother, he took it.
‘How are you, Tom? ‘
Fear blinded Tom for a second. He recognized the voice. It was the voice of the person who’d told him he wouldn’t see the future of his daughter. Tom said, ‘What are you doing with her phone? ‘
The man laughed and laughed and then said ‘Your mom is really pretty now that she isn’t breathing anymore.’
‘No please…she is not dead right? ‘
The laughter stopped as the line went dead. And so did Tom’s rugged hope.
Aisha held him close to her beating chest and he sighed for two deaths had come to him and they were both on his head. And Aisha said, ‘ We’ll get through this Tom, we will.’
But Tom no longer had her kind of hope. In fact he had no hope. All he had was the pain and regrets. In that brief moment of vulnerability, he saw his daughter and heard her scream and it shattered him. He saw his mother too but she was silent, blood dripping from her forehead.
* * * * *
He broke the phone before he slept. As he brushed his teeth in the morning, Aisha ran to him with the land-line. It was ringing. Tom picked it up.
‘Do you know why we have not come for you yet Tom? ‘
It was the man again but Tom just wanted to know the reason for the call.
‘We want to isolate you by taking out everyone you care about. Your daughter was first and to God that was the sweetest death. Then we choke your mother with her own vomit, kind of a recurring story. One popular singer died like that. I have forgotten his name but that is not the reason I called. Your dad was next… ‘
Tom felt his legs go weak at the thought that his father had been killed too.
‘Oh I haven’t told you? We killed him. It was so simple really. We cut off his penis and fried it for him. He died before he could eat it. He was too weak. Too bad, for I would have loved to show you the clip. Now, here’s the spoiler…’ Hesitation met the man at the end of the line for he seemed to be contemplating giving out his spoiler. Finally, he said, ‘ Your wife is next and trust me when I tell you that hers will be gruesome. The worst of its kind.’
And the line went dead.
Tom turned to Aisha but she knew. Her face was pale and her hands shook badly. He touched her and said ‘I will protect you with my life. Take your bag, we’re leaving now.’
But Aisha was done running. She stood in front of him, unflinching even under the coldness of his stare. She said to him, ‘Go on and run but I won’t. They killed our daughter and your parents and now they are coming for me. I will not run. Let them come.’
‘Don’t be stupid please.’
‘Sometimes, to die is the fight you have fought and won.’
And Tom knew he’d always think about that for the rest of the life the government now controlled. And he stayed with her, hands intertwined and hope renewed for he knew she was right and death was a fight he’d won. Deep down though, he figured this was a statement made by someone who knew they’d die anyways but it was logical.
Death was a war to be fought and the winners were always the ones who sooner realize death was inevitable.