A Murmuration of Fallen Angels 

Rigwell Addison Asiedu

The white walls gleam under the fluorescent lights like pale wraiths smiling at me with bloodlust. I want to flee, but I am in a therapy room, my heart still racing, my mind still reeling from the events of yesterday. This is an emergency session; the clinical psychologist walks in with two other men. Their names are a blur that I remember and then don’t remember. My mind is a flickering light capturing events, like lightning taking snapshots of events. I flinch when the psychologist touches my wrist to check my pulse.

“Too high,” he tells the other men. There is a fullness in my head, like I’ve been forced into a basin of water. A painful memory unlocks somewhere in the recesses of my mind, of hands pushing my head into water. A crack of headache makes me wince. I want to run; all the cells of my body are fluttering in flight mode, like a flock of birds fleeing a wildfire. It’s hard to feel safe after what happened. 18 June 2023. The date is seared into my mind like a hot iron on skin. I’m marked. I don’t want to show the psychologists the bruises I’ve covered up with my shirt. They will know the story but I have to retain a sense of dignity, that there is something they are not seeing.

I am made to lie on the hospital bed. The goal is to lower my pulse through diaphragmatic breathing and activation of my parasympathetic nervous system. 

“Take a deep breath and hold it in…. and exhale as slowly as possible. Imagine the number one as you take in a deep breath, feel the pressure in your lungs, feel the sensations on every part of your body…”

I think of the birds in my head, black wings in flight, as I try to steady my breaths. I imagine the birds as fallen angels, every version of me that’s fallen from the grace of innocence. I imagine them flying in sync, becoming a murmuration. 

When one of the psychologists tells me to imagine the number three, I wince and feel my heart squeeze in panic.
“Can we use another number?” I ask.

“Sure… why?”

“That’s the…three men who attacked me yesterday.” I sound like a child saying this, quivering like a leaf.
I think of the story of the cock and all the folktales I was told as a kid about why it couldn’t fly. I always feel sorry for cocks when I see them fluttering their wings, desperately trying to fly and flee danger, but dropping to the ground. Am I a cock?

When my pulse reduces reasonably, the breathing exercises stop but I remain on the hospital bed. I listen to the thrumming of the air conditioner, and my teeth chatter slightly. My eyes remain fixated on the white ceiling even though one of the new psychologists is talking to me.

“What happened yesterday?”

I look at him for a brief moment, a jotter in hand and a pen ready to write. The birds of my mind are still flying in a weird choreography; my traumas are a murmuration of fallen angels. 

“I don’t know where to begin…” I say. My tongue is lead in my mouth and my saliva has become an adhesive for my lips.

“You can begin anywhere.”

I fall through time and space.

*

My earliest memory is not the night my family almost died; it’s not the night fireflies disappeared from the streets and fires took over, licking up brick and wood with hungry violence until Kaduna was a microcosm of hell. It is the day the eyelashes of my consciousness opened in a bus, sleepily at first. The bus hiccupped over a road bump and its metal parts rattled. The night wind blew into the windows with the wailing pitch of banshees. The chill bit my skin in a thousand places. I heard a cry and realised it was coming from me. 

“Kadan kadan,” my mother told the driver in Hausa. I could hear people speaking different languages around me but Hausa was the dominant. The driver, wearing a skull cap that had browned with dirt, said something in argument but he slowed his speed. My mother, a splash of beauty on this drab earth, had that kind of influence. When I was younger, her booming voice always terrified me. The bus slowed but in my baby skin, I still felt it, the unease of people around me, as though we were in flight and we had to quickly get away.

This is my first memory; of unease; of discomfort; of an unnamed flight.

In November 2002, the real flight would come. I was almost two and my mother was pregnant again. Seven months into her term, her belly had bloated like a parachute. She stood in the bathroom and slathered soap all over her body when she heard the shouts. Her mind fluttered with panic; she knew that noise. It only meant the hawk of harm had descended over Sabon Gari again and it was time to run. In 1999, the Northern states had implemented the Sharia law and there had been multiple violent conflicts between the Muslims and Christians. One year after the implementation, my father was transferred to Kaduna as a district pastor of the church. It was a suicide mission; the pastor before him had almost lost his family in one of the attacks. Their neighbours, who were also ministers, were not so lucky. The man, his wife and children were carted into their car and burnt alive. This was the wilderness my father came to as a man dedicated to the spread of the gospel. 

In 2001, I slipped into the world of sky and earth (I was born in Ghana when my mother went there for maternity leave). That was the year of 9/11 and the year Agbani Darego won the Miss World title. In 2002, she was pregnant again. Terror and faith clashed in her as she lived in a land unfamiliar to her, a land that showed its hostility in crude terms.

I was barely two when it happened. After Agbani Darego’s win in 2001, there were plans to host the next Miss World pageant in Abuja. Religious leaders fought against this because of the perceived unholiness of the event. All hell broke loose when a journalist wrote an article that allegedly desecrated Mohammed and slighted Muslims. As a result, riots broke out in the streets, churches were burnt down and Christians fought back. Then, the flood of violence rushed into our street with an unforgiving speed and my family was caught in it.

My family was clearly a target; we were unabashedly Christian and Daddy was a pastor. That night, Mummy rushed into the sitting room with the soap lather drying on her body. My father already had the children ready for flight: Samuel, Emmanuel, and I.

“We have to run out, we can’t hide inside,” he said. I don’t remember if he was calm or panicked. Samuel was barely seven, Emmanuel was some months shy of five, I was still a toddler with too much hair for a boy as everyone said, and Mummy looked like a balloon about to burst. Sometimes I wonder how I would have behaved as a man if I were in my dad’s position. But we knew it was folly to lock the doors and hide inside. If you did that, the building was simply doused in fuel and set on fire. We had to run, and that’s what we did. 

The Harmattan cold was sharp like new blades; it made me wince and my teeth chattered. We could see people running like ants displaced out of their straight lines. Raw screams rent through the air and a few houses burnt with the fury of Armageddon. Who amongst us had begun to cry at this point? I can’t remember, I was so young, and my mind was recording the events like a kindergarten child who could not hold the pencil well enough to write. There are a lot of gaps in this memory, huge clumps of darkness before a burst of flame from a window on our street or a dog fleeing the street in panic. 

Our street mostly housed Southerners and Christians; it was a survival tactic because everyone said you couldn’t trust the nicest Muslim Northerner. It was a popular statement around that time, “During riots, you will be the first person your Muslim friend will kill.” We could see the Muslims rushing down the street and attacking people. Some of our neighbours had begun to gather weapons to fight back. Molotov cocktails zipped through the air like the kites we flew during the day and they crashed with clouds of fire. The bottles exploded in fire and the shards whistled past our ears, cutting fabric and skin. A neighbour rushed towards us when he saw us running.

“Pastor, take this gun and protect your family. Your children are small and your wife get belle,” he said. My father looked at the gun and looked back at our terrified faces. The stars in the sky had vanished above the thick smoke that clouded our vision now.

“God will protect us, He’s the one who sent us here,” Daddy said and refused the gun.

*

I don’t remember the details of how we survived but none of us died that night, not even when the police and soldiers ransacked the streets and killed more people. My mother gave birth to Sarah on 3 February  2003. I know there was a lot of running and then a lot of hiding. My family doesn’t talk about that night anymore; Daddy only mentions it in testimonies when he’s talking about how our family has survived the worst of the worst. I once joked that he only refused the gun because he didn’t know how to use it.

A lot of people lost their lives that night. Families were thrown into wells where they drowned, others were butchered, and some were burnt. We lived in Kaduna until 2007. My parents informally prepared us for how to escape death in times of riots. The death drills. My first best friend got caught in a crossfire during another riot and I never saw him again. I was relieved when we were leaving the state. All the preparations to run for my life, to lie down flat in case of shooting, to find a safe place to hide, to memorise my parents’ phone numbers in case we got separated, I thought I would never need them again. I was so wrong.

*

My family always joked that I would be a dwarf. My body refused to grow even though my mind was sharp – my tongue was sharper, a razor blade that could raze people’s confidence down. It was my weapon, my shield. There are a lot of factors to consider but I became a target for bullies in primary school. I was the smallest in class – also the one who came first every term and the bigger boys didn’t like me. They constantly compared me to my athletic brothers – even my younger brother, David was already a promising star on the field with his peers – but my aversion to sports made me a target for jeers of “boy girl”, “short man devil”. I began to hate my existence and I tried to avoid running into these bullies, even the ones from other classes.

I was odd in many ways: I was Ghanaian in Nigeria, I was the only boy who loved novels in the neighbourhood, it was obvious to everyone that I had directional issues with distinguishing left from right and I found it difficult to tie or loosen knots. I made the other kids feel bad because teachers compared my exemplary academic performance to theirs and the consensus was that I wasn’t manly enough. Although I had friends, I sought solitude as a kid, but the bullies would find me and I would find myself in their centre as they taunted and pushed me. I mostly struck back with my mouth but it wasn’t enough. 

Sometimes I tried to run away from them but they were always faster. They would catch up with me, push me to the ground and play catch with my bag as I begged them to give it back. At night, I always dreamt that I was running away from them. Sometimes, the bullies were faceless and I would trash and turn in my bed.

I decided to strike back. My siblings thought it was my responsibility to stand up to the bullies. Besides, we were not in the same school anymore. “Don’t be a weak Asiedu,” one of them would say. So I decided to deal with the issue how I knew best. In Ogbomoso, there was a funny superstition among kids that if your name was written in red ink and the paper was thrown in fire, you were doomed except the person who did the writing and burning reversed the curse. I thought it was bullshit but people love their superstitions so I bought a Bic red pen and wrote down the names of all the idiots who had made my life a living hell. I went to all the classes where they were and showed it to them. I grinned with mischief when panic sparked in their eyes like fireworks. They knew what I was about to do. 

This time, they ran after me pleading and the wind blew my lithe body forward. There was a space behind the school where the cleaners burnt the trash. A little tongue of flame licked a pile of rubbish that afternoon and the pole-dancing smoke curled up into the air in a thin, twirling line. The boys gathered around me and some of them knelt. They begged me in Yoruba to stop because my Ghanaian mind didn’t understand the magnitude of what I was about to do. I thought of all the moments I begged them to stop, all the days when snot mixed with saliva, and tears ran two dirty lines across my dusty face because they had pushed me to the ground. There was a triumph in my gasp when the paper flew from my hand like the planes we made. The orange flames kissed the red ink, licked the white paper to a crispy brown, then a charred black, then ashes of 50 shades. And the boys’ cries erupted into the air like lava from a dormant volcano.

*

These violent delights have violent ends,

And in their triumph, die like fire and powder,

Which as they kiss, consume.

_ Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

I had to run again. I wasn’t fast enough. I remember my head forced in a basin of water, my body struggling to breathe as bubbles broke at the top. I remember my shorts brought down with the force of multiple hands. I remember something tearing through time and space. I remember thrusts and cries muffled with hands. I remember crawling, covered in blood, semen and sweat. I don’t remember cleaning up, but I remember knowing I would never feel clean again and that I would always hate my body for not running fast enough.

*

It was the car that sped in 2011. Daddy had been transferred to Ajah District. It was only a few days after my birthday, I had gone to testify at the Orimedu Assembly. My siblings and I loved going to Orimedu and Magbon-Alade because of the sea. It fascinated us, that expanse of waters constantly singing with the rhythmic waves crashing on the beach. I had collected seashells that afternoon and they jingled in my pocket like coins. We were returning home, we had just gotten to Eleko junction when we saw chaos like a movie before us. Elections were fast approaching and thugs from the major political parties, Action Congress of Nigeria (ACN) and People’s Democratic Party (PDP), were fighting. They stopped our cars and the man outside brought out a pistol and shot in the air and then lowered it for more gunshots. 

Mummy screamed and then we, the five Asiedu children in the backseat with her, burst into a flutter of panic. “Bend down, down, down! Jesus! Jesus!” she cried and pushed us down the seats. The seashells tumbled down from my pockets as our car swerved through gunshots and cries. I could feel the breaths of my siblings on different parts of my body. Someone’s breath smelled of the kenkey and pepper we had eaten after church service. Was that foul odour David’s farts? I could smell the acrid stench of urine, too. We wrapped around ourselves like petals of the Morning Glory flower at midnight and it was a collective shivering, how our bodies shook like trees in a storm. 

In the future, my brother Emmanuel would get caught in a riot between the thugs of Ilaje and Ajah. We would also have to run out of the house when alarms of a fire rang through the street. But right now, the driver Matthias was speeding through a pandemonium where people would die. There was no way back; the chaos had disrupted the one-way road and the only way out was through the fire. My heart beat so fast that I could almost feel my ribcage hurting and a part of me was ashamed that I was enjoying the thrill of danger. 

*

My mother told me of how Daddy had to run during the riots that broke out during the MKO Abiola elections in the 1990’s. It had been only a few years since he came to Nigeria, the land of oil boom and promise. We were in the kitchen when she told me this, using the turning stick to prepare the thick banku. I was grating okras and I listened attentively. I might never be the storyteller that my parents are, it hit me that day. It was magical how she weaved history and present, fact and myth to engage me as we cooked together. My parents are great narrators who have lived through the heat and cold of life.

The fire hissed with blue fangs and Mummy complained that we were running out of gas again. She told me of how she had to survive during the Ghana-Must-Go period when Ghanaians had to leave Nigeria in thousands and many got stuck behind borders. These stories were just preambles of how she escaped death last week when she was supposed to go to Mile 12 Market. 

She had been planning to leave Ketu for the market when she heard a cry upstairs. She climbed up to see that a neighbour was in labour. 

“I called her husband and then I helped her down the stairs. The traffic jam was hellish that day. People said there had been a riot in Mile 12 market and the Christians and Muslims were fighting again. A version of the story said an Igbo man had been beheaded for stepping on a Koran. So we were stuck in heavy traffic and there was no way we could get to the hospital. If you see the way the husband was sweating. The woman gave birth in the car,” she said.

“Are you calling the baby Caroline or something?” I joked.

My mother chuckled and her eyes glazed over with a kind of terror I was familiar with. 

“If I didn’t hear that woman crying, I would have gone to the market and who knows what would have happened? That baby is a miracle. Do you know the number of people who died during the riot? Those who are still missing?”

She rubbed my shoulders and whispered, “My legs are not even good for running anymore. How would I have run? Do you know the number of times I have had to run?”

I had no idea and I would never know, perhaps. I knew we had to run one afternoon when a fight broke out at Ketu junction and weapons were drawn out. We hid in a sound-proof boutique and it was startling, how all the chaos outside didn’t filter into the rooms there. It was jarring how life was simultaneously a beautiful paradise that was too good to be true and a hell that was straight out of a horror novel. 

That day, my mother held my shoulders and told me I had to prepare myself to run when the time comes. 

“The world is not a very nice place and it can be very dangerous. You have to know when to run and run with all your might,” she told me and dragged her right ear for emphasis. “Do you understand me, Papa?”

I nodded and swallowed. I knew the perils of not running too fast. My body bore the scars like leprosy.

*

But how do you run when you know you are being stalked but you don’t know who is stalking you and the direction they are coming from? How do you run when you are sedated with medications at night and you don’t know when the strike happens?

The day is 22 March 2023; it was my birthday five days ago. I pray that afternoon for my future; I know it’s bright. I have a brand-new laptop that I got as an award for emerging as an overall best graduating student of my university. I have plans; the future is bright, I convince myself. And so I tell myself the shadows shuffling behind me as I head home that evening could be anything, even though I have been having suspicions of being stalked. It’s been three years since I got the bipolar disorder diagnosis and it’s been a wild journey, but I can see the clearing at the edge of the woods now. I’m doing well in therapy. There are no wolves to run from anymore.

That evening, I take my meds and sleep. They are a sedative and although I was a light sleeper before the diagnosis in 2020, I sleep like a dead man now. It’s difficult for my roommates to wake me. I hear muffled voices and a sharp headache cracks through my head from waking up too early. My eyes are groggy with the effect of the meds. 

“Where is your new laptop?”

The question throws off all blankets of drowsiness. I spring up and look around. My new laptop is gone; my meds and the prescription for refill are gone; my backpack is nowhere to be found and so is my wallet containing all my cards: ECOWAS ID Card, NHIS Card, COVID-19 Vaccination Card, School ID Cards, my ATM cards. I rush out of the house, trying to catch a trail of whoever broke into our home and stole my valuables. I feel my head spinning, the way it did all the years I ran from different threats. 

My heart somersaults when I return to our compound. My journals have been placed just outside the window and when I crouch down to pick them, I can see exactly where I slept, splayed like a dead man under the influence of strong medications. There is a cryptic message in one of the journals and I know it means someone is watching me; someone has a vested interest in me.

*

I think of loss as the coarse metal sponge my sister liked using to wash pots, it made a scratching sound that my father hated and he would complain that she was destroying the utensils, that she was scrubbing the pots away. That was what loss was doing to me, scrubbing me away with that scratching sound, like long fingers scraping wood and glass. 

That was what it did those months when I found out my brother Samuel had cancer, and his body stank so much I had to run out of the house for fresh air. That was what it did when he finally died five days before his 21st birthday when I doubled over the sink with relief and shame and a dark feeling of swirling abyss that swallowed all the light of my life. That was what it did when I had to leave Nigeria in 2018 and continue with my tertiary education in Ghana where I felt terribly lost and finally home like two parallel truths living in the same body.

I stood in Sowutuom police station and wrote a statement a few hours after I woke up and found out my valuable belongings were gone. It felt surreal, standing in a police station, trying to appear emotionally strong even though my legs were weak. I kept wondering if I would have caught the thieves if I had run faster. The police officers complained about their double and triple shifts and everything about their response felt detached. All my money was gone but they still expected me to pay them for the police report – I needed it to replace my cards – and I had to pay for the transportation of the investigator to my place. It was an exercise in futility; it didn’t yield any fruits. There was no sign of a break-in and the theft was likely done by one of the people we lived with, the investigator said and complained about making her walk under the hot sun. An officer called me aside and pointed out the multiple cases of theft that had been reported that morning.

“Sowutuom is not safe,” he said. As though I hadn’t lived four years on campus here and known this as much as the gospel. As though I needed anyone to tell me. “Leave here, chale. Leave as soon as possible. If you have to run, run quickly. It’s not safe.”

My body reverted to its flight or fight mode. I could barely sleep anymore. I kept a knife beside me and my ears moved at the sound of anything strange. I felt like my mother after the Miss World riots, how she became overprotective of us, afraid that we would have to run again. Then, I understood why my father always walked around with a torchlight when we were asleep – or pretending to be asleep – to make sure we were safe. My parents were still in Nigeria and I knew they were worried about this development. 

Waking up for work as a National Service Personnel became a chore, but I did it nevertheless. An Asiedu doesn’t give up. Even when the odds were not in Samuel’s favour, he fought cancer with everything he had. When the tumour in his neck burst open and he bled out one night, he clung on to whatever strength he had. We ran around that night like a murmuration of fallen angels, trying to stop the bleeding and get him to the hospital. The lights began to flicker with the groans of the generator and then it went off that moment and we screamed orders at each other until torchlights snapped on and a flame flickered in a lantern. Samuel didn’t die that night. He lived on for a few weeks. And so I would press on, one day at a time. I chalked all the instances of being stalked to the shock and paranoia from the tragedy; that was what some of my loved ones suggested anyway. 

*

I should have run when the first incident happened. I wanted to stay around in case something came up with the police. I didn’t want to run in panic. The investigator had said we were all suspects in the case, since another guy visited us that night and his belongings were also stolen. Besides, I had nowhere to go that was close to my workplace at Caprice. Sowutuom was reasonably – and financially – close. Our landlady had even given us a quit notice and I was at the risk of being homeless. Too many things were happening at the same time. My mental health began to suffer from the intense stress. I had also begun skipping my evening dosage because I was scared of sleeping too deeply at night. Even our landlady’s reversal of the quit notice did nothing to calm me down. I was in constant flight or fight mode like a bird circling the sky, searching for predators and prey at the same time. 

And then it happened. This time I was attacked when I was awake. Mugged. The word makes me think of a mug, which is sad because I love mugs. I don’t like being mugged, being outnumbered by men on a Sunday evening on a quiet street. Three men stood around me, the trinity of evil, and the fourth horseman of the apocalypse stood with them, invisible as a threat to my life. When weapons are brought out to kill you, you could react in any way and it would be totally valid. Well, some reactions would result in your death so you have to think about your values and the options you have. 

I remember their faces; I think of the details of their faces every night and day, I don’t want to forget, even though the psychologists tried to assuage my fears of being attacked again. How do I even forget the first punch to my face? How they held me and forced me to give the PIN to my mobile money wallet and bank accounts, how they transferred all the money to their accounts and even took a loan, how they stole the phone with me even though I begged them it wasn’t mine, how they left me beaten and broken, do you ever forget how you almost died on a June Sunday, two days to your late brother’s birthday? Do you ever forget how your body broke into a flurry of vultures circling in the sky like a murmuration of fallen angels? 

*

My roommates didn’t understand why I was leaving that Sunday afternoon, why I was running. I was leaving Sowutuom for Dodowa.

“Dodowa is on the outskirts of Accra. Is it even in the Greater Accra Region? How will you come all the way from Dodowa to Caprice to work every weekday?”

“I will figure something out.” 

I wasn’t safe in Sowutuom. I almost died the last time – I saw eyes ready to kill me. That kind of experience changes you for life. I couldn’t keep praying that I wouldn’t be prey for the evils of this world. This wasn’t time to read Psalm 91. My former coursemate, a good friend of mine, lived in Dodowa and welcomed me there. Dodowa felt safe and the hills calmed me. I imagined they were guardian angels keeping watch over me or the forts of a castle keeping me in for protection. I had to wake up before dawn to catch a bus to Circle – Circle-bound buses were rare at that time and sometimes I had to make do with a bus bound for Accra and alight at 37 before continuing my journey to Circle. When I left the office at 5.30pm, I got home at 9pm tired with a backache from sitting too long on the bus.

My friends joked that I was going through too much for a 22-year-old National Service Personnel. I shrugged and said it was just life. My parents were wrong when they said life would be better here because Ghana was relatively safer than Nigeria. I had convinced myself that life would be better after school and I would finally stop running. Many of my dreams had me running; I didn’t know if I was running away from something or running towards something. My life had been marked by migration; from Kaduna to Ogbomoso to Lakowe to Ketu to Adiyan in Ogun State to Ibadan and then Ghana from Tema to Sowutuom and then Dodowa. 

After one month in Dodowa, I moved to North Kaneshie. My parents had been concerned that I wasn’t getting enough sleep with my journeys from Dodowa to and fro Caprice. Calls were made behind doors and I found myself moving to live with a stranger, close to work. Life in Accra was strange in that way. That evening, my benefactor pressed the switch twice and the white light switched to a blue light. The blue rays hit my eyes; with the vision of my weak eyes, the bulb looked like a blue sun in the ceiling. I wore my glasses and watched the light wash over the room like moonlight. What were Offred’s last lines in The Handmaid’s Tale? Whether this is my end or a new beginning I have no way of knowing: I have given myself over into the hands of strangers, because it can’t be helped. And so I step up, into the darkness within; or else the light.

Everything keeps changing, again and again, but the threat of insecurity lingers. The world is an unsafe place, especially for someone like me, marked for flight. Now I understand my parents’ term of sleeping with one eye open. Perhaps I will finally be safe one day. Perhaps, I would have to run again. I’m a bird in flight, but for now, I perch and rest my wings.

Rigwell Addison Asiedu is Ghanaian. He was raised in Nigeria before moving to Ghana for his tertiary education. He holds a Bachelor of Arts in Communication Studies from Pentecost University, Accra. In 2019, he won the Dei Awuku Writer’s Contest. He was longlisted for the African Writers Awards (poetry category) in 2022. He also won the Pentecost University SRC “Writer of the Year” award in the same year.

 

*Image by James Handley on Unsplash

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