A Small Unit

Chimezie Chika

It was the Harmattan solstice, and the traders were organising their affairs in preparation for the year-end closing of the market when a Toyota Hilux pulled up in front of Ikeajuana’s big shop in the sprawling pharmaceuticals market near the Niger Bridgehead. Policemen jumped down from the car, carrying heavy guns, and rushed into the shop. Minutes later, they came out with Ikeajuana in cuffs. His apprentices – young wild-eyed boys with faces contorted in confusion – trailed the policemen, pleading that their oga be released, but the men in black shoved Ikeajuana into the back seat and drove away, the sickly exhaust pipe of the Toyota belching a geyser of blue-black smoke. 

No one bothered to tell Ikeajuana what his crime was. Squeezed between two policemen at the back, he was forced to listen to their heated chatter over a newspaper article about a notorious criminal who had recently been caught in Lagos after several attempts by the Nigerian police. The streets flipping past them were a blur. There was nothing to see from inside the car. Ikeajuana did not feel alarmed; what he felt, what overran his body like a victorious army, was tiredness. His legs were limp, and his eyelids threatened to shut down his vision.

There were many police officers walking about in the precinct of the old police station when they arrived. They all seemed to be in a hurry, carrying papers from offices or coming in with newly arrested suspects and driving off again. There were those standing near the fence chatting, their pistols strapped to their belts. There was shouting too from rooms deep in the belly of the main station building. A wave of these human voices struck Ikeajuana’s ears as he stepped out of the vehicle, squinting in the bright daylight. The sun dripped with untold heat, scalding his skin with what seemed to him a different kind of malevolence.  Two mute young officers led him into the main building. At the counter, they stripped him of his phone and clothes, and another officer took down his details in a logbook.

“You are Ikeajuana Basil Okoro?”

“Yes.”

“Address!” 

“Number five Emene Street, Three-Three by GRA.”

“Emene Street… Is that it?”

He nodded. 

A few more questions followed, and afterwards, those selfsame young officers led him down a dim corridor to a tiny cell at the other end of the station house. They pushed him in and fastened the padlock with a loud clang. The only piece of clothing on Ikeajuana was a pair of boxer shorts. 

He listened to the receding footfalls of the policemen. Looking around him – at the faded, graffiti-smeared walls, at the slimy pool of jaundiced liquid on the floor – it struck him that whatever the circumstances of his arrest (which he knew, by the way), his world, the whole world, was now a tiny insignificant unit of four walls upon which his life now depended.

He found a dry space and sat down. All morning, he stared, devoid of thoughts, at the tiny window near the ceiling, stripped with iron bars, through which he saw a slice of the sky. By afternoon,, when the sun had formed a searing nucleus in this slice of sky, he was still unable to form clear, coherent thoughts. He dozed a little, and when he woke towards evening, his arrest came to him in a series of fleeting pictures: his shop, where he had been instructing his apprentices on how to arrange the new consignment of drugs that came in the previous evening; the policemen that suddenly appeared saying those ghastly words, “Mr Ikeajuana Okoro, you are under arrest for the importation, distribution, and selling of fake drugs…anything you say or do here may be used against you in the court of law,” and the way they pushed and dragged him through the short distance between his shop and their truck before the glaring eyes of other shop owners! He coughed and looked around the cell again, and it seemed to him a grimy paradise of thick furry dust, with cobwebs hanging like the trellises of bougainvillaea in the corners. And he was surprised that there seemed to be no other detainees. He thought this was rather strange. The cell itself seemed not to have seen a human presence in ages. 

Now, he put his head in his large hands and felt the prickly graze of his stubble on the smooth skin of his palms. Had they told his wife? He wondered what Choice’s reaction would be when she learnt that he’d been arrested. But, he was sure, if they had heard anything they would be at the station in no time.

He shifted unconsciously and landed in the slimy amber liquid in the corner. He got up at once, his boxers dripping, and already the first stirrings of an itch were beginning to tickle his buttocks. He rid himself of the soiled boxers, cleared a dusty space on the floor with his hands and spread it to dry. He stood naked for a long time, remembering Choice: the way she slid him into her with her hands and, he, despising the stretch marks that crisscrossed her flabby skin like waves in a dirty pond and yet wanting her, the sureness of her movements, her little miaows. Choice had always been far too sure of herself; the way she talked, walked, demanded money, made love. 

He hated that Valentino Suite too, that dusky room at the back where the overhanging smell of musk reeked of sin. Then there was that over-solicitous waiter who always knocked on the door of their room to ask if they needed anything else. Why the young man always did that, he could not for the life of him understand. And that look he always gave Ikeajuana in the lobby. He’d had a wild suspicion for a while that the boy might be his wife’s mole. It certainly looked like it was true, especially because whenever he came home around that period, it seemed to him that he could detect something in Edith’s eyes. This fear haunted him for a while before he decided that the Edith he knew wouldn’t go that far. 

Lately, though, Ikeajuana had not been enjoying the lovemaking part of the affair: in bed, he went limp very quickly. Perhaps he could do something about the beer he drank every evening. But that was not the only problem: something was missing that he could not quite lay his hands on. The thing that got them going seemed to have disappeared somewhere along the line without them noticing on time. It was the hot, elusive thing that drove them that first February evening – the day it all began – to fumble through their ponderous bodies in the cramped space of the car. 

Across from him on the wall, cordons of soldier ants gushed out of serpentine cracks in the bruised wall of the cell from which minute scabs of cement fell. He shuddered at the sight and decided to mind his movement. The saturnine import of the cell was slowly dawning on him. He imagined it would be better if he were at home now, hearing the puerile chatter of his son playing about the yard, if he were sitting at the dining table opening the covered dishes before him to reveal the hilly mound of fufu and bitter-leaf soup and the hot steam oozing from them. 

Was this what his life had come to? It was not the first time he had this thought, but the question was more acute now.  Years ago, in the drowsy village where he grew up with his brother, his father had called them one day.

“Your mother has long been dead,” he said, “but before she died we planned to make sure you fulfilled your destinies.”

“Our destinies? How?” he had asked.

“Nna, your mother was a strange one. She saw things. She said you had very clear paths to follow in life. We must be sure because our destinies as a family are intertwined. The rain that beats the slave also beats the slaver.”

They, Ikeajuana and his elder brother, did not quite understand what their father meant then until he took them to Iveagujidile, a dibia who had a shrine near a quiet river. The oracle was a large ancient tree with many muscular roots extending several metres into the brown waters of the river, bulbous and swollen, like varicose veins. Iveagujidile came out of his hut wearing a plain white shirt and an Ankara wrapper, shaking his cowrie-streaked dreadlocked hair. He went and sat before small wooden figurines arranged near the huge tree and, stretching his ofo to them, began to praise them with such adoration and poetry that Ikeajuana, even as a very young boy then,  imagined that the figures would rise and magnify into something large and monumental in order to acknowledge the praise.

Finally, Iveagujidile cast his fortune strings a number of times and divined that the brothers had painfully disparate destinies. One would die poor, the other rich, he said, but in complicated circumstances, and they would die enemies. Ikeajuana thought about the prophecy now with foreboding. Discreditable as it appeared, he dwelled on it for a long time, hating his father for taking them on that journey. Why were people so obsessed with knowing the future? Why were they not content enough to live the present to its agreeable limits?

He was neither aware of the night – nor when it came. Mosquitoes buzzed around his eyes and nose and ears and he kept scratching at the thousand tiny spots of pain that suddenly sprouted on his skin in the darkness. By midnight, he trembled at the cold wind that whistled through the small high window and the cracks in the wall. All through the night, he slept fitfully: the cell was awash with the noise of a thousand ants and mosquitoes: the ants attacked his bare body with the ferocity of soldiers in a bitter warfare; the mosquitoes sang a terrible symphony in his ears.

*

When Ikeajuana thought he would not be able to endure it anymore, when his lips flayed open on the threshold of a scream, a pale pillar of light stood in the line of his vision – glittering chinks of light slashing horizontally and vertically across the room from the high window and the gashes in the wall like translucent icicles. As the light increased, he saw red anthill-like bumps all over his body. And that moment of knowledge tripled the pain that coursed through his body like a massive conflagration so that he felt himself burning like the numerous hills of refuse that polka-dotted the city. 

As the morning progressed into day, he found that he had done nothing except stare at the cracks in the walls with eternal fixity, as if the ants that oozed from them held for him some kind of clue to a universal mystery. What came to him, on and off like erratic power, were meaningless snippets from his past. He remembered a day he had spent hours standing in a queue in the air-conditioned interior of a bank waiting to cash a cheque and staring occasionally at the muted talk of a beautiful blond newscaster on CNN playing on a TV adjacent to the service counter. Now again he remembered the first day he drank beer, the day he passed out as a free man after seven years of apprenticeship: he had dozed off before the first bottle went halfway and the laughter of his friends who had dragged him to that bar echoed in his drugged dream. 

The room was a furnace at midday; the lurid walls glowed hot like a brazier. Grumbling explosions thundered in his stomach. They persisted through the afternoon, and something seemed to have hooked him on the left side of his belly where he felt his kidney or liver must be; fear and frustration contorted his face; he could do anything for a piece of bread. He was doubled over with the pain in his belly when a face appeared at the door – a youngish face divided into compartments by iron bars on the upper part of the door. Slowly, he recognised it as belonging to one of the constables that had brought him the day before. The mouth below the fleshy nose was munching something. Ikejuana looked away immediately as if he had been stung; an umbrage as big as violence seized him. The idiot could afford to eat; it was funny how situations changed: yesterday morning, before he left for his shop, he had eaten enough food to feed two people.

“Why pesin never come ask of you since?” 

He raised his head. “Me?”

“Na you nah. E get another pesin there?”

Ikeajuana said nothing.

“You dey hungry? I see how you dey look me for mouth.”

Was he? Was he? Hunger knows no dignity. He nodded at the constable, and the face disappeared. Ikeajuana got up, swirls of dust rising with him, and went to the door. Pressing his face against the vertical iron rods, he watched the shadow of the constable gliding down the corridor. He drew away from the door and sank onto the floor once again. There was an unfocused luminescence in his eyes now. He sniffed, snorted, and slapped an itching spot on his right leg and, when he raised his right hand to his face, saw a red patch on it. 

Ikeajuana’s elder brother, Fidelis, lived in the mammy slum inside the army barracks – that place where there were foul gutters and an unbelievable amount of dirt. Why hadn’t he thought of his brother all these years? Was it that he cared little, or was it just that he was too self-absorbed in his own affluent status? Perhaps living in neat houses in quiet districts had an anaesthetic effect on people so that they were only vaguely aware of such places. Or maybe it was a simple case of suffering. A comedian had once said that both the poor and the rich suffered. One suffered from poverty, and the other suffered from wealth! Was it the peculiar suffering of wealth that made him a stranger to his brother? 

He scratched at an itch in his hair. When did he stop going to his brother’s house? There used to be a time when he visited Fidelis every weekend. Fide was a local government worker then. He worked long hours, and the pay was a paltry tufiakwa. His apartment was sparse: a few threadbare furniture, some old calendars on the wall, a line on one side of the ceiling on which clothes were hung. But it was there, he painfully recalled, that he met Edith. 

Ikeajuana drove a fairly used Mercedes then, and each time he arrived, his brother’s two children would run out shouting “Uncle Uncle,” and he would hug them and give them some change for biscuits and ice cream.  One day, he entered the single-room apartment and found an extra person sitting on one of the only two chairs in the room while Fidelis and his wife sat on the bed. Ikejuana sat on the other chair, eyes fixed on the lithe figure of the young woman. Throughout the light-hearted conversation, he felt the heat of closeness to the young woman, and his body rippled with a thousand tense throbs.  

He found out later that she was an apprentice to Nneamaka, Fidelis’ wife, who was a seamstress, and he began to frequent his brother’s house. He did not see her again at the house, so he started finding excuses to go to his brother’s wife’s shop. He was living in a haze, as though hypnotised by forces he had no power over, following his impulses. She hardly noticed him, or pretended not to, and he came home each day angry, choosing to sleep on the sofa in the parlour and not in the bedroom as though something in the bedroom was chasing him away. When she finally agreed to go out with him, he took her to a restaurant in the belly of the city one evening. Dusk was descending, and the dim, intimate lights in the restaurant made a potpourri of colours on their faces. While a band played slow highlife music on the dais, they talked in whispers, aware of the sudden intimacy of the ambience. That night was a prelude to their marriage, and he never forgot it among the rusty junk of his memories. 

Ikeajuana could smell the earthy musk of twilight descend on the free world outside. Soon, darkness overran the cell, and myriad midges and insects sang in his ears; the racket of the large mosquitoes that buzzed in his ears and danced on his skin were so loud, he thought they were human voices.  Just as his misery picked up, he heard, with a flip of his heart, a rat sneak out from somewhere in the wall; he heard it beat and sniff about the cell, making a scratchy patter with its feet, then he felt it gnaw at his toes. He beat it off, but it always came back and that kept him occupied through the insomniac night.   

In the morning, he found nothing of the rat, the roaches, the mosquitoes and the midges that stole the peace of the night; they were nocturnal spirits that roamed the night and shrunk away from the unbearable light of day. His trouble all morning was the painful tom-tom in his belly. Something had come to hook in his belly as if the massive mandibles of a crocodile had bitten into the flesh of his innards and stayed there. Later in the afternoon, the young constable came to tell him that his wife came around the previous day but was not allowed to see him. 

“She talk say she go contact your lawyer,” he said.

And when Ikeajuana opened his mouth to reply, a pain, like the hurt of a needlepoint, sprang on the sides of his mouth. He opened his mouth and shut it again. He slumped back against the wall in frustration.

The young constable looked fixedly at him for some time and said, “You talk say you dey hungry yesterday, abi?”

Ikeajuana shook his head vigorously.

“No dey punish yourself oga. I go bring something come for you now.”

It was a while before he heard the hissing sound of boots scraping the floor. The constable’s face appeared again at the bars.

“I don bring something,” he said, squeezing a loaf of bread and two sachets of water into the cell. Ikeajuana caught them gratefully.

He ate half of the bread and drank one of the sachets of water. When he laid down on the floor to sleep, a kind of strangulating cough seized him; he wheezed and sneezed until his eyes became glazed and red. When the fit ended, he wiped his nose, and lying there on reams of dust, he watched the organised mass of the ants trailing their columns into the wounds of the wall. 

*

It was on the fourth night of Ikeajuana’s stay in the cell that the dreams began. He was in a pale yellow-tinged desertscape. The air was still, the world noiseless, and sand, undulating as sea waves, stretched in every direction, monotonous and interminable, like the ocean. The watery blue sky seemed arched and domed like a gothic church ceiling. At first, he saw nothing but that endless stretch of featureless sand; then he saw a tree, a kind of baobab, vivid against that eerie brilliance. A man, swathed from head to feet in black, emerged from nowhere, holding a pick-axe. Slowly, in the solemn motion of a pious pilgrim, he walked to the base of the giant tree and began to hack away at the trunk. He hacked for a long time, his hands moving spiritlessly up and down in sinuous motions as if he were not moving at all. And all around, the air was still and motionless in a suffocating way, and there was a certain outlandishness about the noiselessness of the world.  The wood-hacker hacked away, the tree bark peeling bit by bit to reveal the sallow flesh of the wood inside. The work was done with such slow, strenuous effort, a slaving concentration that evoked sadness. A bird ululated plaintively in the distance – its disembodied voice entrenching the painting-like melancholy of the whole picture. 

Ikeajuana’s legs could not move the next morning. He tried to stand up, but his legs felt as though an unseen weight was bearing down on them so that he could not lift them. He drew himself up against the wall, shaking his head from side to side. The shaggy patches of unkempt beard that had started to grow on his jawline glistened with sweat. 

A terrible headache was expanding on his forehead; it bore down on his eyes as if it wanted to keep them closed. There was also an uncomfortable hotness in his belly. The yellow walls surrounded him. The walls were grim, impersonal, an inhuman slight on his whole being. His head throbbed. He thought of his family: his wife, his son. He imagined people spreading gossip that he was a fraud, a thief, a swindler.  

He thought about Fidelis once again, and his mind swirled with a deluge of regret.  His brother had been on the sickbed for two years now, and he, selfish swine that he was, had not bothered to visit or help. They had had a fierce argument at Fidelis’ house, and Ikeajuana, wrecked with anger, stormed off and did not bother to visit again, preferring against his brother’s sardonic advice to dissipate himself in a string of extramarital affairs that got nowhere. It was foolhardy, he thought now, to grudge a brother on the strength of unsolicited advice. Fide must be bitter now at the fraternal neglect: an abandoned man who was supposed to have a rich brother out there somewhere, living. He smiled at his own self-mockery. There was a thing called duty, like the rain always watering the earth: that was duty. Ikeajuana was the rain, Fide the earth. He had refused to pour on the earth, so it was scorched. 

In the afternoon, the young constable came by. By now, Ikeajuana had developed a kind of comradeship with him. They talked for about thirty minutes, and the young constable told him what he already knew about his crime. Ikeajuana received it with a banal nod, as though he were brushing away a terrible thought.  The constable told him that his case was getting bleaker and bleaker because he was under the personal supervision of the new Commissioner of Police, who was working closely with the charismatic Director General of the National Food and Drugs Administration Control. Ikeajuana sneezed. 

“If na dat old CP wey been dey before, you for don comot since! Just arrange better something for am.” 

Ikeajuana shook his head slowly from side to side. That afternoon, he learnt that Emeagwali, his lawyer, a prominent attorney in the state, would visit him soon; there may yet be a phosphorescence of hope somewhere. He also learnt that his wife had been visiting every day but had not been allowed to see him. Something twisted and turned in his belly at this bit of news, and he groaned. He remembered the unfinished bread of the other day and picked it up. Some fungal moulds were already growing on it. He tore them off and stuffed his mouth with the good parts. Then he lay down to sleep, his body dark and grimy as if he’d been smeared with diluted pitch; his shrunken belly lay like a depression beneath the hilly rise of his transparent ribcage. It was not yet six in the evening.

*

It seemed as though he were underwater – his vision faltered with incandescent glitter, like a scuba diver lolling in the blue depths of the sea – but it was that same yellowish desertscape, bright with the unnatural pallor of denuded places. The Tuareg-like wood-hacker still worked steadily at the tree trunk with a patient consistency, unmindful, it seemed, of his forlorn surroundings. The axe bit in and out of the baobab trunk, and he saw that the wound it left had gone halfway through. Again, the ghost bird call slashed the unsettling solidity of the stillness.  

Now his left arm was lifeless too. It was when he wanted to stretch – as was his morning ritual – and hear his joints make knocking sounds that he felt its numbness. He groaned and hit the back of his head in anger against the wall. What was happening to him? There were some things he was struggling to make sense of, some things he was struggling to remember; certain memories were melting away (such as discovering he couldn’t exactly remember what his son’s face looked like); he was missing something; his wits were not about him, he knew vaguely, like one hypnotised by a spectral spell. 

They allowed his wife to visit him. She stood outside the cell door and spoke to him through the iron grille. She told of having to bribe the policemen several times before they gave her this one opportunity. Did they ever give him the food she brought each time? Ikeajuana shook his head tiredly. There was a stoic look in her eyes that he did not like, as though she suffered more than he did; the lines on her face had deepened: she looked older. 

“I am just coming from his office now; Barrister Emeagwali has assured me that this thing is under control.” She said everything else in Igbo except under control, as if to show how important those words were, or to reassure him, but there was a clear faltering in her voice.

And yet Emeagwali had never been here to check on him. He sighed tiredly.

He asked about Joe. 

She said Joe was fine; he was in the habit of asking about his daddy every day; he came second in class.

In spite of the sudden sense of shame that came upon Ikeajuana, he smiled for the first time.

She too smiled wanly.

“Has he had a fit since?”

“Only once,” she said. 

He commented that that was an improvement. 

They stared at each other for a long time, saying nothing. She had begun to sniffle when they heard heavy footfalls coming down the corridor. 

“Madam, your time is up oo!” A vibrant voice called out.

“I will bring food tomorrow,” she said, before her face disappeared from the door. She did not wait to see him nod. 

*

That night, the wood-hacker hacked again. His job was almost finished. He worked slowly, almost agonisingly, with that same Sisyphean repetition of a pointless exertion. And with each strike of the axe, the tree shrieked with the pain of dying. The yellow atmosphere remained still and immovable. A feral howl gusted through the infinite emptiness in that woebegone voice that would pierce the most stone-stuffed human heart. The Tuareg’s blows on the tree trunk were more ruthless now, and the shrieks from the tree came more frequently until it fell with a single thud and no more.

Chimezie Chika is a short story writer and essayist. His works have appeared in, amongst other places, The Question Marker, The Shallow Tales Review, Isele Magazine, Brittle Paper, and Afrocritik. He is a 2021 Fellow of the Ebedi International Writers’ Residency in Iseyin, Nigeria. He currently resides in Nigeria.

 

*Image by Irmeyasom on Iwaria

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