Passengers

Odafin Odafe Okoh

Something about the laughter of the passengers tells Ogadi that the baby inside her will not be born. It may be their voices, ringing with derision as they break into it or the reckless manner the men sharing her seat bump into her sides. The intuition stalks her mind like a shadow and there is no pushing it aside this time around.

She woke up in the morning with an irrepressible sourness behind her tongue, the taste of something foul, pestering for ejection. It was not vomit; she knew what vomit tasted like. Its was the taste of life, putrefying, only that without the dream it meant nothing.

As though it gave them permission to, each of the others had clumped up and snatched themselves from her body just after the dream, with a force that ripped the fabric of her soul into threadbare rags. The bad thoughts came first, to cast a spell  of gloom over her consciousness. Next were terrible omens that rolled out in a sequence, each more damning than the last. And then the dream.

The first time they happened in that order she mentioned it to Uchenna, but he did not understand why she was cursing their unborn child. “If you sense something negative you ought to pray against it,” he said, “not confirm it. That’s what mothers do.” But she stood, blinking back tears and swallowing solid saliva because at the time she had already touched her belly and it was as cold as a morgue.

The baby stayed in for more than a month the second time around, but with extreme and unbearable inconveniences that she almost willed its departure. Her appetite bloomed and ran wild to the point of disgust. Many times she caught the shock on Uchenna’s face when he saw her  combinations. He would carve a smile afterwards and say, “Anything for the baby.”

And then one midnight he heard the clattering and tumbling of utensils in the kitchen. She returned to his side on the bed and said; “Obi m, I don’t think what this baby wants to eat is in this world.” He chuckled, sighed and turned his face to the wall. She muttered some prayers in-between sobs but then the dream came just as soon as she closed her eyes.

None were the same, these dreams, but they shared the same woman in a black gown and all led to the same thing that combed at the fraying edges of her mind every time it happened; one thing that drove her under the sheets with a gnash in her bones and a brain-searing ache in her head for days; one thing that sucked the life out of her till she appeared as an apparition in front of the mirror.

On one of those days Uchenna smiled and said to her after dinner; “You should look after yourself, Mma.” He held her flesh-rid cheek in a palm and smeared a tear with his thumb. He did not take offense at the cycle of grief that had become her life. Instead he gave what comfort he could, in his own way. “God knows,” he said. “Besides, I’m not complaining.”

But he did not have to because she felt the prick of his unsaid words. She saw behind the cloth of his smiling eyes and warm words and in his frequent desire for solitude that not only were the losses eating into him as deeply as they did her, he blamed her for them. When the fire of their marriage began to gutter out and he eventually shrunk away from her into a shell she merely thought it was long overdue.

“Yes, your money from the back.” The conductor begins his collection. The passengers ransack themselves. The man to her left fumbles in his pockets, holding his cap in place with another arm. Ogadi tries to squirm away from the light brush of his elbow against her breast. It proves pointless because the man on the other side, whose clothes smell of uncooked meat and sports three deeply-cut tribal marks from the corner of his mouth to the back of his cheek, has began to bob about on his seat.

In reaching into the many pockets of his bloodstained, sleeveless robe, he jabs at her repeatedly. She regrets taking a bus, this bus.

“Mr. man, you’re inconveniencing the woman, can’t you see?” a voice calls out from the seat behind them. The man with the facial marks turns to look at him. He has hostile eyes. Ogadi sees that the newly-turned cheek has a faintly-inscribed mark more than the other, as though the carver had half-way realized his error but couldn’t be bothered to sort the imbalance.

“You say?” he asks in a roar. “She complain give you? If you like yellow women, you talk so that we can exchange seat.” The passengers break. The same rancorous din. Ogadi swallows hard.

“Your money, Madam.” The conductor opens his palm to her. She places six hundred naira in it out of her fuschia-brown purse. He stares at the money as it lays on his outstretched hand then raises his eyes at her. “Where?”

When Ogadi entered the yellow rikiti at Namza Roundabout, she was not certain of anything, except that she needed a space away from Uchenna’s heartless brooding and that all her options lay at different points on Mamede Road. Her hairdresser’s is at Old Road and Uju lives down Lt. Col. C. E. Ebika Avenue, but the junction that leads to both roads is five minutes behind them already.

Saint Timothy’s Cathedral is still over three kilometres ahead but prayer has done little enough for her when it comes to child bearing. Hospitals and their drugs have done their best too, to make her womb more conducive for babies – although Dr. Eugene’s “There’s nothing intrinsically wrong with you,” feels like ‘Whatever is intrinsically wrong with you is beyond me.’ But the babies have a mind of their own and have fixed a wedge against the door, through which way they come and go as they please.

The first time the idea crept into her it was on a drab Saturday. She was standing by the window. Her face still burned from an all-night of tearing and scratching. Her lips smarted from the spoons of pepper soup Uju had asked her to sip on to flush her roiling insides. The children under the window were her neighbours’. She wondered how many prayers their parents had made for them before they had agreed to come into the world. None, she guessed. One or two of them might have been unwanted, yet they had forced themselves into the world if only to defy their parents’ wish.

She fancied what it could mean to kick the next one off her body at the lousiest hint, before it got the sense to turn down her womb. She had the knife and the yam and it was becoming necessary to let the children see so. The thought traced a shadow of excitement in her. Perhaps it just was that the dead children were succeeding in filching her mind into limp shreds. And if it was so, there was hardly anything she could do against it.

The fifth would not have happened if she had undertaken the occupation. But she had not found a source of courage until it could not be done. Instead she clung to Uju’s words with all of her remaining strength. One week into it she called her older sister to mention what she intended to do.

“Does Uche know?” Uju asked. 

“He doesn’t even know I’m pregnant,” she replied.

Uju clacked her tongue. “Don’t try it then. It’s his child too.”

It provoked her. It was not Uchenna that had become uninhabitable. It was not his mind or body draining of life every five months thereabout. He could sigh and mull all day, but it was not him who walked around with a heap of shame, sweating in the heat of ill glances from neighbours and in-laws alike. And hell, he will never know what it felt like when your husband told you; “You’re carrying a child with unwilling hands.” How it crushed you from the inside.

She told Uju that much and more, until her voice broke into choking splinters and her phone drenched in tears. “Where’s your faith, Ogadi?” Uju asked. “This might be the one.”

She knew it wasn’t, but held onto it anyway, scraping some form of faith here and there and with regular visits to Saint Timothy’s. In its fourth week she gave the child a name. Kosisochukwu, she called it. She bought second hand baby clothes the same day she felt the warm poop of a bird on her bare shoulder and a neighbour pointing at it to say, “That thing is bad luck in my place.”

When the dream came, with the woman in the black flowing gown strong-arming her to a chair, rubbing her belly and muttering those particular words that Ogadi was never able to recall awake, she pushed in a wooden baby’s cot. Uchenna held her shoulder that morning, a Sunday, looked into her face with a troubled pair of eyes and said, “Mma, this is not faith. This is fear.”

His cold fingers made her shiver and she spent the better part of that Sunday in the bathroom, washing the trickles and clumps of disappointment that appeared between her legs.

“Old Masalachi,” she tells the conductor. The man to her left moves his body as if to adjust his clothes but Ogadi sees him steal a glance at her belly before he looks out the window. The conductor is straightening the notes in his hand, picking at their dog-eared edges one after the other with a deliberate sluggishness. When he is done, he bestows one curious look at her before resuming with his collection.

No passengers go as far as Old Masalachi. The buses that do only go thus far because it is the one turning point they are allowed to use around the latter stretch of Mamede Road once they have gone beyond Brick Estate. The old mosque itself, for which the junction is named, has been built and fenced to seal off the track that leads from behind it to the heart of the bush where the removal centres are rumoured to have relocated to, still being functional.

Adaozo is the name of the woman she has been asked to look for. “Her price is high, but she’s the best,” Uju said. “That’s if you still won’t consider the other option.”

“Please, leave that. Uche will never agree,” she replied.

“Did you ask him and he said no?”

“Uche is an Igbo man, Uju. He’d rather marry that surrogate first. Please send Adaozo’s number.”

Ogadi wonders why a woman should give herself to removing other women’s pregnancies and then work until she’s the best at it. Has she had any pregnancies of her own? What does her husband make of her job? “Ada, you will quit this nasty thing you call a job today,” she imagines him saying for the hundredth time. “I will not have a murderer for a wife.”

Uchenna would never have said such a thing that could hurt her. His methods of stirring her involved painful silences, which after much soothing and rubbing turned into fake smiles. Yet they just had one of many recent fights in which his careless outburst had stopped her from telling him about her physical condition and the half-formed mental one.

“You’re a woman, for God’s sake, not a girl. Act like one,” he said. She had gotten her nails done. The watery designs on them excited her and she was telling him what each one meant and the care the artist had taken to achieve the 3D effect.

The smile disappeared from her face and she tried to meet up with his seriousness, as she had learnt to do. “You can’t teach me to become what I am, Uche,” she protested.

“It’s not that I can teach you to be a mother either,” he murmured.

Her words caught in her throat while his sank through the depths of her heart, tearing the fibre of her being in a way none of her child losses had ever managed to do. How long had he wanted to say that? She struggled to swallow. She thought to go to the bedroom and cry but then she saw her finger tremble and knew that if she stood on her feet she would collapse. Inside her head she could hear a scream. It drew itself out, to expunge his words which were already undoing certain knots.

Uchenna had gone back to his book in a beat. He sucked his mouth, like he did when he regretted saying a thing. But he was not going to take his words back. She did not cry, only watched him trace the lines he read with his finger, knowing there was no amount of tears she would shed that could bring that finger to her cheek.

“It’s not as if I’m complaining,” he said some days ago. “It’s my people who are on my neck.” His people were not on his neck. He had simply grown impatient but did not want to put up with her reaction to his impatience, which he called self-pity.

They were naked and her head was on his chest, so try as he did to talk without faltering she still caught the skipping of his heart. It was not the skipping of a sexually sated man but that of one who feared his own next action. “You think this will be the one?” he asked.

“I pray it is,” she replied. He fell silent, unsatisfied. “Please let it be,” he said, “please.”

She wonders how he finds it easy to slip into victimhood over what is her situation and sentence her to a life of servitude and endless apologies. What did it do for him?

She thinks, at almost the same instant, of the man who had found his six-months pregnant wife in bed with a pastor and how he had kept on saying, “On our bed, Martha. On our bed,” as if it was the bed and its ownership that meant the most to him.

But it was the woman Ogadi pitied; the mixture of shock and confusion on her face and how she struggled to remain on her feet. With one hand she scrambled about a chair for vain support and with the other she tried to cover her privates. But the husband, whose face never showed in the recording but Ogadi guessed was as ugly as his act, kept panning the camera between his wife, her pastor, who had slinked into his boxer, and the red-banded pots and burning candles littering the room.

“Remain where you are, don’t move,” the man warned his wife, who was whimpering like a child and trying to approach him. The Pastor’s hands were clasped in front of his face as if in wordless prayer. There was no iota of remorse. He seemed instead to be saying; “I’ll forgive your lack of spiritual insight in understanding this action, dear brother.”

Ogadi did not watch all of the video. Whatever was Uju’s reason for sending it to her in the first place? Days after she had deleted it she still heard the wounded and distraught voice of the woman; “I did it for us, Mansa. I did it for us.” And sometimes, since she began the fleshing of her new preoccupation, she remembered it in her own voice.

But what is she doing? And for whom? She once thought of it as murder. Father Theo said as much, not to her though. But she has also read in a church paper, somewhere, earlier, that it is acceptable if the mother’s life is threatened. Her life, as she knows it, is. She thinks of Uju. How did her older sister come to know this Adaozo woman and how many times might they have met? Uju is not married.

Her eyes begin to grow weary before she can think of an answer. Part of her right arm is trapped between the seat and the whiskered man, but the bus is crammed enough and she will not risk upsetting the balance they seem to have finally found. As the bus takes on more speed, her eyelids grow heavier.

She gathers her black purse and looks about inside the bus when it comes to a halt. She is alone in the 18-seater, with an impatient driver and an absent-minded conductor. She steps down and watches it restart. The bus looks more frazzled than the situation on the inside. Scratches and dents make up its bodywork where the paint is yet to peel. But as it folds into the distance, picking its speed with a lot of noise she never knew it had, its figure shifts closer to perfection. The only visible mishaps are the mud and grime surrounding its lower parts.

Behind her, a wide path stretches into the thickness of the bush, unobstructed. The old mosque is a squat building sitting in a corner as if it is only a security post to the track it is meant to barricade.

Ogadi steps off the tarred road onto the untarred. In the silence, the buzz of flies fill her ears and increases the farther she walks. It is yet early in the afternoon so the sun beats fiercely on the back of her neck and it does not take long before beads of sweat appear and slide down her back. She produces a handkerchief from her purse and dabs at her neck. Birds are whistling rehashed tunes from the branches of the trees swaying in the distance and a cool breeze is blowing now and then, in between hot ones.

A rustling sound punctuates the music and brings her to a slowed halt. The bushy path is suddenly bathed in dead quietness. Far back she hears the grating of an engine approaching and then speeding away.

“Who is that?” She calls, and feels silly immediately. It may have been a tiny animal, scampering for its own life underneath the sun-scorched grasses. The ground under her feet is just as scorched, but where the grasses wither, the sands return their heat. Ogadi sweats all over and envies the frightened little animal its grassy comforts. When she turns to continue walking the rustling picks up, only this time it sounds nearer and human.

She breaks into a run. As she does, the path that started as an expanse where 10 people might have walked through, abreast, tapers into a narrow stretch. Cane grasses whip her legs and the taller blades slash at her arms as she speeds through them. She had not realised when the crush of dry leaves changed into footsteps, but they slap hard on the earth behind her and louder each time, while she shuffles in and out of pools of sand that try to swallow her feet.

A dry stalk of grass stings her mouth and catches between her lips. She spits it. She catches a fresh one and spits it out too. When she looks down, there is no track and she cannot tell the direction she is moving in. When she looks back the stalker is still in pursuit and is a woman, in a flowing black gown. Before the woman touches her she hears the metallic roar of a door and opens her eyes.

The vehicle is parked in front of the red gate of a massive church building. Two passengers from the row behind are meant to be getting off, except they are in an exchange with the conductor. They have been taken a little farther than they bargained. One of them, the woman, calls the rikiti a carton on wheels and the conductor asks her; “Where your own carton?” The man slams the body of the rikiti so hard that Ogadi fears the anger in the driver’s eyes when she sees it in the rear-view mirror.

The man to her right swings over to occupy their seat and the man to the left slams into her as a way of asking her to adjust. As she does, her benumbed right arm quickens and she whimpers at the shocks that attempt to restore its blood flow. The conductor barks a curse at the alighted couple and double-taps on the back of the vehicle so that it resumes its journey.

“Any Abattoir?” he calls, once he has drawn his head back inside the moving bus. His eyes are trained on the man in the bloodstained robe, who is busy returning the stare but without a word. “Oga, where did you say you are dropping?” the conductor asks him.

“Where did I say I am dropping?” the man replies. The conductor looks away with a mischievous grin, murmuring something about troublemakers who never answer simple questions.

She is shrouded in a blanket of sweat. From her purse she draws a kerchief and lets it sit, soaking, on her face. Try as she can to ignore it, the gown flutters before her eyes, black as evil. There was no need for this dream. She is only about to put a pause to this misuse of her body; to skip one turn of grief. It does not make sense, being denied such little power.

At any moment death will spread on her dress. She puts a hand on her belly and bites her lower lip.

“Madam, what is the matter?” the conductor asks. “Why you dey cry?” He has been watching. She draws a finger over her face to pluck away the tears. She feels the eyes of the others on her. They are seeing her cry. Soon they will see her bleed and their empty sympathies will fill her ears. She is dizzy. “Drop me,” she moans. The conductor frowns. “Here? But when I ask you say Old …”

“If she says drop her you drop her,” the man behind says. The conductor double-taps a fist on the body of the bus. The driver pulls over.

Ogadi brushes with her fingers through her hair as the bus drives away. She stands by the road as vehicles blow past her, longing for a wind capable of taking her to a place from where she may return cleaned, healed in the body and in the mind. Not cleaned to look as if none of this has ever happened, but only as a rikiti could be; wiped free of dirt, but not of the scars it had acquired from its rough journey.

Uchenna has left a message on her phone: ‘where are you?’

She calls Uju twice. Both calls go unanswered. She crosses the road to the side where returning vehicles pass, rubbing her thigh over the other to feel for any wetness. A white-striped, green rikiti pulls over. She waves it off. A stream of thoughts creeps through her mind. In each one Adaozo is in a black, flowing gown. She waves it off too.

It is possible that she is attempting to mould hope into a pill she can swallow.

She thinks to name the baby, but dismisses it. It would be an overdose.

“Namza Roundabout,” she says to the driver of the VolksWagen Golf that screeches before her. “Enter, 450,” the driver replies. She lumps in as a fourth passenger in its back seat. She pulls out her phone and types a reply for Uchenna; “Obi m, I think we are pregnant. So happy.” She sends it, biting down on her lip.

Odafin Odafe Okoh is a writer of Nigerian descent. He won first prize at the African Book Club Essay Contest in June 2021. His work has appeared or been published in the ALITFEST Inaugural Anthology, Of Empathy and other Stories, The Republic, The Kalahari Review, The Shallow Tales Review and a few others.

 

*Image by Muhammad-taha Ibrahim on Unsplash

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