The Unlikeliest of Foes
Hands clasped around his neck to stop the bleeding, Big Bear has an oddly misplaced concern for the damage the developing pool of blood is causing to the previously pristine hardwood floor.
She’ll never get that out, he thinks, struggling with the once simple act of inhaling and exhaling while staring at Layla’s towering eagle eyes, or are they rabbit eyes, or are they eyes belonging to someone, a people he has never met, or a village he has never stepped foot in before.
His grasp on consciousness begins to ebb, and his mind drifts back to the irrevocable moment it all began.
Balarabe’s love for Aisha begins differently than conventional love stories, where a handsome man walks into an office building and locks eyes with a pretty secretary. On the contrary, his love for Aisha began the day he visited the market to buy catfish and a variety of condiments to make himself catfish pepper soup. That day, while walking between rows of fish sellers covered in a swarm of jolly flies, he spotted Aisha standing in the street with an outstretched placard in her hands as she yelled to the heavens in her headscarf and long, pleated, golden-yellow dress.
“Fulani people are not terrorists. Respect our cattle, and we will respect your land!”
Balarabe was a bachelor with big dreams to head the Association of Kontagora Commercial Drivers one day. He owned three commercial buses and had six men working for him. Aisha’s brazen appearance to fight for what she believed in amidst the blistering afternoon sun and scowling passersby made him think that having already achieved so much in his life, a strong and determined wife was just what he needed to make his circle feel complete.
Walking up to Aisha, he said, “I’ve always thought the best way to solve this friction between Fulani herdsmen and the people of Kontagora is for the government to allocate a huge portion of land to them, so they don’t have to encroach on people’s soil.”
Aisha maintained a stern and unwavering posture, with her head looking into the distance like a martyr as she continued to call out the people of Kontagora for killing innocent cattle.
Then Balarabe said, “To be honest, I don’t care much for politics. I just saw you and thought you looked beautiful, so I wanted to engage you in conversation, hoping you will at least spare me a few minutes of your time.”
Turning to look at him, Aisha rolled her eyes and said, “You should have just said so.”
They held each other’s gaze for a moment. Balarabe’s lips were slowly thinning. And when Aisha noticed how tense he was, she burst into irrepressible laughter.
When Layla was born, Balarabe did not have the good fortune to invite siblings or parents over to celebrate his new bundle of joy because he had none. He was an abandoned child raised in the streets of Kontagora by a group of pickpockets who had found him in a basket along the shores of the Kontagora River. So he invited his pickpocket family instead, who, around this time, were old and grey and relied on the occasional stipends he sent for their upkeep.
The eldest of Balarabe’s street family, Sarki, had noticed several minutes after arriving at Balarabe’s flat that Aisha did not come out of her bedroom to pay her respects to him or the rest of the family as was tradition, so he leaned back in his chair and began bobbing his knees and fidgeting.
“She is experiencing what doctors call postpartum depression,” Balarabe tried to explain.
Sarki, seated between Balarabe’s two street uncles on a long couch, creased his lips and shook his head. He was a traditionalist who believed Western ideas and terminologies were a way to detract from adhering to sound moral values. Stroking his long, grey beard, he said, “I am not surprised she wouldn’t come out to greet me or the rest of your uncles. You probably did not tell her how invaluable we are before you married her.”
When Sarki and the rest of the pickpocket family left, Balarabe stomped into Aisha’s bedroom and found Layla crying in her cradle. Aisha, lying in bed, was turned the other way.
“What is wrong with you, woman? Can’t you hear Layla crying?” Balarabe picked Layla up in his arms and rocked her. “How long ago did you breastfeed her?”
Aisha turned to face Balarabe and said, “Why don’t you breastfeed the dwarf yourself since you’re so concerned?”
Balarabe sat on the edge of the bed and stared into Aisha’s tired face, his voice tapering down. “I understand your body has changed since having Layla, and it is something you’re struggling to accept, but—”
“Don’t patronise me, Balarabe,” Aisha, sitting up, interrupted. “You know I’m not that kind of woman. Yesterday I saw in the news that Fulani Herdsmen and their cattle were slaughtered in Makurdi. It’s only a matter of time before that replicates itself here over and over and over again.”
“But that is none of your concern, Aisha. Right now, your priority is this baby in front of you.”
“Don’t tell me what my priorities should be, Balarabe. When we first met, you knew the kind of woman I was. My vision is to see my people respected in Kontagora and the entire country. You knew that was a dream that wouldn’t die because of a baby.”
Balarabe stood up and, with contempt in his eyes, called out to the maid, Hussaina, who came rushing in with a wet apron tied around her hip.
“Make her Cerelac,” he said, handing Layla to Hussaina. “My wife is having one of those crises again.”
By the time Layla was one, Aisha had begun mapping a strategic plan to take back a portion of land that had been confiscated by the local authorities from her people. She would place Layla in a feeding chair, turn on the television so that Layla could be distracted by her favourite cartoon about a rabbit, and then sit in the corner of the living room and write in her black diary made of leopard skin.
In the diary, Aisha mapped out how she would win over community leaders and gangs with offers too tempting to refuse. She would invade multiple villages and leave a trail of dead bodies. Since dozens of Fulani had lost their lives under attack by locals, Aisha thought it was only fair for locals around the confiscated land to lose theirs as well. She wanted to send a strong message, the same way they had sent a strong message the year her family was butchered by aggrieved locals who felt her family’s cattle had encroached on their soil. That day, she had returned home from the market to find her sister, brother, mother, and father left for dead in a pool of their blood.
As weeks turned to months, Layla grew tired of the cartoon she once enjoyed and began screaming for attention every time Aisha put her in her feeding chair. With little to no option, Aisha started taking Layla to the neighbour’s house and leaving her there, claiming she wanted Layla to be friends with the neighbours’ children, Kawu and Gwaggo. During this time, while Balarabe was at work and Hussaina was busy in the kitchen, Aisha began moving her belongings out of the house. Days came and went, and Balarabe questioned why Aisha’s shoes were no longer where they used to be or why her drawer was no longer as full as it once was. Aisha often responded with, “I donated them to the poor.”
One day Balarabe returned home from work excited to share with Aisha the money he had received from a local politician who needed his help rallying a street campaign. Walking jauntily into her bedroom, he found Aisha’s empty boxes strewn all over the floor and mattress. He at first thought it a joke. Maybe Aisha was playing hide and seek? Perhaps she had recently experienced a spiritual awakening that caused her to get rid of her old clothes in exchange for more pristine ones? After scouring the house for signs of her and trying to convince himself she couldn’t possibly have abandoned their home, he sat on the bed and wept. Aisha did not leave even a note. Balarabe swore never to forgive her.
“What kind of a mother abandons her two-year-old?” he said to Hussaina months after he could no longer keep his thoughts to himself for fear of running mad.
That day, Hussaina listened in the kitchen as Balarabe ranted on and on about what a selfish woman Aisha had been.
“But you, Hussaina, are different,” Balarabe had continued, looking at Hussaina as if only just realising her worth for the first time.
Standing by the sink with a set of rinsed cutlery in her wet hands, Hussaina blushed, looking down. Balarabe walked up to her, took her soft chin in the palm of his hand, and levelled her gaze to match his. Hussaina’s heart skipped a beat, and Balarabe swept his tongue over her lips and let it dive deep.
The first child and only daughter of three children, Hussaina was forced to grow up fast after her parents passed away amidst a cholera epidemic. At the time, it seemed her siblings, Alhaji and Safina, would drop out of school because they could no longer afford the tuition fee. Hussaina worked long hours in Balarabe’s house, cooking, cleaning, and frequently fixing whatever needed fixing around the house so she could send enough money home to support her siblings. Her father had been a plumber and her mother a wood seller, so she had learnt several things about being proactive in facing adversity.
Although becoming Balarabe’s wife t had never crossed her mind, in Aisha’s absence r– seeing how Balarabe had begun leaning on her for succour – the thought started to brew. Aisha’s disappearance had made Balarabe vulnerable, so when he sent Hussaina to the market to buy foodstuff, he gave her more money than was required. Because of that, Hussaina sent money home more frequently than usual.
Hussaina always thought there was more where Balarabe’s money came from, so she showed him the type of love romance novels talk about, the kind where there is hardly any friction, and even when there is, it is for jealousy’s sake. She played with Layla a lot, and Balarabe watched as Layla warmed up to her, laughing and hardly ever saying no to the food she served.
Balarabe married Hussaina when Layla was four years old.
One day, Balarabe was searching for his phone by the corners of his bed when he stumbled on Aisha’s diary tucked into a thin mattress layer. Days came and went, and he read all of Aisha’s dubious plans to get back at his people.
- Pay hooligans to burn the farms around Zungeru.
- Raid Borgu and kidnap children to start an army.
- Kill the men of Wushishi but spare the women and children.
It was as though the Aisha he knew and the Aisha in the diary were two totally different people.
Yes, Balarabe was a Kontagora local, born and raised. And now that he knew what Aisha had in store for his people, he should have raised the alarm. But he could not imagine betraying the mother of his child.
Hussaina had always wondered why Balarabe was so engrossed in that diary. She knew it belonged to Aisha because she had seen Aisha write in it multiple times. Balarabe’s obsession with the book infuriated her. Soon, she felt he missed Aisha, so she became disgruntled, refusing to share the table with him over breakfast, lunch, or dinner and rejecting his sexual advances. If only I knew where he hid the diary, she thought. She would burn it if she laid eyes on it.
Balarabe began telling Layla stories about Aisha around the time Layla turned six. He painted strong pictures of a woman who was fearless, loving, and noble. His intention was for Layla to grow up having a vivid and untainted perception of the woman called her mother. He knew if Layla found out that Aisha had abandoned the family, she would become resentful.
“Why do you keep lying to the poor child?” Hussaina had said to him once. “We all know Aisha is never coming back, so why do you keep telling Layla lies? Aisha was never as saintly as you make her seem.”
“I do not deny that Aisha did wrong by abandoning us all, but to make my daughter grow up detesting her mother is the last thing I would do, Hussaina. I know what it’s like to despise the very people who gave birth to you, and I would hate for my daughter to grow up with such bitterness in her soul. Maybe you would understand if you had a daughter of your own.”
Lately, Balarabe had begun reminding Hussaina that she could not bear children. Whenever she expressed jealousy over Balarabe’s addiction to the diary or jealousy over Balarabe’s lingering eyes on the women on screen as they watched television, Balarabe reminded her to focus on her flaws.
Until then, Hussaina had only mildly disliked her husband. Now, she began to resent him and even had dreams where she spiked his food with battery acid and watched him choke to death.
Eventually, Balarabe tore out the parts of Aisha’s diary where she wrote terrible things and kept the pieces where she randomly scribbled about birds flying, butterflies perching on flowers, and the sun shining. He hoped Layla would at least inherit her mother’s love for poetry.
Several years before the mysterious illness that took him, Balarabe offered Aisha’s diary to Layla and asked her to write in it whenever she felt alone.
It had never occurred to Layla after her father died that her stepmother, Hussaina, would fancy one of her father’s trusted drivers, Musa. Musa, after all, was nothing like her father in looks and charm. He was stocky and short, and his teeth, from years of smoking tobacco, had a rusty red coat over them. His calm and kind demeanour, however, was endearing. That was the only reason Layla did not voice her displeasure when Hussaina told her she would marry him.
Although Musa had visited the house on several occasions since Balarabe’s passing, solemnly sitting in the living room and taking in the quietness of their grieving home, Layla sensed that Musa’s visits had more to do with seeing Hussaina’s pretty face than paying a condolence visit.
With time, it started to make perfect sense to Layla why Hussaina fancied Musa. Strip away the title “Mrs” conferred on her by Balarabe and she was just the maid from several years ago, below her father’s social class. Layla began to secretly despise Hussaina. Indeed, she thought, Hussaina and Musa had eyes for each other long before my father came into the picture.
Several years later, when Musa and Hussaina had long been married, and they had made of the house Balarabe left behind a bougainvillaea-fenced home, with ducks and chickens and dogs and rabbits roaming around the compound, 11-year-old Layla was fast asleep in her bedroom when her door creaked open, and a shadow crept in. She half-opened her heavy eyes and traced its wary footsteps along the eerie darkness. It was Musa. He crossed the ray of moonlight slanting in through the open window and crouched by her bedside.
“Are you asleep, Layla?” Musa whispered.
Layla rolled the other way, mildly upset that Musa had woken her from her recurring dream about a burning building. It was a dream she’d begun having when the neighbour’s children, Kawu and Gwaggo, lost their lives to the flames that licked up their home months ago. In her dreams, she heard Kawu and Gwaggo screaming from the top of their bedroom window, calling out to their parents who, standing outside and yelling for them to jump, couldn’t risk running in to save them for fear that the fast-collapsing house would swallow them too.
Layla hoped Musa hadn’t heard her talking in her sleep.
Musa carefully picked up Layla in his arms, reached for her two little rabbits locked in a cage, and walked out of her bedroom. In the garage, he laid her in the backseat of his taxi with her rabbits next to her. Hussaina got into the backseat and raised Layla’s head to place it softly on her lap. The vehicle reversed out of the compound and into the road.
The wind was howling as they travelled, and Layla screwed her legs tightly to keep the frigid air from seeping into her. She wanted to tell Hussaina to roll up the window because her bones were turning to ice. But her lips wouldn’t move, and, in any case, it all felt like a dream.
A little over two months ago, Fulani herdsmen had attacked their village. The surrounding houses had either been raided for money and jewellery or attacked to kidnap little boys and girls. Somehow their home had been untouched, and this left the neighbours suspicious, with some people suggesting that they had something to do with it. Whatever the case, villagers had since become wary of the dark, so Layla couldn’t fathom why they’d left home that late.
“Darling, close the window and cover her legs,” Musa said to Hussaina. “She must be freezing.”
Hussaina wound up the window, undid her polyester headscarf, and covered Layla’s feet.
They drove through valleys and mountains. Layla knew this because the patterns that flashed past her shut eyes were at times hollow and other times enormous. Layla wondered if the mysterious trip had anything to do with them finding out what really happened to Kawu and Gwaggo. Had they finally discovered that she had snuck out of the house on the night of their death? Who could have known the truth and chosen to speak out? Or had she, while splitting personalities with her other selves, left evidence for them to find? Like the matchbox she bought from the shopkeeper who liked to sign on everything sold for fear of being robbed or her right slipper, which came loose at the seam and fell off her feet while she fled the scene.
Layla’s head jiggled on Hussaina’s lap as the car dodged potholes. Then the crackling sound of burning straw beds tickled Layla’s senses so that she knew they had come by a burning bush. Soon she heard the pitter-pattering of raindrops on the car and smelt fresh smoke smothered by rain. The pattering rain subsided shortly after, and the vehicle began to wobble. One of the tyres had blown. Musa brought the car to a slow but steady halt and got out.
Hussaina gently placed Layla’s head on the seat and slid out of the vehicle. Scared to open her eyes, Layla began counting in her mind from one to ten and then backwards. She heard Hussaina ask Musa what they would do now that they were trapped in the middle of nowhere, and then she opened her eyes. She peeked out the window and was shocked to discover they were surrounded by a pitch-black forest.
Hands akimbo as she looked up into Musa’s worried face, Hussaina said, “Do we have a spare tyre in the boot?”
“No, we don’t,” Musa said, taking out his phone from his pocket. “Let me see if I can ring someone in my phonebook for help.”
“Thank God Umaru told us what Layla has been up to. Imagine if he hadn’t told us sooner. We’d be dead by now,” Hussaina said after a while. “At least now we don’t have to live with the guilt of getting rid of her. She can become the asylum’s problem to deal with.” Then Hussaina began saying things Musa seemed uninterested in hearing, so he took a few steps away from her and turned to gaze into the forest, the phone pressed to his ear.
Hussaina wouldn’t quit talking though, so a short while later, he placed the phone on his heart and said in a hushed tone, “Sweety, I hear everything you’re saying, and I am just as excited as you are that Umaru told us when he did about what Layla had planned, but please excuse me. I need to make this important phone call. It’s finally ringing.”
Musa looked to the night sky while the phone rang, and Hussaina stared intensely at him, her arms folded over her breasts while her feet took one step forward and another backwards.
Layla quietly opened the door, adjusted her mother’s diary, which she always slept with between the strap of her night trousers and undergarment, and then picked her caged rabbits from the backseat and crept to stand at a safe distance.
“Yes,” Musa said into his phone after explaining their predicament. “You’ll find us not too far from the massively burnt bush along Kado Road. Beside a signpost that says ‘Beware of snakes’.. My family and I will be waiting for you there.”
Musa turned to tell Hussaina a tow truck was on its way when he saw Layla standing a few metres away from them, her hands curled into her fists.
With tears welling up in her eyes, Layla said, “Uncle Musa, please tell me where we are going.”
Musa, slowly dropping his phone hand with a ghost-like look in his eyes, turned to stare sternly at Hussaina, who turned around.
Whisper-shouting through the corner of his mouth, he said, “Hussaina, I thought you said she swallowed the sleeping pills you gave to her.”
“I swear I saw her swallow the medicine before she went to bed,” Hussaina whispered back. She turned to Layla and, softer, said, “Why don’t you come over here, Layla?”
Layla’s heart thumped hard against her chest, and her feet, as though nailed to the spot, wouldn’t leave the ground. She had heard nothing besides Umaru’s name during Musa’s earlier conversation with Hussaina. She was worried she didn’t know in what context Umaru’s name had been brought up. Umaru hadn’t told them “the truth” he’d come to discover by happenstance, had he?
They’d been through this already. Layla had assured Musa and Hussaina she wasn’t to blame for what had transpired. She’d first told Hussaina and begged her not to tell Musa because the entire ordeal made her feel ashamed. The morning after, having just come back from a run, Musa had tiptoed into Layla’s bedroom like he usually did whenever he wanted to play a game, Police and Thief, and quietly tapped her to wake.
In a still, small voice, he had asked Layla, who was half awake, “How old are you?”
Layla rubbed her eyes and said, “Thirteen, Uncle.”
“You will not lie to me, will you?”
“No, Uncle. I will not lie to you.”
“Umaru says he stumbled on your diary, where you wrote down a plan to hurt me and your mother. What plan is he referring to?”
“Uncle Musa, God is my witness. There is no such thing as a dubious plan I am mapping against you and Aunty Hussaina,” Layla had said. “Have you ever seen me with a ‘diary’? That’s because I don’t have one. Mr Umaru is the one who made up—”
In an oddly calm and relaxed tone, Musa said, “That’s enough. I’d hate to believe a calm and sweet girl like you is capable of something as destructive as Umaru is leading us to believe.”
Hussaina and Musa stared nervously at Layla.
Feeling the spaces between her toes moisten, Layla chewed her nails and said, “Uncle Musa, please believe me. I didn’t do anything wrong. I didn’t lie to you.” She turned to Hussaina. “You have to believe me, Aunty Hussaina. Let’s go back home…please.”
Musa pinched the bridge of his nose and, through the corner of his eyes, looked at Hussaina, who took it as a sign and began edging quietly towards Layla. Slowly, Layla started to draw backwards. Then Hussaina suddenly jumped in Layla’s direction, and Layla turned around and ran into the dark forest.
Leaping over tangled bushes, Layla let go of the caged rabbits in her hand, held onto her diary in one hand, and heightened her speed. The day of her father’s death flashed before her eyes: how she had returned from feeding her rabbits in the backyard to find Hussaina crying on the living room sofa; how she started towards Balarabe’s bedroom only to be held back by Hussaina, who wouldn’t let her see him for fear that Layla was too young to see a dead body; how she ran under Hussaina’s arms towards her father who, lying still in his sick bed, looked as though he was only sleeping and would wake up if only she nudged him to; how she at first had tapped him lightly on the arm but then began beating his chest, yelling at him to stop joking with her or else she would run away from home and never return; how she had suddenly felt herself splitting into multiple selves the moment she realised he was truly gone and knew she would never be the same again.
Layla got to a bend and bumped into a stranger. She tried to keep running between his legs, scared it was Musa. She looked up and saw the moon shining behind a man the size of a polar bear. He had an axe in one hand and strapped across his shoulder, a wooden bottle sticking out of a satchel.
With raised eyebrows, he asked in a divine baritone, “Who is chasing after you, little one?”
Layla immediately turned around and pointed her trembling finger as her eyes frantically roamed the bush. Hussaina came out of nowhere, her chest rising and falling violently as Musa caught up to her.
“They’re chasing me!” Layla screamed, pointing at Hussaina and Musa.
“She’s our daughter, sir,” Hussaina said between breaths. “Layla, let’s go home.”
Looking up into Big Bear’s hazelnut eyes, Layla wrapped her arms around his stacked, hairy legs and said, “I beg you in God’s name, sir, don’t give me to them. That woman is my stepmother, and that man is her husband. They’ve been trying to harm me since my father died.”
Big Bear, with an air of suspicion, held Hussaina’s gaze for a while. He remembered how he had been fooled by a cousin who kidnapped his daughter for ransom, only to wind up killing her and himself when he realised he had been found out by the community vigilante. Big Bear slowly crouched and thoughtfully filed his axe against a rock next to him.
“Layla, after everything we’ve done for you, you are choosing to embarrass us before a total stranger?” Hussaina said.
Big Bear stood upright, eyes sternly fixed on them.
Musa and Hussaina stood there, their sore lips slowly mutating into crooked smiles as they pacified Big Bear to release Layla to their care.
“I don’t want to go home with you anymore, so just leave!” Layla screamed.
“Stupid girl,” Hussaina snapped, finally. “We should have gotten rid of you when we had the chance.”
“But I didn’t do anything wrong,” Layla said, turning to Musa. “Uncle Musa, would you have preferred I had said nothing?”
“Shut your mouth. Enough with all the lies,” Hussaina interrupted.
With a frown, Musa turned to look at Hussaina.
Hussaina, noticing Musa’s reproachful stare, said, “Allow me to talk.” She turned to face Layla and said, “Umaru told us about your plan to poison us, you little devil.”
Layla clung tighter to Big Bear’s leg and said, “Don’t believe them. They’re lying, sir.”
Hussaina continued, “It’s too bad your father fed you lies about your mother’s noble deeds growing up. If only your father knew you’d turn out to become the very thing he’d hoped you wouldn’t become – your evil mother!”
Big Bear crouched again. With sweat dripping down her face, Layla turned her towards him. Big Bear thoughtfully filed his axe against the rock next to him for a second time. A ghostly silence swept through the air. Then he stood erect, raised his axe, and charged towards Hussaina and Musa, who ran away and didn’t look back.
On Layla’s 13th birthday, Hussaina had placed a cake stuffed with glitter candles in the centre of the living room table. Layla was standing before it when Hussaina turned to her and said, “Layla, look, your cake has a rabbit drawn on it. Do you like it?”
Layla playfully pinched the rabbit’s whiskers, crunched the broken piece of icing between her teeth, and nodded in the affirmative.
With a knife outstretched towards Layla, Musa walked in from the kitchen. “Layla, close your eyes and make a—”
“Are you trying to kill me the same way you killed my father?”
(It was the first time Layla had taken possession of her own body in a long time. This time, she made sure to speak what was on her mind before Gwaggo took over. Mad at herself for being unable to keep Layla in check, Gwaggo came rushing out of the prison cell in Layla’s head and pushed Layla back into the cage she had created to keep Kawu and Layla in check. Turning the keys in the lock while Kawu stared remorsefully at her, Gwaggo, hands clutching the metal bars from the outside, stared furiously at Layla, who was sitting in the corner of the cell, arms solemnly wrapped around her knees. “You’re both going to remain here until you finally accept that I am in charge,” Gwaggo said.)
With complete confusion, Musa turned to look at Hussaina, who, with a curt smile, nudged him to place the knife on the table.
Hussaina lit the candles on the cake. Layla closed her eyes, drew a deep breath, and blew out all the candles. Hussaina cough-laughed as plumes of smoke swirled in the air, and Musa, appearing falsely upbeat, asked a little too eagerly, “What did you wish for, Layla?”
Layla shook her head and said, “I won’t tell you, Uncle Musa.”
Suddenly, Musa found it strange that Layla looked shy and embarrassed, as though nothing unusual had just happened.
Honking in the garage the following day, Musa yelled, “Layla, what is taking you so long? I have work, too, you know?”
Slicing a piece of her birthday cake in the kitchen and wrapping it in foil paper, Layla yelled back, “Uncle Musa, I’m sorry I’m taking so long, but I’m trying to cut a piece of cake for Mr Umaru!”
Accompanied by an angelic face, Umaru’s tall and evenly built stature was commanding. He was the first teacher in a long while in Kontagora. Teachers usually avoided Kontagora because of its volatility. Layla liked Umaru because, unlike her last teacher a few years ago, he didn’t yell at her whenever she couldn’t comprehend a lesson. He followed her at a slow and steady pace.
When Layla got into Musa’s vehicle, she strapped herself in the backseat. She said, “Uncle Musa, I’m sorry about what I said yesterday.”
Reversing the car out of the compound, Musa looked at Layla through the rearview mirror and smiled faintly.
After a pause, Layla said, “Will you still buy me the rabbit you promised?”
Musa sighed and said, “Layla, I understand you have a right to be mad about your father’s death. Seeing me married to his wife is bound to make you hate me even more because he was my boss and a friend. Still, don’t you think it’s terribly unkind to blame me for his death?”
“I’m really sorry, Uncle Musa. I just wished my dad was there to witness my birthday yesterday, that’s all.”
Musa sighed and said nothing.
“You will no longer buy me the rabbit as promised?”
Musa paused, chuckled as he watched Layla smile at him through the rearview mirror, and said, “Of course, I will.”
They arrived at Umaru’s house. Girls meandered in and out smartly dressed in their uniforms. The ambience was buzzing with chatter.
Standing in the passage as he stared down at Layla, Umaru said, “Layla, you’re late.”
“It’s my fault,” Musa chimed in. “We got held up in traffic.” Then he turned to Layla and said, “I’ll try to pick you up earlier this time.” He rubbed her chin and turned around to leave.
Umaru walked Musa to his vehicle outside. Before driving off, Musa turned around and waved goodbye to Layla, standing on the balcony.
After class that day, large pillows gathered in the sky, and pitchforks began raining. Layla stood on the balcony, hoping against all odds to see Musa’s car coming a mile away. While parents drove into the compound, picked up their children, and drove out, Layla’s mind wandered back to the night before when, looking through the peephole of Hussaina’s bedroom door, she had eavesdropped on Musa and Hussaina’s hushed conversation, the silver flicker of their television shooting eerily into their dark bedroom.
“I am worried she knows more than we think she does,” Hussaina said, arms folded as she sat on the bed.
Walking from left to right, Musa said, “One minute, she was excited to see her birthday cake, and the next minute, it was as if a different person had crept to the surface.”
“I’m afraid she is becoming increasingly deluded, just like Aisha. The other day, for example, I caught her cutting open the throat of one of her rabbits. When I asked her why she was doing that, she said the rabbit was sick and she was certain it would not survive, so killing it was her way of ending its suffering.”
Musa exhaled and said, “Perhaps, like her mother, a mental institution is where she belongs?”
“I just need her gone,” Hussaina said, rising to her feet. “Sometimes I look at her and I’m reminded of what we did to Balarabe. I can’t enjoy the estate because she is always around us – a constant reminder of our actions.”
Musa took Hussaina’s hands and said, “I keep finding it difficult to sleep, Hussaina. I still see Balarabe in my dreams.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, Musa. There’s no such thing as ghosts.”
They stayed quiet for a while.
Musa said, “Don’t you find it odd that Layla named her rabbits after our neighbour’s deceased children – Gwaggo and Kawu?”
“I was wondering when you would bring that up,” Hussaina said. “Didn’t those children bully her for being a dwarf all the time?” She paused. “You know, I once heard the neighbours suggest that Layla had started the fire that killed those children.”
“There’s no way Layla could have, Hussaina. Layla is many things, but she is not a killer. I am almost certain she was fast asleep in her bedroom when the fire began.”
“Stop vouching for her. You don’t know her as well as I do. And, in any case, the neighbours seem to think otherwise. The question we should be asking is why they think that.”
Layla awoke from her reflection when Umaru said from across the window blinds in the classroom, “Layla, you’ll catch a fever if you keep standing there.”
Walking towards the centre of the classroom, she said, “Sir, I almost forgot.” She unzipped her rucksack. “Yesterday was my birthday.” She took out a piece of cake and walked to his desk to hand it to him.
With a puzzled smile, Umaru said, “It’s been a while since someone did something this nice for me. Thank you, Layla.”
“Don’t mention it, sir.” She walked back towards the window and stared at the street.
“Are you having trouble with any subject? Something you’d like me to help you with?”
Turning around, Layla said, “I didn’t hear you, sir.”
“I said, are you having trouble with any subject?”
Layla thought briefly before saying, “There is this one subject, sir.” Then she walked towards him with her rucksack, took out her school book, and rested it on his knees.
“Hmm. Let me see,” Umaru said, putting the book on the table.
While Layla pointed at the page and explained the algebraic problem to him, his eyes, like a calculator, walked all over the page in record time. For the first time that day, Layla was fully present. After a while, she excused herself to use the restroom. Umaru noticed a black book jutting out of her rucksack in her absence.
When Layla returned, she was stunned to see him perusing her diary. She walked towards him and snatched the diary. “Who gave you the right to go through my bag?” Her cold eyes bore into him.
Umaru’s face lifted off the table where the diary had been resting, and he stared with his mouth wide open at Layla.
With her rucksack strapped to her back, Layla walked towards the window and stared blankly at the dying rain outside.
Umaru stood up from his chair and walked to stand behind her. Reaching for her shoulder, he said softly, “Layla, I’m sorry for what you believe they did to your father, but I don’t support what you’re planning to do to them. Musa seems like a very nice man. I don’t think he could ever….”
Layla waved his hand off her shoulder and said, “You don’t know anything about my family.”
“Poisoning them makes you just like them, Layla. And in any case, if they vanish without a trace, people will start asking questions. Soon they will connect the fire you started in your neighbours’ house, which you seemed so happy to write about, and their disappearance. I don’t think you want that.”
Layla turned around and stared squarely into Umaru’s eyes. “You read the part about how I burned those bullies in their sleep.” She drew a breath. “Help me, and I promise to cut you the lion’s share of my father’s estate.”
Shaking his head, Umaru said, “This is not you, Layla. Please tear this diary up. Burn it. Your uncle will be here soon.” He turned towards the back door, where his office was, and said, “I promise to keep this between us if you assure me you won’t go through with it.”
Layla held her pursed lips for a moment, and then she said, “Umaru, if anyone finds out about this…I’ll kill you.”
Stunned, Umaru stared at Layla. She had never called him by his first name before. He was always Mr Umaru to her. He opened the back door and walked out.
The rain had stopped when Musa’s car pulled into the compound. Usually, Layla ran outside upon sighting his blooming headlights, but when he arrived, she sat lifeless in a chair. When Musa walked in and called out to Umaru, who came out of the office a few seconds later, Layla stood up and smiled at them.
“I’m sorry I’m late again,” Musa said, shaking Umaru’s hand. “Thank you for looking after my daughter.”
“Don’t mention it.” Umaru feigned a smile, hands trembling.
“You’re shaking, Umaru. Is everything alright?”
Umaru quickly removed his hand from Musa’s grip, glanced at Layla, then wheeled his gaze towards the floor and said, “I just got terrible news from back home, so I’m a little shaken.”
“I hope no one is dead?” Musa said with concern in his voice.
“Thankfully, no one is dead, Musa. Don’t worry about me. I’ll be fine.”
“If you need anything, call me, okay?”
“Thank you, Musa.”
Layla ran to her bedroom and slammed the door shut when they got home. Her teeth chattered, and her fingers wouldn’t stop shaking while she paced. Fully clothed, she sat in the bathtub and thought, What if Mr Umaru phones Uncle Musa to tell him what he has come to discover?
She turned on the shower and let the water wash her worries away.
Later that evening, Musa was still out on business when Layla walked downstairs. Hussaina served Layla’s food on the dinner table and sat beside her.
“Layla, are you okay?” Hussaina said, running her fingers through Layla’s wet hair.
Layla squeezed her eyes shut, and a teardrop fell out. Then she said the words she had rehearsed repeatedly in the bathtub.
“Aunty Hussaina, Mr Umaru raped me.”
After chasing Musa and Hussaina out of the forest, Big Bear returned to the spot where he had left Layla and found her passed out on the grass. He took her up in his arms. As he walked through the bamboo thickets toward his home, he said to Layla, “My daughter used to enjoy swimming in this lake. Maybe you will too.” He dipped his feet into the lake and walked across the clear green water. “I feel that you and me meeting each other the way we have is divine orchestration: my chance to have a do-over with my late daughter.”
They arrived at Big Bear’s mud house, flanked by palm trees on every corner. From a short distance, Big Bear stood still and inhaled the sweet smell of salt and seaweed in the air. His eyes swelled with joy as he looked at the house he could finally call home with Layla.
The next 17 years flew by like a daydream for Big Bear. In the earlier years, he had taught Layla how to swim, hunt with a spear, and farm. Layla filled his life with so much happiness that he barely said no to any of her requests. If Layla wanted a new rabbit, he got it for her. If Layla wanted to redecorate her bedroom, he made sure to buy her the accessories she needed. And if Layla wanted to wander around the forest in the dead of night for inspiration to, according to her, “write poetry”, which she claimed to be doing every so often in the black diary she carried around, he let her. He barely worried about her safety, for he had raised her strong and independent.
By age 30, Layla had begun to sell the potatoes and yams she grew on their farm. Big Bear worried that though Layla had promised to never leave him, it was only a matter of time before some handsome man came to take her from him. He sometimes felt bittersweet watching her go for the internship job she’d only just begun at a school for orphans. He felt proud to know he’d raised such an upstanding woman. And although he sometimes got into a squabble with her over the heavy makeup, wig, and contact lenses she wore to work, for fear that the men in the neighbourhood would think she was a prostitute and would attempt to kidnap and rape her, Layla always reassured him that he was only projecting onto her his pain from what had happened to his daughter many years ago.
Over the years, Big Bear had learnt not to force anything on Layla; in doing so, he had come to see parts of her he could not recognise.
Layla is young and eclectic; for some children, that makes them unique, he consoled himself.
Something was different about that morning when Umaru woke up to brush his teeth. Halima, his wife, had asked that he return to bed to lie in for a couple more minutes, but he refused. He told her all the way from the bathroom, with the door slightly ajar, toothbrush in mouth, “Even though I am a lot older and weaker than I used to be, I don’t want my employees to think I am starting to lose touch with the virtues I, once upon a time, so fondly preached about, one of which is punctuality.”
“Don’t be too hard on yourself, Umaru. It’s a weekend. Besides, it’s going to be just you and your secretary. No one else will be at work today,” Halima said, reluctantly getting out of bed. Against Umaru’s request, she entered the kitchen to make him boiled potatoes and vegetable soup for breakfast.
Six-year-old Hamza, their only child, ran out of his bedroom and hugged Umaru before he left for his car outside. Halima picked Hamza up, and together they formed a ring around themselves as they usually did.
“May the Lord go with you,” they chorused.
Seated in his office chair later, eyes fixed on the subtle collage of cerulean and agave colours floating in the goldfish bowl on his desk, Umaru felt a muscle spasm in his back. He pulled out a cabinet from his table and reached for his medication. His doctor had prescribed Ibuprofen to deal with his lumbago. With a cup of tea his secretary had served him earlier, he swallowed the medicine and then continued writing a letter of appreciation to the American charity organisation that sent him funds every quarter to support his initiative to educate orphaned Kontagora children for free.
His new secretary walked in and set a stack of papers on his desk.
“For your perusal, sir,” she said.
Umaru, with a curt smile, thanked her, said that she could go, and set his focus on the papers before him. From the corner of his eye, however, he saw her still standing there, affixed to the spot like a mannequin, and he knew, or at least sensed at that moment, that something was wrong.
Holding a sharp knife in her hand, Layla felt nothing after slitting Umaru’s throat. Not guilt, redemption, or the morbid satisfaction she assumed would accompany such a vindictive pursuit.
Towering over Umaru’s tired face buried in the hardwood floor, she noticed how his once vibrant, brown eyes, now dull with age, lingered on her as though only now recognising her. She saw the bald patch at the centre of his head and felt it was indicative that life had been harsh to him.
Umaru mumbled words. His bloodstained teeth wouldn’t let him properly articulate, so Layla asked, “What did you say, Umaru?”
Umaru mumbled again, his words the sound of bubbles.
Layla dropped to her knees and leaned toward Umaru’s face. She removed the contact lenses from her eyes and then pulled off the wig from her head so that Umaru could see her as she was.
Suddenly, his eyes widened, and he said, “So it’s you, Layla!”
His eyes closed before she could say, “Yes, it’s me.”
Umaru’s feet felt like bricks in Layla’s hands as she dragged him down the hardwood floor towards the restroom. Seventeen years ago, killing Umaru seemed near impossible. His then-bulky arms would, in an instant, have snatchedthe knife out of her tiny hand and quickly gripped her in a chokehold. Thankfully, the spiked tea she had served him as his newly appointed office secretary worked in her favour, so he was weak by the time she made a go at his feeble frame.
She returned to the office with a wet rag and cleaned up the bloody trail on the floor.
Knock, Knock, Knock. Someone, quite suddenly, was knocking at the door. Layla, frantic, thought, Who could it be? No one else is supposed to be at work today.
“Open this door before I kick it down!”
Layla hurried into the restroom and locked the door. She washed the makeup off her face in the sink and pondered what to do next. Then she heard a noise from the office – like the sound of an explosion. The door had been kicked down.
Looking through the peephole of the bathroom door, Layla saw Big Bear pacing back and forth while occasionally staring at the freshly cleaned hardwood floor. He dropped to his knees and ran his fingers along the bloodied patch on the floor.
“Are you finally going to come out of there so we can talk, or do I have to knock down the toilet door too?”
Layla slid down the door and sat on the bare floor.
How did he know what I was up to? she thought.
“I have no choice but to call the community vigilante since it appears you’re not going to come out of there.”
Layla jumped to her feet, hurried towards the bathroom window, and grabbed the metal bars. She shook them multiple times, hoping for an escape, but realised the metal bars had been firmly cast. She returned to the peephole and saw Big Bear making a phone call.
“Good morning, sir,” he said into his phone. “I am calling to report a—”
“I’m coming out!” she interrupted, catching her breath. “Please, Dad. End the call, and I’ll come out.”
Layla walked out of the restroom. Big Bear was standing a few steps away from her, his eyes a mixture of sadness and disappointment. In one hand was his mobile phone, with his thumb a second away from dialling the community vigilante, and in his other hand was Layla’s diary.
“I thought we agreed if I came out, you wouldn’t call them,” Layla said, spotting her diary in his hand.
“What has gotten into you? Who are you?” Big Bear said, raising the diary in his hand so that Layla knew he had read about her plan for vengeance.
“You don’t know what it’s like to be violated the way I was.”
“Stop bullshitting me and come out pop and plain. Who, really, are you?”
“He left me with scars I cannot run away from,” Layla continued.
Big Bear tossed the diary to the floor and started towards Layla. For a moment, Layla thought Big Bear was about to lay his hands on her. Instead, he wrapped her in his arms and began sobbing, then he let go and walked towards the bathroom door. Layla turned around and found him staring at Umaru’s lifeless body in the bathtub.
His back towards her, Big Bear drew a deep breath and said, “Did it make you feel any better?”
“Did it make the pain go away?”
For a short while, Layla stayed silent. Then she burst into tears.
Standing by the bathroom door, Big Bear turned around to face Layla. He hesitated for a moment and then thumbed the community’s vigilante hotline.
“We have to do what’s right,” he said.
Layla heard the silent buzzing of the phone against Big Bear’s ear. She waited, hoping he was only testing her. But he wasn’t, so she started towards him and attempted to strike the phone out of his hand, but his free arm fended her off.
“Please end the call. Please, Dad!” Layla cried.
Big Bear was unrelenting.
Layla turned around and searched for any object she could find, for she had rinsed the knife and buried it where no one would find it. She spotted Umaru’s fishbowl on the office table and hurried towards it. She picked it up, turned around and flung it at Big Bear’s face.
Big Bear stumbled back from the crack of the glass bowl, his phone fell from his hand, and he crashed into the wall. Sliding down, he landed between the shards of glass on the floor. Layla opened her mouth in terror as she noticed the red line his bleeding skull had left on the white wall. She tried to stay outside the cage of her mind for much longer to rescue Big Bear, but Gwaggo, latching on to her shirt, finally pulled her in and locked the cell.
On the other end of the line, a voice said, “You have just reached Kontagora Vigilante Hotline. What is your emergency?”
Layla hurried towards the phone, picked it up, and ended the call.
With blood streaming down his forehead and lips, Big Bear said in a failing voice, “Did I do wrong by taking you under my wing, Layla? Did I do wrong by raising you as I would have my own daughter?”
Pacing left to right in sheer madness, Layla chewed her nails, turning occasionally to stare at Big Bear’s bloodied face.
Big Bear continued, “Now I know the story you told me about Umaru wasn’t true. He never raped you.”
Layla marched towards Big Bear and took his jaw firmly in her hand. “All of this could have been avoided if you hadn’t interfered.”
Through his tears, Big Bear said, “Who, really, are you? You cannot be Layla. Layla! Layla, if you’re there, come out!”
Layla’s eyes desperately roamed the floor. She spotted a sizable shard of glass leaning against the wall and picked it up. She marched towards Big Bear, grabbed him by the hair, jerked his head back, and swung the glass far away from herself, letting the glass fall in one swoop – straight along his jugular, the blood spurting onto her face.
Having survived arduous harmattans living in the wilderness and a recent bout of prostate cancer, Big Bear, staring at the river of blood travelling out and away from him, remembers the little girl in the pitch-black forest who clung desperately to his feet, begging to be rescued. A thin smile lines his lips as he ponders on the real tragedy of his final minutes: a father slain by the unlikeliest of foes: a daughter.
Layla, gently dropping to her knees, reaches towards Big Bear’s glass eyes as they gradually lose their lustre. The last thing Big Bear sees before Layla closes his eyes is the black diary lying next to her.
Michael Ogah holds an LLB from the University of Abuja and a BL from the Nigerian Law School. He is a certified screenwriter from the Royal Arts Academy. His short story, ‘Dubem’, has been published on Brittle Paper, and his screenplay The Missing Link was produced by Iroko TV in 2018. He is currently a master’s student of international management at the University of the West of Scotland.