Under the Sentinel’s Watch

Frances Ogamba

The sky had long lost its stars to a howling wind. No other human was in sight except a man leaning on a cane where Nzimiro Road turned into two – one part leading to Douglas Estate and the other to Onueza Estate. Emodi’s eyes fell on this man as he returned from his shop. Something in the man’s bearing made his heart ring in alarm. He resembled thin and torn scraps of clothing – the type Emodi usually put away at Mile 1 Market – yet his poise was that of someone on the verge of breaking into a spirited dance.

Emodi often reached his house earlier. But there had been too many evening customers at his shop. He opened a new bale of second-hand jeans in the morning, but it wasn’t until evening that a myriad of customers began to select and price them.

The road suddenly appeared too narrow for Emodi to make his way past the figure. He walked on the edge of the open drain on the left. He opted not to run. It could be one of the street’s teens poking fun at the adults, he thought as he made his way into his close.

Light poured out from closed windows, yet the estate was full of absence, as it had always been. He kept walking, reminding himself not to look back. He remembered faking masquerades with his peers at night when he was a teenager living in Enugu. This could be time’s way of getting back at him. He unlocked his gate with jittery hands and hastened inside.

The duplex next to his bungalow had its wall standing awfully close to his, and a thin wall stood in between. In the two months he’d lived here, he’d heard the shouts of children, or the voices of adults condemning misconduct, but he barely saw anyone in the open street. Most of the inhabitants owned cars and always passed him in their vehicles with wound-up windows. Once, he saw a teenage girl darting across the street, as if she was running away from something. The girl maintained her paces until she fluttered away from sight. The few adults he saw pretended not to see him. Those who did not pretend merely nodded at him.

Emodi had never hosted an ill feeling since he moved into the estate. He had, in fact, been thankful. He loved the smell of the rose plants that filled the neighbourhood and the glittering beach-like sands of the street. The white-painted houses gave off an ancient charm.

He turned over his dinner of yams and egg sauce into a plate as he thought of the figure he had seen. The figure wore a hat, which was a surprising contrast to his ragged clothing. A strange smell of festering wounds lingered in the air as Emodi walked past him. It was a rare event in Nzimiro, where the neighbourhood was constantly steeped in eerie stillness, for a boy to plant himself at the junction at such a time.

*

Emodi felt his bed rattle while he slept. He opened his eyes to someone tugging the bed out of his room into the open compound. Outside, the tuft grass scattered across the compound was gone. The lawn that could serve as a game court was no longer there. All Emodi saw were tall rocks that filled an expanse of land. The figures placed him on the zenith of a pointed rock. His house, just like every other house in the estate, was stuck between the thorny teeth of immense rocks. He felt a kind of emptying when he woke up past his waking time.

The sun already bit the skin by the time he reached his shop. The market burbled with eager voices and bargains. He bought ice-cold water to calm the pounding in his head.

“Are you well, Emodi?” his neighbour, Ada, who sold fairly worn shoes, asked while setting the shoes on the edge of the railway that coursed through the market, and was long out of use.

“Ada Ada, I am well o,” Emodi replied, smoothening the rough edges of his voice. As he hung some of his best second-hand jeans on the nails affixed to the door, Ada pressed further.

“You come late today o.”

“Yes. I was a bit under the weather last night.”

“What weather? This hot weather that sends everybody out of their houses was what kept you inside? Abi a girl visited?”

“Which girl? Please o.” The assumption made Emodi chuckle. Ada’s eyes were lighted up with a mischievous sparkle. “I just overslept. I am fine. Thank you.”

“Okay. I’m in my shop in case you need anything.”

“I hear you. Thank you, Ada.”

The other sellers ribbed him often about Ada and mocked his obliviousness to the lady’s affection for him. She was an inelegant parallel to the lady he dated back in Enugu. Stocky and light-skinned, her googly eyes filled up her small face and made her look almost beautiful, and harmless. Yet, he’d witnessed her get into fights with other sellers, seen her rip up a man’s pants and dare him to inch forward for a proper fight.

When Ada drifted away, Emodi busied himself with the task of folding up trousers and placing them atop one another. He heard voices in the background, overheard jokes where his name was mentioned, and sometimes he was summoned to attest to something. Ada’s mirth flowed into his ears at intervals and then was stubbed out. He remained elusive to his surroundings.

At 5.45pm, Emodi began to take the clothes back into his shop. Chuka, another colleague, approached him. Chuka had a small voice that made one wonder if that was all his large muscled body could yield.

“Emodi, you are leaving?”

“Yes. It was difficult for me to get a bus yesterday.”

“But if you leave by 7pm, you’ll still catch a taxi to CFC Bus Stop.”

“Don’t mind that boy. He is hoarding a woman in his house,” someone from the already-made clothes line shouted. Loud laughter burst from others. Emodi locked the shop and tucked the keys into his left trouser pockets. He smiled at their teasing. He wished it were indeed because of a woman.

The road that ran through the Douglas Estate was busier than Emodi had ever seen it. Cars moved past him and compound gates opened and swallowed them. It was almost 7pm. The figure was absent at the junction. The people he saw as he climbed up the hilly road that led into Nzimiro Road did not walk with caution, nor throw frightened glances. In the two months he had lived there, he had never returned this early. He mostly made it home around 8.15pm, when the neighbourhood was already hushed. What if the figure had been a boy playing pranks? He wondered if he was missing out on lucrative sales because of a mere delinquent. Most of his sales happened in the late evening when the office workers had closed and were pushing home, when most of the prices crashed by 50 percent. He and the other sellers usually moved their wares to the roadside, well outside the market gates, ringing bells until a crowd gathered.

It began to rain soon after he shut his door and switched on the lights. The clatter of nails on rooftops. It deafened him. He lay on his couch, too disturbed to feel the hunger gnawing at his insides. His mind unfurled to the past. He had driven a taxi for the local government on hire purchase. It worked smoothly at first, and it felt like he was finally angling towards a brilliant light. One year later, the business dwindled. His debts piled up. The government threatened to seize the vehicle. When he could no longer afford his rent, he sold off the car and took succour with his uncle at Rumuokoro.

*                                 

A strange wave of a feeling Emodi could not name washed over him in the morning. He was not sure if it was a dream he had.

Ada helped him throw open the door to his shop, all the while commenting on how cheerful he looked.

“How was your night?” Ada asked, hanging some of the jeans on the door of his shop. She wore a tight-fitting skirt that rode well above her knees. Her blouse was V-necked and displayed her buxom cleavage. Over her head, the other merchants whistled at him, gesturing at him to grab the chance with two hands.

“Ada…Ada, this one you are asking me about the night. Just ask me if I had a girl over.”

“You and who are talking of a girl? I asked of your night.”

They had hung out most of the jeans. The market bustled with the gusto of a new day. Ada pulled Emodi into a playful embrace, and their colleagues hooted, clapping. Ada ignored them.

“You will soon lose your chance. I don’t wait on men for too long,” she whispered and pushed Emodi away. Their neighbours had left their shops and come out to watch the spectacle.

“Ada weds Emodi!” they chanted.

Emodi smiled. A bright feeling streaked through his chest. It was not Ada’s act that fired him up. He had simply put away his fear and decided that the figure belonged to a pranking boy. He would resume night sales and close at 8pm, the usual time, or at a later hour.

*

He began to nurse a mysterious longing to see the figure again. He wished that the trees or the light pole could exude the same weird energy the figure had. He wanted to unearth it, to say, You fool! Run home to your parents now and stop being a nuisance!

It was well after 10pm when he strolled along Nzimiro Road. He had sold off most of his wares and would place an order once he showered and ate. He had the sudden urge to snuggle into the warmth of a woman’s bosom. He could love Ada if he willed himself to, but most parts of him still hurt from an old bruise. Each time he thought of a woman, he remembered Kasie, who had abandoned him for a wealthier man.

He felt somewhat queasy as the broken tarmac that led into Douglas Estate floated into view. The trees lining the street merged into a long canvas of unmoving creatures. Emodi groped for his phone and flicked the torch on. The light it emitted was weak against the dark. Emodi did not feel the need to be adventurous or to scold the impish teen who could block the estate entrance at such an hour. He was tired from the day’s sales. He needed to eat. He needed to lie down. In the surrounding stillness, his eyes made out a blur, which quickly mutated into a figure that appeared to have been made from a knitting process, detaching and rejoining before Emodi’s eyes. The clothes on the figure looked different, more decent than the first time. As Emodi thought of how to make it past him, clamping down on the fear rising in his throat, he saw a ball of light coming straight at him. He ducked. Another ball was flung at him. He jumped off the road and fell into the open ditch. He began to scream.

When he woke up, he was lying in his compound. His head and chin ached badly, as if the skin of his face had been dug open and salted. He had no memory of unlocking his gate and gaining access to his compound. Only vaguely he remembered pounding his fists on the gates of the houses that stood at the entrance of the estate, hoping to be salvaged by someone. Emodi remembered the figure’s unexpected temper, the sudden hurling of fireballs. It was the most lurid event of his life. It felt so distant, like a dream.

The darkness thawed slowly. He hobbled to his door and opened it. Surprisingly, he still had his phone. His purse and its contents were intact in his trouser pocket. His bruises stung as he washed himself in the bath. He lay on the bed and dozed off.

It was almost noon when he woke up. He had missed calls from Ada and Chuka. His whole body was too heavy for him to do anything for himself. His thoughts were slurred. He indulged in light naps, and at intervals he was tapped awake by a dream he forgot the moment his eyes flew open.

He called the agent from Gemstone Investments, the estate company that owned the estate, but there was no dial tone. He walked out of his house in the evening, hoping to piece together the puzzle of his new terror. He’d taken some aspirin to dampen the ache that kept surging at his temple. He was tired of playing pretend for rules that were unknown to him. He knocked on gates, rattling them until the noise travelled past the closed shutters. He saw curtains being drawn and heads peering out and quickly pulling back in.

A man in a decrepit security guard’s uniform appeared when he knocked on one of the gates near the entrance of the estate. The house had a high wall, which made it impossible to see what lay within. The man looked vaguely familiar to Emodi. He wondered where else he had met him, perhaps at his OK shop. The man’s saggy jaw reminded Emodi of his own father, who had spent over a decade in the ground.

“Good evening,” the man said. His eyes were moist, the lens mildly hued by a bone-white colouring. Emodi wondered if the pellicles of white were caused by cataracts. His nails had been begrimed by time, and maybe, by the kind of work he did with them. His chest pocket held a bright red badge with a name: Soki Graham. His steady gaze unsettled Emodi.

“Good evening, sir. I am so sorry to bother you. My name is Emodi. I live at house number─”

“I know you,” the man said with a slight smile. His expression was childlike, as if he enjoyed catching people unawares. Surprise threaded through Emodi.

“Forgive me, sir. I don’t remember having seen you before.” At the man’s silence, he pursued further the tale of his woeful experience of the night before.

“You say you do not see this thing, this person, when you return early?” the man asked.

“Yes sir.”

“Start coming back early then. Does that not solve your problem?”

Emodi felt as if someone had punched him in the gut. He felt a new muscle of irritation pushing through his skin. He detested the man’s lax attitude towards his ordeal.

“You don’t understand. I sell second-hand clothes, and the only way to sell off stock is to display them at evening hours.”

The man gave him a sad smile and began to shuffle back inside. Emodi could not afford to lose him. The man was his only audience so far, the only door that had creaked open for him.

“I was also wondering, sir, if anyone you know or you yourself have experienced these things.”

“You mean the figure you claim to see?”

“Yes. There are other things too. They come as nightmares. I cannot recall them clearly right now. Please, I just need to know what’s going on.”

The man nodded and glanced at an old watch on his wrist. It was time for him to return to work, he told Emodi. It was almost 7pm. His shift would begin in an hour.

“Come tomorrow at midday. These things you ask cannot be discussed now. It is getting late. I will see you tomorrow, Emodi.”

“Thank you, sir!” Emodi replied but the gate had already been slammed shut.

Emodi hung around the gate about half an hour before noon the following day. His colleagues from the market still called him. Ada’s calls were more persistent. He knocked on the gate at midday and the guard tugged it open immediately as if he’d been waiting for him.

Then he came out and shut the gate behind him.

“I have worked here for over thirty years,” the guard said, a film of pride glistening in his eyes.

He told a story that prompted fear in Emodi, of a time when the entire landscape of Nzimiro was barren and undeveloped.

“The figure you saw is the remains of the most unfortunate man I ever heard of.” His voice droned as if he was pouring libation to the ancients. Lines of memory streaked his brow. The man, according to the guard’s tale, owned Douglas and some parts of Onueza. He was an only son, and therefore, he had the largest portion of the property. His cousins from the Nzimiro clan plotted his murder and buried him close to the junction where Emodi had seen him.

“He did not mean to frighten you. He protects his land.”

Emodi felt a discomfort. The ache returned to his temple. He wanted to dismiss the story as a fairy tale but he was consumed by imaginations of the figure’s final moments. He pictured the corpse being dragged, blood tainting the matted vegetation. He saw the houses of the estate springing up and pressing down on the brown earth of a shallow grave. This was perhaps the reason for the cheap rents and affordable real estate sales. It puzzled him that people preferred to be trapped by the figure’s thrall.

“Why don’t people leave?” he asked the guard.

The guard sniggered, and the sound rankled Emodi’s skin. “If leaving were easy, we would all be out of here.”

Emodi saw the world differently. The trees cradling the estate road, for instance, began to disconcert him. His plan to leave gave him hope of redemption. When his bruised face healed, he resumed sales at his shop. For every question thrown at him he sustained the same response: he walked home drunk and fell into a ditch. Thoughts of leaving Douglas Estate blackened his thoughts, his words, and his perception of everything. He would move to his uncle’s at Rumuokoro and then push the agents to refund his outstanding 10-month rent.

He assembled bits of himself in the living room, throwing the vital belongings into his Ghana Must Go bag. He did not own much, yet he’d leave most things behind for mobility. He closed the shop early, ignoring the questions and speculations.

On his way back from the market, he decided to stop by and see the old guard. There was no response to his knocks. Lush weed he had not noticed during his prior visits filled the entrance.

“Nobody lives there,” a voice said behind him. Emodi turned and saw a man strolling into the estate, a suitcase in hand.

“Good evening, sir. I spoke to someone here about four days ago,” Emodi said, coming out to the road to join the man.

“Well, I don’t know who you spoke with, but that house was unoccupied the last time I checked,” the man said curtly and turned into a path. The guard could be one of the estate security men who put up in unrented houses to save rent costs, Emodi thought.

He barely slept that night. His mind danced in and out of dreamless phases. At first light, he had a quick bath and pulled his bag into the open street. He recalled the cars that moved past him, filled with school children, and the few adults he saw struggling with their coats and suitcases. Before long, he was snapped away from the present, crumpled to an impossible size and forced into intertwined pipes. He swam and swam, jerking forward, reaching for open air. The air in his new small lungs felt beaten out, yet he fought on, spinning into the unknown for endless hours, for years even. He reached a life he was yet to live: his parents immersed in a sea of immobile bodies, parting the fringes of the soil to peek at him.

He was vomited hard onto a soft surface, encircled by the whiteness of a living room. He heard the very pulse of the universe. A blurry face loomed above his, a stunning replica of someone recent in his memory. The face pushed closer.

“You are awake,” the face whispered as its hands stretched a blanket from Emodi’s feet up to his waist.

A strand of Emodi’s heart reached up and took hold of his tongue. Words filled his mouth, hammering to get out. His scrambled thoughts stippled into clarity, and he remembered the places he had seen the face: at a gate in the estate, at his OK shop where the man sometimes came to buy clothes. There was no mistaking the motionless eyes coated with candle wax, and the red badge that glowed on his chest.

Emodi recognised the living room as his. He glimpsed his bag at the foot of the couch. He heard the cadences of the voice first, before the guard’s words swelled and became clear.

“You didn’t have to leave, Emodi. Here, I take care of everyone.” The guard glanced at his watch. It was time for him to return to work, he said. It was almost 7pm, and his shift would begin in an hour.

Frances Ogamba is the winner of the 2020 Inaugural Kalahari Short Story Competition and the 2019 Koffi Addo Prize for Creative Nonfiction. She is also a finalist for the 2019 Writivism Short Story Prize and 2019 Brittle Paper Awards for short fiction. Her fiction appears in Chestnut Review, CRAFT, The Dark Magazine, Jalada Africa, The /tƐmz/ Review, and elsewhere. She is an alumna of the Purple Hibiscus Creative Writing Workshop taught by Chimamanda Adichie.

 

*Image by Stefano Pollio on Unsplash