Samuel Kolawoles fiction has appeared in Black Biro, Storytime, Authorme, Storymoja, Eastown fiction, is forthcoming in Jungle Jim, and elsewhere. His story collection The book of M is due to be out soon. A recipient of the Reading Bridges fellowship, Samuel lives in Ibadan, southwest Nigeria where he has begun work on his novel Olivia of Hustle House.
A three-legged mongrel called Bingo alerted the women of Onikokoro street to her screams. Well, it was not exactly the dog. Bomboy heard the dog give tongue and told someone who told someone who made it public. The creature had been sniffling about in the garbage, looking for a suitable spot to dump its early morning excrement, when it found her. The dog bared his yellow teeth in a growl and hobbled back and forth as though trying to decide whether to move close to the woman or not . It did that for a long time without anybody noticing and would have gone on for longer if not for the little chap.
Bomboy owned the dog, or rather he had been the one fending for the dog since it strayed into the neighbourhood. Bomboy hardly let Bingo out of his sight. He reckoned that those who were after the poor creature's life, those who hacked off his hind leg, were still capable of striking again. He had heard stories of dog hunters who roamed the streets looking for roving mongrels to kill and cook in soup, or to capture and sell to others who killed and used them for the same purpose they did. So that morning, Bomboy came out when he heard his dog barking.
The baby had already moved to the birth canal, when the neighbours came around. Her body was covered in bruises and lacerations, leaves and twigs sat in her hair which was a tangled mop. The pain inside her was like a beast tearing her apart ploughing through her entrails with its claws, the noise that came from her throat, sounded like the rasping of a sheep being slaughtered. She sucked in desperate breaths through her swollen, drool-caked mouth as she pushed.
Tiredness swept over her. Her eyes were half-closed, she nevertheless scrutinized everyone around. She was not listening to what they were saying, she was only staring. She saw the women standing some distance off, saw their confused faces. She watched a crowd of women looking at one another, expecting someone to take charge.
"I was in the maternity ward when Nkechi, my friend, gave birth. I saw everything. I can do it," said Cynthia, bursting out from the crowd inching towards the lunatic, her nose covered with a piece of cloth.
Cynthia was a prostitute who lived at Number 11; the rundown tenement house close to the refuse dump. The room from whence afro beat and juju music emanated on a 24 hour basis, annoying her neighbours to no end.
She hated it when people called her a prostitute. She preferred the appellation 'club girl,' which as far as she was concerned, differentiated the girls who merely labour through their private parts to eke out a living from those cool ones that hang out at loud parties with heavy makeup. She preferred to associate with the latter, whom she believed were the sophisticated arm of her profession. Her customers called her Sweet Banana, a nickname gotten from that old song by the juju maestro, King Sunny Ade.
"You should keep your mouth shut when people are talking about babies. How many have you flushed away from your womb, you this ashewo? How many have you washed with your menses? Eh? How many?" Someone in the crowd derided.
The lunatic let out another howl in a loud, drawn out voice. Her eyes popped out of their sockets as her legs jerked convulsively.
"Your father must have impregnated me. Did I flush out your grandfather's baby?" Sweet Banana retorted without looking at the person who spoke. The speaker did not press the issue further and Cynthia was in no mood for trouble. The atmosphere was tense and something needed to be done quickly.
"Let's call Matron Brown," one said.
"That witch…Better to seek the devil's help than hers," another replied.
"What choice do we have now? She is the only midwife that can do something about this situation."
"Will you go and call her then?"
"Someone else should go."
"Who wants to go to Matron Brown's house?"
The question hung in the air. Someone in the crowd said something about preparing her kids for school. Another said she had to go take care of her sick husband and another left to tend her shop. The crowd broke up, one person at a time. Soon no one was left except Bomboy and his crippled dog.
Mad women often passed through their neighborhood, chewing stale chunks of bread or carrying all kinds of rubbish and talking to themselves, some wearing nothing to cover their private parts but never had they encountered a pregnant lunatic, not to talk of one in labour. But then it was general knowledge that even mad women get pregnant. People also knew that no man in his right senses would force himself on a lunatic, except, if the person is involved in something mysterious and diabolical.
For some minutes, Bomboy stared at the woman lying on the heap of rubbish. Her screams were louder and the spasms more frequent. She would murmur something unintelligible during a moment of reprieve, then the tremor of birth would sweep through her, her mutterings would be chocked off and the swell of her neck would show the interplay of muscles.
Bomboy knew he had to do something. He knew he had to go to Matron Brown for help, despite what his parents and people in the neighborhood had said about her. Another scream galvanized Bomboy into action compelling him to run in the direction of the lionesses den.
Matron Brown was said to have been possessed by evil spirits on a Christmas day, the day tragedy struck on Onikokoro street. Before that day, Matron Brown, a gigantic individual, was the neighborhood's favourite person, always cheerful, always lending a helping hand. She ran a small pharmacy in front of her house, which doubled as a clinic of some sort, called Matron Brown Pharmacy. Entire families plagued with malaria went to her for treatment. Mothers dragged their reluctant kids to the pharmacy at the slightest indication of illness for diagnoses and prescription; teenagers came for drugs to flush their wombs; little errand boys walked in shyly for packets of condoms. Even the strangest of conditions were referred to Matron Brown for possible diagnosis and prescription; like a forgetful child failing in class, or a bedwetting husband or a grandma suspected of stealing. No matter the situation, Madam Brown was sure to attend to everyone, so that her house was never in want of people.
Matron Brown had three boys whom she catered for. To put food on the table, keep the house and provide for the family was always up to her. Her husband, Mr. Brown, a squat man of Urhobo extraction wasn't much good at earning money except what he inherited from his father's rented apartments. The idea that men supported their families did not govern his existence, so he always stayed home stuck in front of the TV.
He practically lived in the parlour, a small, poorly ventilated box of a room. He would lean back on a tattered, but imposing leather chair, the one he inherited from his father, his eyes fixed on his "long-aerialed" black and white TV watching till he drifts off to sleep, working his mouth as though chewing something sticky and snoring like a freight train.
He would fall asleep and wake up in front of the TV even when the national anthem had been played and all the channels had shut down and the screen became a network of little buzzing dots. Even in his dreams he listened and would sometimes mumble words in response to what had seeped into his subconscious from the TV. Mr. Brown was particularly fond of Another Life, an American soap opera which was aired daily. He knew all the characters and sympathized with them as though they were real. He would sometimes weep when something bad happened to a character he loved and get angry at the devious ones.
A carbon monoxide-belching generator provided Mr. Brown with constant power supply for his indulgence. Whenever fuel was scarce and the black market was too expensive he connected his TV to a car battery. Mrs. Brown often complained about her husband's idleness but it never caused any big problem until the day of the tragedy.
Christmas evening it was, that day. Mrs. Brown was busy in the shop, attending to a snake bite victim and a guy with a deep gash from a bar fight, while Mr. Brown was watching a repeat episode of Another Life. The kids had sat in a semicircle around the TV, watching the show with their dad, but drifted off to sleep before it ended. Mr. Brown slept off too, and a few moments after that the toxic fumes from the noisy generator wafted into the sitting room. The smoke permeated the whole house. Mr. Brown woke up, gasping desperately for breath, thinking he was dead.
He wasn't, but all the kids were.
Things were not the same after that.
Matron Brown blamed her husband for the death of her children. She hated him for his idleness, irresponsibility, his insensitivity. She cursed the tradition that nurtured her. She turned against the world. Her husband vanished one morning as he could no longer bear the guilt, and the madness that plagued his wife.
She closed down the pharmacy and retired from public life. Before long, grey appeared on her head. She lost her flavour. She assumed the form of one too preoccupied with inward matters to care about what she looked like. The once caring woman became wild and irritable. Those who had received her love tried to reach out to her but she responded with violence like a dog gone rabid. She was left alone to rot and seemed to grow increasingly otherworldly, estranged from reality. People crossed the streets to avoid her. People called her a witch. People said she was responsible for what happened. Some said it was God paying her for her past sins. They spread rumours that she had lost her mind.
The legacy of Matron Brown Pharmacy was lost forever.
Bomboy knocked softly on the front door of Matron Brown's house, half-hoping she wouldn't come to the door At that point he decided that his coming might not be such a good idea after all. The shock of seeing a woman in labour had evaporated and given way to common sense. Now he wanted to turn around and leave. All of a sudden, thoughts jumped into the little boys head, memories, stories and rumours. His parents would kill him if they found out what he had gotten himself into, that is if Matron Brown didn't kill him first. He thought about running but his legs would not move. The door rattled a bit and opened as far as the chain allowed.
"What do you want?" a congealed voice echoed out. Although he could not make out her features, he felt impaled by the speaker's stare. His legs twitched. His dog made a whining noise, its tail tucked between its one and half legs and its ears flattened.
"Are you dumb?" she said sharply.
"Em…em" Bomboy muttered, groping for an answer. Matron Brown closed the door while she slid the chain off then swung it wide open. Now she stood before the young chap, large in all dimensions wearing a loose T-shirt and a three-quarter trouser, her plaited hair sprinkled with stubborn wisps of grey. She wore an unmatched pair of flip-flops. Her stance told Bomboy he was an intruder and should leave.
"Someone dey for road wey wan born," His voice trembled when he finally found it, and he fled, his dog with him.
A little later, Matron Brown was kneeling before the woman in labour.
"Will you keep your dirty mouth shut?" Matron snapped, crouching over her. She reached into her with her fingers bent, inspecting something. She ranted as she prodded, her face assuming a mask of anger.
"You did not think about the pain when you were spreading your legs for the man. eh? Did the madness in your head keep you from taking in a man's pleasure? No, it didn't. Even in your madness you enjoyed it. How did the man trick you? What did the pervert say to you to make you sleep with him? What is this world becoming? Only God can help us. Are there no women left in the world again for people to now be sleeping with lunatics? Who even knows, maybe it's one of those ritual people who impregnated her to use her baby for blood money? Who knows?"
When she was done poking, she hurried off and came back with some things: clothes neatly folded, an unsheathed pillow and towels. She made another trip to her house and returned with a low stool and a small bowl of water before getting to work. There was no time to move the woman in labour to a clean environment. The baby was ready and had to be delivered.
Mrs. Brown propped the woman's head up with the pillow, spread a clean piece of cloth under her and sat on the low stool facing her. Five minutes later the baby wriggled into the world, a pale, blood-soaked, slippery, fragile creature with sparse hair plastered on its skull.
"You have a girl, congratulations" Brown announced in a tone that attempted not to be sarcastic, and spat out phlegm. She covered the mother with clothes and dipped the towel into the bowl of water to wipe the crying infant clean before placing the baby on her mother's naked breasts. She then tied the umbilical cord and cut it with a new Tiger razor blade. Moments later, she removed the placenta, dark and thick like a well-fed tapeworm. Brown took the mother and child to a shade. She bought rice and stew from a nearby cafeteria and told the mother to eat.
Meanwhile, people had gathered around, but not too close. They observed from afar, watched Brown's every move but no one drew near to help. Their faces expressed a mixture of guilt, bafflement and resentment. Why did Matron Brown of all people help this woman? They asked one another. They also felt something of remorse for leaving the woman alone to herself. But then they tried to wriggle their way out of that by whipping up the dangers of helping a stranger in our age. To silence their conscience they told themselves, "who knows, she might be under a curse. She was definitely impregnated for ritual purposes, as soon as the baby is out, the father would come for him and offer the infant to his gods for money. Getting involved with such a person would definitely bring bad luck."
Matron Brown doesn't know what she's dealing with, they whispered. Western education has made her mad, blind to spiritual realities. She hasn't learnt her lessons. Does she think what happened to her children was ordinary? Who knows, maybe she even has a hidden agenda to do something wicked. People say she killed her children, donated them to a coven of witches. Who knows what human beings are capable of these days?
Once Mrs. Brown was sure that the mother and child were all right, she walked away, leaving them to their fate. No sooner had she left than the onlookers dispersed. Later that day the temperature dropped. Gusts of wind threw dust and litter in people's faces. Corrugated iron roofs were torn from their overhang, and trees swayed menacingly. The rage of the wind finally stopped, and way was made for showers. Street-side petty traders scampered to shelter with their goods and their whipped up skirts, beggars hobbled to the nearest shed, people darted haphazardly about, averting their faces from the wind, clutching at their belongings.
The woman brought out her breast and thrust it into the crying infant's mouth. The infant clamped her mouth around her mother's nipple for some time, suckling noisily. Rain dripped on them; it seeped from the tiny holes in the rusted corrugated iron roofs of the stall, muddied water gathered some distance away and sluiced through the shed. The lunatic mother shivered, her impassive face streaked with dirty raindrops. She was conscious of the new life cradled in her arms, her condition notwithstanding. She nurtured it the best way she understood. She gaped at the wonders of infanthood, savoured its experience, although her mind often got the better of her, snatching her away from this world.
The cold kicked in, the infant turned her face from the nipple and made a gagging noise. The mother swung her child this way and that and tried to shush her but to no avail. The rain intensified, drumming on the roof, like firecrackers. The lunatic clutched her baby against her bosom and ran out of the shed to the row of houses that lined the narrow street. She made several attempts to enter one of those houses. She knocked on their doors without reply. Those who responded shook their heads and shut their doors as soon as they saw her. She approached Cynthia's door. Cynthia shooed her away as she would a she-goat. After making several failed attempts, the mother simply stood on one side of the road and allowed the rain to beat her. A few faces hurried to their windows and looked at her, but none came out.
The sound of the rain drowned the infant's cries. The baby was still clutched against her bosom, she was still being swayed this way and that.
"O mo mi o … oh my child" the lunatic cried, rocking her baby. If there were tears falling from her eyes, the raindrops camouflaged them well. The rain coursed down her cheeks onto the child's trembling body. Thundered boomed, lightning crackled. The baby stopped crying but the mother did not know. She kept swaying the child and kept saying "O mo mi o," till a familiar voice screeched from behind her
"What kind of mother are you? You want to kill the poor baby? Will you go inside now before I chop your head off?"
Again, people began to rationalize in whispers. This time it was why Matron Brown housed the insane woman and her child. A few said it was a good sign and that maybe one day the evil spirit in her would be expelled and they would have their old Matron Brown. Some said she was dying of loneliness and needed someone so badly that she didn't mind even a lunatic. Majority maintained the theory that she had evil intentions, although they never could point out what exactly that was.
The poor infant could have died had Mrs. Brown not brought them in and placed the baby near a hot plate and wrapped her in clothes. Mrs. Brown then proceeded to flog the mother for causing the child pain. She picked one of the canes kept behind her front door—the one she used for dealing with unwanted visitors and trespassers and wore it out on the mother, then dragged the lunatic to the bathroom to bathe her. The mother's name was Khafilat. That was how much Mrs. Brown could get out of her. In the days that followed, Mrs. Brown handled Khafilat with an iron hand with the hope of drilling some sanity into her. She told her what do and how to behave and whenever the lunatic disobeyed she reached out for the cane or a narrow leather belt. Her motive was pure. Matron Brown reckoned the flogging to be therapeutic and so she never hesitated in applying the rod. Brown only gave the baby to the mother when she was as calm as the water fetched early in the morning, or when the baby needed to be breastfed. Mrs. Brown's dealings with Khafilat also made it to the gossip circuit. Eyes pried and tongues wagged.
"I heard that she beats the woman," said the one living five houses away from Matron Brown.
"That is stale news haven't you heard the latest?" another asked.
"Tell me, my friend." She replied eagerly.
"The mad woman ran away this morning, she vanished like the mist."
"You don't mean it!"
"The poor woman got tired of the beatings. That wicked woman thinks she can drive out spiritual forces with whips," she sneered.
"What will she now do with the baby?"
"It's her burden to carry, maybe that was what she wanted all along, so that she can use the infant for her wicked deeds."
A lot had happened to Mrs. Brown in such a short period of time. Her decaying life had been rudely interrupted. For what purpose, she did not care to know. She had betrayed herself. She had again made herself vulnerable. She opened herself up to what had never brought her anything good. Humanity came knocking at her door one more time, and she had responded without question. Now she was trapped in its web, doing what she vowed never to do again, help people.
Another rude interruption came a week later, one that would further entangle her and change her life forever…
Early that morning, a Benz jeep parked in front of her house and a squat, fat man in a white caftan walked into Mrs. Brown's house with a swagger. Words quickly went round the neighbourhood about the unusual visitor; people hurried to their verandas and windows. Cynthia, who saw every good-vehicle-driving-man as a potential client, dressed up, put on her makeup, bathed in her cheap cologne, examined herself before a standing mirror and breezed outside.
Moments later the stout man rushed out of Mrs. Brown's house, fiddling furiously with his car keys, anger on his face. He muttered to himself and when he got to his car he slammed his fist on the bonnet. He tried to calm down, took in a few quick breaths, and opened the door of his vehicle. Cynthia recognized him.
"Chief, is that you? I can't believe it, chief!" Cynthia shrieked.
He turned around and was drowned in the full embrace of the speaker, almost smothered by her breasts.
"Sweet Banana!" He managed a smile. "Chief! Haba, since all these years, I don't know why I am even hugging you sef." She took a step backwards and feigned a hurt disposition.
This time he smiled broadly "S-ssssweet banana, s-ssssssweet banana, I know you are right to be angry with me. But as you well know, I am a busy man. Today Singapore, tomorrow Germany, man has to make money. Money matters, you know, my sweet banana, money matters."
Cynthia maintained her mock frown. She was not convinced yet.
"You are busy making money while you leave your girl to rot in poverty, eh? Maybe you have found another sweet banana."
"Impossible! Your flavour is unique. I have orange, lemonade, pineapple, every kind of flavour you can think of, name it. I don't confuse one for the other. You are my only sweet banana" He laughed loudly, rubbing Cynthia's cheeks.
Cynthia pretended to smile "Really?"
"When it comes to my sweet banana, there is no replacement. You have my number. Call me and I will prove to you that I still love that thing between your thighs," He laughed again. His pot of a stomach quivered.
"You can be sure I will call."
"That's my sweet banana."
Cynthia hugged him again and kissed him on the cheek.
"What brings you here chief? What were you doing in Matron Brown's house? I saw you come out angrily. Did that witch annoy you?" She asked. Chief's expression became serious.
"Get in the car," he commanded.
Chief took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it. He took a deep drag and exhaled smoke through his nostrils then gestured with his cigarette.
"Sweet Banana, you see I came here for something that belongs to me. You see last year, one of my girlfriends came to me and told me she was pregnant. I was very happy about the news so I bought her a house, a brand new Mercedes and hired a driver to take her around. I also gave her money to set up a big shop. But you see one of my wives got envious of her and bewitched her. My girlfriend woke up one morning and just walked away. She has not been seen since then. Three weeks ago, news came to me that she was here. Then I heard she ran away. I told my driver not to drive me because it is a serious matter. I came here to at least claim my daughter if I cannot see my girlfriend again. I came here with money in the hope that I would reward those who took care of my daughter. And what did I get? The insult of my life! She told me if I spent a minute longer, she would embarrass me, pour dish water on me. She called me a wicked man who uses the blood of infants to enrich himself. She called me a pervert. She called me many bad things. Me! A whole me! That old cargo dragged me in the mud. She doesn't know who I am. I will destroy her and it won't cost me anything, I swear," he sucked on his cigarette. Anger welled up in him again. His chest heaved like that of an asthmatic.
"Don't worry, Chief why do you bother about her when I am here? I will deal with her for you. I will teach her that she can't just mess with my chief anyhow and go scot free. Just leave her to me. Leave her to me," She tried to pacify him, her brains already spending the money she was sure to make out of what was going to be a really sweet deal.
The chief seemed pleased by her words. He breathed easier now "Okay Sweet Banana, I trust you. I know you will handle it. It's no use wasting my energy on small matters." He dug into the hollow of one of his pockets and brought out a bale of banknotes "Take this; it's for you and your neighbours. There is more where this came from. You will be handsomely rewarded if you can handle the situation."
"Chief, consider it done." Her eyes sparkled as she took the money, tucked it into her bra and adjusted her top with the swiftness of a hawker.
"I will show that woman pepper. She doesn't know who she's dealing with, she doesn't know. After we have beaten her up and fed her with dust, we will take our baby from her."
"Very good Sweet Banana, very good, do that for me and you won't have to live in this wretched place again." A smile of pleasure passed across his face and seemed about to linger there but then Cynthia spoke and it disappeared.
"Is that so Chief?"
"Oh, you don't believe me?" he frowned.
"I trust you, Chief, I trust you," Cynthia said and once again embraced him.
"Come out you witch! Come out and face us!" Cynthia screamed, pulled up her trousers and clapped her hands; face still caked with last night's makeup. Seven other battle ready women stayed behind her, jumping up and down, throwing aimless punches and egging Cynthia on. They were in an assortment of hair nets, head-scarves, shorts and trousers. Cynthia had told them the chief's story and promise and had given them some cash. So those who didn't want to have anything to do with the lunatic's infant had now suddenly become interested in her. They had chosen to believe the rich man's story, though they saw falsehood in it. They ignored the voice of their consciences and focused on the reward. It was not until after Matron Brown was visited by the chief's thugs that the gravity of what they had done dawned on them.
Cynthia went to the Matron Brown's door and banged on it hard "come out and show yourself if you have the guts!"
"Come out!" one shouted.
"Come out or we will come in," another said. One of the women in excitement picked up a stone and sent it crashing through one of Mrs. Brown's windows. Seconds later Mrs. Brown came out, "I have had enough trouble in my lifetime. I don't want wahala. Please go home to your husbands." Mrs. Brown told them.
"You didn't know you were calling for trouble when you took another man's child," Cynthia slapped her own thighs to brace herself up for a fight.
"Yes, give us our baby. It does not belong to you," someone from the group shouted.
"Oh I see what this is all about. The man has given you money eh? You have sold your conscience to the devil."
"You are the one who is the devil, for three children to have died under your roof in one day." Cynthia lashed back striking a chord. Brown's face became ugly with hate.
"Please leave my house, I am warning you."
"We are ready for you!" Cynthia yelled bouncing like a boxer, breasts chugging, hair flailing, shoulders working.
"One!" Brown counted.
"What will you do, flog us with a cane like you did the mad woman? Wicked woman!"
"Today we will know who is more powerful. Your reign of terror will stop in this neighbourhood."
Mrs. Brown ran inside her house and came out wielding a cutlass. Cynthia and her band scattered like birds.
Brown won that battle but the war was not over. The next morning the thugs came. Five of them, stout necks and hard faces. They dragged Brown out of her house into a beat-up Datsun. One of them held the lunatic's infant under his armpit like he was holding a raffia mat. This time, people came out of their houses. They knew what those touts were capable of. Old women pleaded, telling the thugs to honour their gray hairs and release Matron Brown.
The younger ladies couldn't come out, eaten by guilt. They didn't have to think twice about who was responsible for such a tyrannical act. Cynthia was nowhere to be found. Maybe she was with chief now; in his bed showing him Sweet banana still had some tricks up her sleeves thereafter lying to him how she dealt Mrs. Brown a few punches before she brought out the weapon.
"She is a good woman, she is a good woman." one of the ladies said, tears spilling from her eyes.
Matron Brown returned to Onikokoro street weeks later with a cast on her neck and a bandaged arm. She came with a lorry to pack her things and some men to help. She supervised the packing and ordered the men to put iron beams over the doors and lock them with huge padlocks. A signage was hung at the gate of the house that read THIS HOUSE IS NOT FOR SALE. BEWARE OF 419!
For a few moments she stood in front of the gate and stared at her house of over fifteen years, then let loose a stream of curses like a furious volcano. She cursed aloud and shook her stiff neck, shunning the pain. She cursed everything and everyone then ended by slapping her pair of flip-flops free of dust before walking barefooted to the lorry.