I had been living a parochial life — concerned with the births, deaths and weddings of others when the encounter happened. My first instinct, after shock, was to assume I had gone insane. It would not have been a massive stretch of my imagination to arrive at this thought. Back when my small town was a small village rumour has it that some of my ancestors ended up tied to trees like errant pets, baying at the moon. The symptoms they exhibited when quietly discussed led me to believe that schizophrenia might have been the root cause, but I’m not sure. The town library is tiny and Google can only tell you so much. But, no, I am not crazy, there really is something terrible going on in Ilorin. It is a fact as plain as that.
Up until a month ago my youth whittled down to nothing in an ornate air conditioned office in my father’s legacy, his production plant. It was falling apart, decaying from the pressures of running business in a corrupt country. Eaten up from the inside as several relatives sustained from the same watering hole, but everyone pretended not to notice. My days began with fantasies and ended with blinding headaches. In between I settled disputes, shuffled paper and searched for a better life online, on a forum dedicated to nitpicking about popular culture with friends I’d never met. A lot of who had pseudonyms like Batman69 from Sao Tome and Principe. Smart guy, has watched every Spielberg movie ever made, but happens to think he’s a sex god. He’s probably a pimply geek with poor social skills outside of the World Wide Web. But I liked them, they got me. On the internet, I was not an overwhelmed girl without an idea where her life was headed. I was Electra27.
So this is how it started.
On a Friday evening, I found myself on Yoruba road buying sweet potatoes to attempt a recipe Orixa55 from Brazil had sent me. The market is only ten minutes from where I live. It spills from the road onto the pavement, spreading outwards, nestling between mobile phone repair shops, skipping the parking lots of banks and continuing, sneaking like a river forming tributaries between ramshackle containers selling second hand books or Fuji CD’s, loudspeakers rattling the shops as they blared samples. It only stopped when it got to a busy intersection. The women on Yoruba road sell their wares in the blazing sun, semi protected by colourful umbrellas, many of them with chemically enhanced skin peeling and forming dark splotches under the UV rays. They balanced their toddlers with kohl lined eyes and streaming noses on their knees, yelling at passers-by, trying to survive.
So far, so familiar.
It was when I looked to the left of where I stood some nairas proffered to the hawker that I saw something odd. Opposite the Yoruba road market was an unmarked bus stop where people collected to take different sorts of vehicular transport to destinations within and outside town. If it was a beaten up station wagon with peeling paint and pockmarks spitting up plumes of carbon monoxide it was usually filled with University students going to lectures. Occasionally there were Toyota buses, Mitsubishi buses, Sienna ones too — off white, chewed up by life and shaped like coffins; people packed into them listlessly unaware of probable death, knees under their chins, speeding out of town.
That day, however, there was a brand spanking new Mercedes Benz bus with tinted windows and obscenely luxurious rims perched in a stately way by the road. It cast the already shabby crowd in shabbier light; the whole street was made dreary by the mere presence of that bus. I had barely gotten over my intrigue when the doors swung open and out came seven Chinese women. Now. Not so weird right? Maybe not. Considering that Ilorin is a stop on the old rail system currently being rejuvenated by the government. The Chinese had been perambulating the town for years, fixing it up; they had taken over the quarries, many people in town worked as blasters on the sites, using dynamite to blow up the rocks for gravel. These women could have been wives or sisters of the engineers, or engineers themselves.
Yet there was something spooky about the whole thing. The women looked too militant to me, they walked with uncanny precision, in a singular horizontal file, and they appeared to be the same height and build, in faded button down denim shirts and fitted blue jeans rolled up just so at the ankles. With crystal white socks and dark blue tennis shoes on. They looked like a pop group trying to start a rice paddy worker fashion trend. I watched as they continued to march, facing forwards, crossing the lane with oncoming traffic with ease, the cars seeming to slow on command to let them through. I waited to see if they would cross into the market, or go into one of the other shops that lined the road. Instead they stopped within the rust-red guard rails in the road where one of the women in the line turned, one head breaking the monotony of rigid statues, looked in my general direction and winked.
I looked around and life in the market continued as usual, the sweet potato hawker standing before me seemed undisturbed by my staring at the women. I crammed the notes in her hands. When I turned back to look at the women they were gone. I staggered forward looking at both ends of the main road in turn but there was no trace that they were ever there, except for the Mercedes Benz bus, parked in the warm, dusty twilight, apart and gleaming.
I drove home in a daze, only recovering from auto pilot when I entered the gate. As I brought the car to a complete stop I was confronted with Hussein’s buttocks, his head stuck in a bunch of potted plants. He is a relative of indistinct connections, we rounded each other up to “cousin” years ago but I am not sure we are even really blood, not like it matters. I’ve known him my whole life; he is more like my brother.
Hussein knows everything, by the way. Not the kind of stuff you read in books or encyclopedias, I mean everything in between. He knows where to get fake visas and the only place in town where they have grilled dog meat and pepper soup, he knows the current governor’s aides and their girlfriends, he knows a guy who is a serial wife-r and leaver, who has lived and gotten citizenship in at least three European countries. He knows the current market value of every recreational drug available and where one might get them. He knows the secrets of all the neighbours on our street and those of their relatives as far away as Pategi. He knows that there is a place where you can get every type of designer wear you can think of, original stuff auctioned from containers that had been docked in Apapa for too long. The only trader in town who gets these things sells them cheap to my cousin, part of a payback for a mysterious favour he won’t disclose, probably pulled out of the archive of things that Hussein knows.
It was possible that he knew where I could find (a bunch of odd, Mercedes Benz bus riding, white socks in the tropics wearing, winking for no reason) Chinese women.
‘Yes now! There is a new apartment complex they are building in Sango, that contractor Shehu Ibrahim, the one that married Sister Mariya’s daughter last year is the one that is in charge, that’s where he got money to buy his new Honda Evil Spirit, I heard that there are some Chinese people there, that’s where they are staying’
‘It is the one after Discussion continues’ he explained
I nodded. And wondered to myself how I was going to get to Sango. Just to see if the women could really be there.
I had nothing better to do.
The next day, one of my cousins was getting married. It was the engagement party, held in her compound, in rented tents under the baking sun.
This is what happens when I am around my extended family. I become aloof and unreachable, drifting off during crucial parts of a conversation and returning just in time to observe people giving me strange, pitiful looks. I am a fussy eater and end up unwittingly abusing that particular type of generosity families display, especially at weddings, especially regarding food. My aunts are unshakeable; they hover, like recalcitrant ghosts, asking what you want to eat. Usually I want nothing on the menu and it is only after they have asked a thousand times that the wisdom to just pick something and barely eat it dawns on me.
But not this time, this time I had a riveting story, I had escalated the wink to an incident of mythic proportions.
As I relayed it, shouting over the noise and music, a plate of jollof rice and watery coleslaw on my lap, my cousins for once looking at me as though I belonged, I noticed an unfamiliar face among them. He looked bemused. A waft of condescension practically radiated off him. It bothered me and took the lustre off my moment, but I hurried through the rest of the story and soon everyone dispersed, talking among themselves. I pulled one of my cousins aside and asked who the unknown observer was. I described him. Bird like face; arrogant arch to left eyebrow; acne; could use some time in a fattening room. My cousin aahed.
“You mean Aminu?”
“Who is he?”
“Oh, just somebody, he is friends with Aunty Kuriatu’s son”
And because I was becoming obsessed, or maybe I wanted to carry on the conversation I asked her
“Do you know where Sango is?”
“You should ask Aminu, I’ve heard he works in a new hospital somewhere around there”
On Monday, at work, I logged onto the forum. Orixa55 wanted to know how the recipe turned out. Since I ended up not trying it, I had to let her know about the incident on Yoruba road. I sent her a private message. Batman69 was carrying on about Spielberg’s newest venture, a sci-fi television series called Terra Nova on the thread. He hated it. Orixa broke his fevered rant
Orixa55: Electra has a story. She got winked at by a Chinese woman; I think she was getting picked up!
Electra27: it’s nothing, and she certainly was not picking me up…that’s silly
Batman69: oh, wow, are you guys derailing the thread over this? Really? You couldn’t PM?
At this point three other members logged on and the story exploded. Theories started to fly.
JudietheDench: maybe they were labourers, brought in to help the other engineers, and they were sent to the market
Orixa55: seven women sent to the market? To buy what exactly? The entire town?
AriyaStark33: And in a huge, expensive bus? Electra did you see anyone else on the bus?
Electra27: no, the windows were tinted, I don’t really remember
Batman69: this is ridiculous.
SammieHammie: Aww…Batman is upset
Orixa55: Batman, if this was a Spielberg movie, what would you think?
Batman69: Spielberg could NEVER create such tripe
JudietheDench: yeah? Terra Nova
AriyaStark33: yeah, seriously, what would be your first instinct?
Batman69: you really expect me to answer this? *rme*
Orixa55: yes, come on help Electra out; reassure her she isn’t giving out “vibes”
Electra27: guys, come on…
Batman69: I’d have to say aliens
AriyaStark33: ooh, I know! Vampires
Batman69: very funny…
Orixa55: I mean, if we are going to be ridiculous
Electra27: thanks a lot for your help people
Orixa55: sorry darling, so what now?
Electra27: I’ll go to Sango I guess
Orixa55: what? Like the god of Thunder
Electra27: no, like Zan-go…it’s a place somewhere in town. My cousin says there are expatriates living over there
JudietheDench: alright Electra let us know if you find any a-l-i-e-n-s
I lied to my parents. I dodged Hussein, people who know things are notoriously inquisitive. I wouldn’t have been able to answer, “Possible UFO investigation”, if I had seen him. I snuck out of the house and took a taxi, saying with feigned confidence, “Sango” to the driver.
To my embarrassment Sango wasn’t even thirty minutes away from my house. I stepped out of the taxi, wondering what to do next. Looking around I found an okada man and mumbled in my poor Yoruba, “I want to go to the estate, new estate”. He frowned and asked which one. I said the one with the oyinbo people.
“Royal Valley, N50”
Minutes later I was flirting outrageously with the guards at the estate gate, telling more lies. My boyfriend lived in there I said. They asked me his name. I said he was married, with kids, his wife had the money, therefore I couldn’t say. I gave them N200 each and soon I was clicking around on the interlock bricks of the estate.
And then I found it.
The Mercedes Benz bus parked in front of a large, uncompleted two storey building.
I took off my shoes, stuffed them in my bag and tip toed towards the bus. My heart pounded. I felt foolish, exposed. I ducked behind the bus and noted the license plates. Federal, from Abuja, my pounding heart slowed to a disappointed pace. I knew it. There wasn’t anything unusual. They were just engineers from the capital. I had been watching too many films, spending too much time online talking nonsense; these combined had pushed a latent gene for madness in my blood into hyper drive.
I prepared to slip my shoes back on and placed a palm on the back of the bus to steady myself when it shivered to life, bathing me in exhaust fumes. I stepped quickly away into the shrubs that lined the sides of the walkway and watched.
The women came out of the uncompleted building. They looked as I remembered from a week ago in the market, this time I noticed that they had their hair tied back in slick ponytails, and each one of them wore an expensive looking wristwatch on their left wrist. It was white with fancy sequins studding the face. The doors shut behind them. Looking through the branches I saw the bus start to shimmer, the body of the bus rocked on its tires, getting intensely whiter until it faded from view with a pop sound. For a few seconds a tiny white dot, the sort left behind when you turned the TV off hovered and then, it too vanished.
As I walked back out of the estate the gatemen jeered at me, misinterpreting my dishevelled appearance. I stumbled along, questioning my sanity, not really knowing where to go next. Then I remembered Aminu from the wedding.
I flagged down another bike and asked to be taken to the new hospital. The driver stopped in front of a duplex with Grecian style pretensions. This could not be a new hospital. This could not even be a hospital at all. There was no signboard saying so. And yet there I was. The okada driver and several other pedestrians confirmed it.
The place was in a state of decline. The walls were a shade between yellow and cream, cracks filled with moss and other unidentified types of weeds travelled down from the roof. There was a roundabout missing many of the alternating white and black blocks, in the centre overgrown grass was being chewed on by a couple of free range goats.
All considered the super high walls and the cast iron gates seemed like overkill.
I walked into reception and was approaching the triage nurse when I saw Aminu. He wore starched white overalls and was wheeling a patient on a trolley. He stopped when he saw me. The look of arrogance was gone; if anything he seemed impressed, but the eyebrow, lifted as it was still gave off haughtiness.
He wheeled the patient away and came over to me. The blackheads on his cheeks seemed dotted with precision, more like freckles than acne, his thin and tightly drawn lips exaggerating his bird like looks.
“So, you are here. You finally found your Chinese”
He led me outside, a firm grip on my elbow, dragging me along until we were at the back of the building, in an abandoned shed. Broken garden tools lay around; the planks of wood making up the body of the shed were darkened with age. Sunlight and vines poked through the gaps. Aminu turned round to face me.
‘What is going on?’ I said
‘You mean you haven’t figured it out yet?’ he raised that stupid eyebrow
‘Look. All I know is some Chinese lady winked at me, I followed her to Royal Valley estate, she and her other septuplets got in a Mercedes Benz bus that then disappeared. I am only here because someone told me you work here. Are you a nurse or something?’
I gave him a stern look
‘I’m an orderly, abeg, don’t give me your princess looks, I am saving to go back to University’
It was at this point things got seriously insane.
The shed started to shake, each plank rattling, to the point of separating. I heard a loud pop sound, and a dot of white light appeared in front of us both. It seemed to unfold, getting bigger and brighter, flooding the shed. Figures appeared mid air and started to consolidate. The seven Chinese women shimmered into being. As usual they lined up, landing softly one after the other, tips of their feet lightly touching the ground, the lights turning off as they stood solidly on both feet. Each one turned the face of their watch three times, anticlockwise.
They stood only a few steps away from us. Up close they did not look human at all. Their skin had a marble like sheen; their eyes were dead, flat. The pupils dark, black coals. They stared straight ahead, as though we were not there.
They started to speak. Their lips never moved. Their postures never altered. The words seemed to originate in my head, and so it sounded like I was thinking them, only the syntax was off, the accent was not mine. They were speaking to me through me.
‘She has been following us’
‘He has been watching us’
‘It is your fault’
‘You should not have winked’
‘We should destroy them’
‘There is no need’
‘We will always win’
‘In three years we would have harvested enough’
‘We should still destroy them’
‘Take their memories’
‘Take their sight’
‘We should destroy them’
‘They will reveal everything’
‘No one would believe them’
‘We will destroy them should they ever speak of us to anyone’
They craned their heads and looked at Aminu and me, the pupils of their eyes flicking behind the whites of their eyeballs so sharply it seemed to make a loud click! We watched as they shimmered, their bodies vibrating, gaining momentum until their feet started to lift off from the floor, then, they slowly ascended with their faces upturned, hands pinned to their sides, eyes emitting pure white light. They faded away, this time floating through the cracks, merging with the sunlight.
Aminu and I sat on the shed floor. We exchanged stories. He told me that he had first seen them during a night shift. A patient with kidney trouble had been on the path to recovery, he had become friends with the man. When he went to check on the patient, he saw them leaning over him, the strange white light emitting from their entire bodies. The next morning the man was dead.
‘I have been here for six months and every night someone dies.’
‘And nobody finds this suspicious?’
‘You are funny. How many hospitals of this standard exist? Everyone hears that the hospital is owned by oyinbo, it is quite cheap to get treatment here, and the rest is easy’
‘What are they?’
‘They are not Chinese, that one is certain, they must know how easy it is to get anything here once you are foreign’
‘What do we do now?’
‘You still have to ask?’
‘People are dying Aminu. How can you still work here? How can you do nothing?’
‘Listen, I don’t know you, but I know your parents have money, you have nothing to worry about. Me, my life is different. Besides, you heard what they said, we can’t tell anyone anything’
‘So, we do nothing?’ I repeated.
Aminu looked at me, shook his head, stood up. He paused at the door of the shed and said before walking away, ‘I only need one more months’ salary’
On Monday I drove to work with a new appreciation of things around me. I saw the posters that dotted the streets, splashed with political slogans, rising up from the muck, the leaders with smug faces photographed like saints, lording over us forever without complaint. For the first time in months when I got to work I did not log into the forum. What was I going to say, anyway?
All weekend, after I got home from Sango I locked myself in my room. I thought about what Aminu said, about the desperation of people. I felt as though somebody had excavated something precious from within me, the sadness seemed to lighten me somehow. I saw the mess I was making of my life, my opportunities.
It was not until Sunday, as I stood in front of the mirror brushing my teeth that I realised what I had to do.
I don’t know what surprised my father more, the resignation letter or my intention to go back to University to study medicine. He asked me how I planned to pay my way through school, I told him I had money saved. This was a lie. But it did not matter. I was free.