June 21 wasn’t a special day. It was as ordinary and as any day of the month with that name.
…and yet, it was threatening to drizzle again, a gloomy and overcast sky covered the town that morning. But even for the elements, looks can be deceiving and if you were in the business of weather forecasting, the sun that was now rupturing the clouds somewhere in the eastern horizon was sure to disappoint you.
The day soon brightened under a liberated sun, the world went on. It was 8:00am, Tuesday, the month of June in the year of our Lord 1997.
Still, it wasn’t a special day.
Joy wasn’t a special girl. If you were a typical folk, and your opinion of beauty was devoid of aspersions, either yours or others, you would say Joy was simply…plain.
But what 20-year-old Joy lacked in looks, made it up for her in virtue.
She too had waited for the elements to decide what it wanted to do that morning; rain, drizzle or storm.
While walking home two days before she had overheard talks at the salon about a certain killer on the lose.
She worked at a salon last year. Hairstylists have usually accomplished gossips so put the rumors off.
Then last night her madam who owned the store where she works as a sales girl called with the instructions not to come to work until 9am.
“Any problem, ma?”
“You don’t hear what’s happening in the town?”
Madam always complained about Joy’s naivety, nonchalance, and seeming lack of interest in happenings around her. Still, everybody loved Joy.
Joy always had something of serenity in her air, of state in her mien, of refined propriety in her language.
She had hoped to wake up late on account of her Madam’s order. That didn’t happen.
Her brain was used o its own alarm that often went off at 5:30am.
That morning of June, she wore a white shirt tucked into a short skirt, a tight one that emphasized her ample behind.
She walked fast as she approached the Ughelli main market.
But still, it wasn’t a special day.
Well, you could say Fego was a special boy – he is deaf and mute, thus unaffected by the noise the universe made.
In Nigeria, one Fego is born every five hours in a citified hospital. If you happen to be human and a Nigerian and are unable to speak or hear, or are afflicted in both departments many consider you dumb. Most dictionaries carry a third definition for dumb; that which refers to a stupid or dull person.
But Fego was not stupid.
He manages his own business efficiently hawking sachet water in the market.
That June’s morning, Fego had decided to hawk his ware around Joy’s store.
Fego, aged 18, had a crush on Joy; a blistering one.
Another deaf friend had told him about an incident in nearby Ekiugbo town. The girl’s eyes had been bored out after being severely raped.
So that morning he walked by Joy’s store. It was not opened yet.
He harbored fear. If you wanted to do something, you really wanted to, and you knew what it was that you needed to do, it either becomes set out in your mind like an old trail or like an idea, an affliction, that possesses your head until you have acted/start acting on it. Purged yourself of its grieving torment. Done with it, until the next time when you had to.
But of fear was the unexpected storm that blew the circus away just when the kids began to have fun — He was having fun until fear, the inexorable anti catalyst got hold of him.
He’d done it before. Several times now and had gotten away with it. This was a wonderful country, he told himself, as he herded his two daughters aged 5 and 7 out of the door to the duplex. They were already running late for school. His wife had gone out to the market where she ran a large pharmacy.
A wonderful country indeed. If you knew your way around and was not in the least afraid of anything whatsoever, and you as well have the resources of baba Muero and others high up, then you could do something as unspeakable as what he’s been doing and still get away clean, just like he’s been doing.
He loved movies. He loved the ones about police in the whitey countries, their techniques and forensic things. Profiling criminals and finger printing everyone.
Here in Nigeria…,pfft.
He was making a lot of money too. Two jeeps in 6 months. His bank account would soon become suspicious.
But sometimes he dreams. About the girls.
Wicked dreams, nightmares, where they all come for him, all of them naked; dark holes where their eyes; their pores oozes blood. They encircled him, arms, like beggars were outstretched, only those eyes aren’t begging, they are demanding, exacting, requiring…
And then he would wake up as though from drowning and out of breath.
Then he prays.
Last week he took his new baby to the church for dedication. The pastor prophesied great things about their new baby boy. And about him too.
He was already doing great things, wasn’t he?
Then the pastor further favoured him with more prayers after he pushed a bulky envelope surreptitiously into the pastors left pocket. They both shared a furtive look, his of appreciation, the pastors a mixture of approval and piety.
“No evil shall befall you…” The robed man murmured, his sweaty forefinger making the sign of the cross across the mans forehead.
“…no evil, from your mother side, your father side…”
Evil. He feared no evil. He was the bringer of damnation.
His only fear were his dreams.
In his dreams the girls weren’t humane any longer. They were bloodied zombies. Hideous effigies from a forbidden and hellish place inside his soul.
The dreams were driving him insane, to more viciousness. The venom of it was inside of him, not just a seed of barbaric thoughts, it was past that.
It was a poison in his blood stream, coursing through it like a virulence. Perhaps they don’t die. So they pursue him into his sleep seeking vengeance. No gravity in there, no traction. He floats towards their blood dripping fingers. Someday they will get him, he knows.
But until then the money pours in. The money comes in.
From Oropo to Ughelli’s main market is not very far. It took him less than an hour with his motorcycle.
The market was already busy. That wasn’t going to be a problem. It had never been. He checked his Rolex. 9:45am. Good.
He rode his bike in a rather too slow manner down the narrow road that cuts the market in two unequal halves, calculating, weighing odds, figuring. No one paid attention to him as he observed the stores. There were motorcycles everywhere so he wasn’t out of place.
He pushed his fear aside. He shoved it actually. Fowls didn’t need toothpicks, he mused.
Then he saw the girl. He found his mark, his score.
They say the divide between being alive and being dead is very thin, yet there is a moment, that incandescent brief instant in time when the crossover occurs.
It is a twinkle. Of conclusion, a point of no return when a victim meets their nemesis and they must both work out the outcome of their encounter.
The resolution that leads to this confluence, the actions and omissions in all their nuances, all muddled up to make that divide all the more untraceable.
Joy sat just inside the entrance of the store. She was going through sales from the previous day in a worn note book.
She had both her face and attention in it. Sales has not been very good since the beginning of the quarter of the year. That was the economy in fits.
No matter how bad the economy though, people still shopped for baby things. It was something of a preoccupation for Ughelli people to have children almost every year. It was why the madam went into the business of baby stuff.
Her face buried in the ledgers, her thoughts somewhere below that, telling herself there had being no customers all morning. She was so lost in thoughts cum concentration that she did not notice the tall figure as it entered the store.
Somewhere close by, Fego was being held up by a former girlfriend.
Her name was Chioma, a mute like Fego who sold okra and vegetables.
Unlike Joy, she was quite something to look at, tall, light skinned and very attractive.
Apparently, she’d ‘heard’ through the grapevine about Fego’s new interest. Even though Joy herself was unaware of love in the deaf world.
They stood beside a clothing store.
The only thing an observer could ‘hear’ of their communication was a blur of complicated hand and finger movements, a vortex of grunts and coos, and corresponding facial asseverations.
“Who is Joy?” Chioma asked.
Fego said he didn’t know what she was talking about.
“But you have been seeing her.”
“Who told you that?”
“You think I won’t know?”
“I have never even spoken with her.”
Chioma looked up the stores and back at Fego.
“You don’t know how to lie.” She said.
“Oh yeah, you would know since it was something you are so good at.”
“What is that supposed to mean?”
“What concerns you with my life by the way?”
“Now that you ask, where’s the money you are owing me?” Chioma stretched out a hand.
“So this is about the money?”
“Yes, are you not spending money on her now? Give me my money!”
“How about the ones you owe me too?”
“Which money did I owe you? Did we not do it many times?” Chioma queried.
“So when I ask about my own money, we did it. But when you ask for your own money, it is a debt, abi?”
Chioma looked away and said nothing. Her pretty face had gone red.
“Oya, I will come and see you tonight, ehn. Baby naa.” Fego smiled.
“Shebi you are going to see her also. Leave me.”
“Wait, but me and you have agreed to end it na.” Fego tried.
“Ehn!” Chioma fumed. “Oya, give me my money!”
“OK, ok, I will come tonight.”
Chioma turned and walked away, shaking her behind invitingly as she did.
Fego hurried off in the other direction. He decided now was the time to tell Joy how he felt about her.
Joy looked at the stranger and they lock eyes for a few seconds.
“Wetin you wan buy, sir.”
The man took off his helmet. Joy saw he was a good looking man, even handsome. A strong jaw and bright eyes that danced in their sockets like restless houseflies. Eyes that looked past her, no, through her when she thought about it. They were cold too.
An alarm rang in Joy’s cautious mind. But he suppressed it. This was her first customer for the day so she got off her seat and stood aside as the man went right into the store.
“How much be this?” He asked pointing at a bundle of Pampers.
Joy asked him which one he wanted since there were different brands up on the shelf.
“Na outside you wan stand dey answer me?”
Joy went in after a slight hesitation.
Fego had his pure water bowl on his head, whilst in his head as well, he is rehearsing what he was going to say to, how he was going to say it.
They have had several conversations in sign language that Fego had taught her.
Fego reasoned that it wouldn’t be too difficult for joy to understand when he signed “I love you.”
He was near the store now. I am ready, he thought.
Fego would later say it was something like he’d never experienced before.
The shock, it was unreal yet it was happening right before his eyes. More gruesome and unnerving than anything he’s heard or seen.
He had set his bowl of sachet water in a corner beside Joy’s store. He had told the woman there who sold rice that he was going just right around the corner.
The rice seller would later say too, that she new about the budding romance Fego and Joy.
“Two people wey like each other no hard to know na.” She said when reporters asked her thoughts.
“Did joy like the boy?”
“Ah, I no know o, you know sey all this nowadays gehs, you can not fit predict them. Them fit do and undo.” She smiled proudly.
“You’ve ever seen them together before?”
“Me ke! Na my rice ah dey look o, shuo!”
Her testimony would consequently be stricken off most of the reports in the newspapers.
“Were you surprised?”
“No na, why I go surprise sey boy dey find geh? No na. Na normal thing na.”
Markets are never quiet. So no one could have heard the subdued thud of someone being stricken.
Not even Fego who upon reaching the store, stood just out of sight, near the first iron barriers that usually protected the main store itself. He was going over his love proclamation, making sure it ‘sounded’ right.
Meanwhile, Joy was getting mauled.
Before Joy could turn around from checking out the item the man had pointed out on the shelf, a hammer had materialized into the mans hand and he struck Joy on the head.
The first blow glanced off her temple and it landed on her left shoulder fracturing the tip of her collar bone. She fell down.
She started to ward off the next blow with her right hand but the man was too strong. He fell on top of her, straddling her and as he twisted the girls hand away to the side, he lifted his hammer high over his head.
Mute people are unable to scream. An average male adult would seldom scream in fright like women would in fear or terror. But shock can be petrifying.
Fego came in and became rooted to where he stood in horror. The man was going to land that fatal blow on the girls head when Fego flew at him, hurling the man, the hammer and himself into the wall and shelves, raining baby stuff down everywhere.
Fego was mad with a mixture of fury and naked fear, he was young and strong, tall for his age. But he was no march for the man.
The man picked him up like a rag doll and threw him towards the entrance where Fego hit his left forearm against the iron barricade, spraining it.
The man went for his hammer once more, without even a small sign of strain. He straddled the semiconscious girl again. He raised his hammer in a hesitant arc and stopped in mid air, then he stowed it, put his hand inside his pocket and produced a large knife.
Joy started mumbling in pain, eyes shut and wriggling like someone in a nightmare, turning her head from side to side.
The man held Joy’s head with one hand and got ready to pluck out her eyes.
No. I must get help, Fego told himself. He got up and ran to the rice seller waving his hands at the woman and customers around, pointing at the store.
The rice seller looked at Fego’s bruised arm and her hand froze over the cooler of stew, spoon in hand.
Fego made a sign of knife and the motion of gorging out the eyes then he pointed franticly at Joy’s store.
The rice sellers eyes went wild with sudden understanding.
Then she screamed.
“THIEF O O O!!!”
The woman wasted no time. The rumours about the killer who took eyes was still fresh and this was what this deaf boy is trying to tell him.
She ran for the store. A couple people; customers, men, followed her.
The man too heard the commotion outside. He returned his knife to its place and rose up. Joy bled from the wound on her temple and a deep cut under her lower eyelid where the killer had tried to cut out her eyes.
He knew if he stayed longer he would be caught. But he could do this some other day. Maybe tomorrow. There were other girls.
He shot out of the store knocking down the rice seller and confusing the others who weren’t sure at first.
Fego ran after the man. The other men followed. Everyone was shouting “thief!” — both the mob that was steadily building up and the man they ran after.
Back at the store the rice seller was dialing on her phone furiously.
People were trying to move joy out of the store.
“Where the madam?” Someone asked.
“Na you be the madam?”
“No, na she I dey call so.” Said the rice seller.
But she was calling the bakasi boys instead.
She didn’t have to. The bakasi boys were already in the market somewhere and the killer was running into them.
Earlier in the week, a private town meeting of community elders and the security agencies — the local police department, personnel from the small military outpost and the vigilante bakasi boys and a sprinkle of other important people, was held at the King’s palace.
An unanimous decision was reached that included a constant surveillance of the Ughelli main market.
“What will be done to culprits?” Asked the Ovie (king).
“May you live long, king.” That was the police chief, “everyone knows that this is a job primarily for the police. Suspects should be handed over for prosecution.”
“Na today?.” Grumbled a lawyer known for his stubbornness.
The Ovie looked at lawyer questioningly.
“Ovie, everybody know wetin dey happen to criminals once them enter police station.” Said the lawyer.
The police chief sent a mutinous glare in his direction.
The bakasi commander seated between a business man representing the market people and another lawyer shifted in his seat.
“Kizito.” Called the Ovie.
“Ovie.” Answered the bakasi commander.
After singing the proper adulations, standing up to an imposing height of almost 7 feet, he said, “this our country now don pass where dem they catch thief wen kill another human being, after them collect bribe finish, them go come leave am make e go free.”
“Efian! E no go happen again!”
That small speech just about decided the whole meeting.
The squad of bakasi boys that was posted to the Ughelli main market that day of June 21 were six young men; two polytechnic graduates and three police academy washouts.
The sixth man, the eldest and a father of three girls did plumbing in his spare time.
Their Hilux van was parked across from the clothes section of the market; not far from where Fego and Chioma had their argument that morning.
One of the academy flunky, a short guy, had been busy giving the plumber lessons on how to beat lotto and win properly when they heard the noise from far off.
They grabbed their pump actions.
What came next, to this men, was both curiously familiar and amusing at the same time. It was too obvious to any veteran, someone in their line of work.
From the row of stores, out came a man; helmet in the arm, likely an okada man, running and shouting ‘thief’, then followed by a mob on his heels, also shouting ‘thief’.
It was quite obvious who the thief was.
The pervert didn’t see the bakasi boys until he ran across the road and straight into them. They grabbed him.
“Where the thief wen you dey pursue?” They asked him.
“No, be me o!” He hollered.
He tried to get away when he saw the mob cross the road.
His arraignment right there took only about five minutes. His sentencing took lesser. The facts were quickly established. Fego, the deaf and dumb boy didn’t say much.
The mob supplied most of the evidence, mostly rehashing previous occurrences and layering them with the little bits they got from Fego on this new one.
Of course, here was the bastard who has been on a killing spree.
He knelt down in the mob, silent.
The one who seemed to be leader of the squad, the part time plumber named Jerry was approached by the rice seller. She and this mute boy, she said pointing at Fego, were witnesses.
“Make una check im body well well o.”
“Wetin dey the body?” Mr Jerry went over to the man where he crouched.
He felt through his thick pullover and extracted the heavy hammer and a very sharp, blood stained knife.
The crowd roared.
“Shoot am! Burn am!”
The bakasi men promptly shacked the criminal and threw his bulk into the back of their van.
A police van rolled in just in time. They wanted the criminal.
This got the market people even madder. But news through the grapevine traveled faster than light and it found its concerns wherever they were. Two trucks of soldiers arrived on the scene too.
Nevertheless, the whole market was here — men, women, children, daughters, and about three hundred angry town folks, armed with nothing other than their indignation.
Enraged and determined to the point of vengeance.
“My people. My people. Please calm down.” The police chief shouted.
In urhobo language, he said, “we are taking the criminal away now. We will not rest until people like him are eliminated from our community.”
The crowd bellowed, “NO O!”
“…now we will…”
“….make sure he is…”
“We will not rest….”
“…until people like him…”
More and louder bellowing.
Even stronger bellowing.
“….from this community.”
“NO O O!” The crowd cried.
All the while the bakasi guys laughed, the soldiers watched and went from upset to outright enraged by the charade.
A heavily built soldier with a tribal mark on his face, probably kanuri or some other far off tribe waved the crowd to calm.
“Wetin una want?” He asked.
“Burn am!!” Screamed the people.
The soldier abruptly turned on his knees and facing the police he ordered them to leave.
Without waiting to hear any answer, he ordered the the bakasi to drop the pervert.
The men hesitated.
“Now!” He barked.
Wisdom required that you obey the imperative of a soldiers order. The bakasi handed over the killer.
There was a cry of victory as the three trucks left the market.
It was now 10:58am, local time, June 21.
What were the man’s thoughts in his last moments alive?
Before the two tyres were put around his torsos, like a snug hull a hoop, before the petrol was poured all over him; a public sacrificial ablution from head to toe. What were his thoughts as the fuel caught, the flames a billowing density, scarlet and yellow pyrotechnics?
Perhaps he thought of his beautiful wife, his little girls whom he will never see again. Maybe he even was grateful for the liberation from his dreadful dreams, his compulsory obligations to his nightmares.
We will never know. There is no way to tell.
Fego was in the crowd too. He watched as the mans roasting skin melted and his whole body coiled and twisted like an accordion, into an animal like volute.
If Fego couldn’t hear the noise, either of the crowd’s cheering or the crackling sound of disintegrating human soul, he could well perceive the pungency. The acrid smell was everywhere, filling his nose, making him want to be sick. Feeling he’d had enough of the disgust, he left.
Fego felt he needed to visit Joy at the hospital. While the drama was going on in the market, he had gotten word that Joy was at the hospital, still breathing.
He found his bowl of sachet water where he left it at the rice sellers store. But his business was over for the day. His arm hurt badly, his nerves stood on end and his heart felt numb.
Joy’s store was closed up too. He met Chioma again as he tried to get a bike.
They looked at each other for a moment without speaking.
Then Chioma embraced him, hesitantly at first, then Fego put his arms around her. Memories washed over him and he shut his eyes.
The warmth of Chioma’s skin against his. Her fragrance. The smell of her hair. It stirred something inside of him, something of love that’s long forgotten, buried.
Or was it just the strain of the day?
The heavens suddenly darkened.
It finally began to rain on June 21.
The intensive care section of the Ufor hospital was less rowdy than usual.
There were no crying people, bloodied on rickety gurneys, stretchers with their paints peeling off like burning skin.
There were no accident victims groaning in pain or disconsolate folks who have come to be treated.
The splattering of nurses here and there ignored Fego as he walked uncertainly down the rows of open doors.
He soon began to see familiar faces. Traders from the market, hurdled at a door, peering in.
He joined them.
Joy lay prone on a bed. Her head and shoulder was wrapped in a swathing of thick bandages. Fego’s heart sank lower.
Too many pipes were attached to her wrists. Her face was turned to the wall.
A woman sat hunched beside her sobbing. Fego thought that must be her mom. There was a strong resemblance in the outline of the face and shoulder.
Why is she unconscious? Will she wake up soon?
He suddenly felt nauseous and tired.
The air outside was fresher than the antiseptic dampness in the wards. It was still raining and the breeze blew, it bent the grey droplets of rain into an angle and made the trees wave in a forceful dance.
Fego put his back to one of the big pillars that held the front portico of the hospital and watched as people came and went, some hunkering shakily against other pillars.
It was a big hospital. Last time he was here it was when his brother was shot.
It had been a terrible time for both of them.
He would sometimes sleep right where he stood now, in the cold, tormented all night by cockroach sized mosquitoes. Mosquitoes that bit you so hard that you were sure they were trying to make a statement.
Like, ‘bro, i got this. Can you feel the sting?’
He slept here for how long, a week?
It had felt like a year though.
It had felt at the time like being trapped in a hole. He felt that way now.
When trouble found its way into your life it never seemed to go away quite completely. For a long time. It becomes a river of suffering sprouting tributaries, which in turn flows to other people bringing trouble to them too.
When that evil man touched Joy, thought Fego, he brought trouble into her life. Everyone else is now an involuntary swimmer in those turbulent waters.
Himself included. Or did he have a choice in the matter?
Can I chose to be a part of this or should I simply walk away?
The winds became treacherous out there and the rain poured.
Back inside the ICU, a sprinkling of people remained in Joy’s room, her mother still hunched over in a lonely posture beside her.
Tubes still extended both ways, from her wrists and up the stands where bags of clear liquids hung. They looked like the sachet water Fego sold at the market.
A nurse was bent over Joy’s face so Fego could not see if she was awake. She lay still, like she did when he came in the first time.
The nurse was checking the bandages, she said something to Joy’s mother, the woman shook her head wearily, the nurse shrugged slightly. She adjusted a lever on one of the pipes that fed joys body, tapped it and then took a file of the corner of the bed.
At the door the nurse looked at Fego questioningly. Fego quickly let her know he couldn’t hear nor speak.
The nurse looked at the unconscious girl inside the room and then at the deaf boy, she smiled.
She took out a sheet and wrote on it.
“Are you a family member?”
Fego shook his head. The nurse gave him that conniving smile again.
Fego took the paper from her and wrote:
“I am a friend. When will she wake up.”
The nurse hesitated a little before writing:
“She is in sever shock. Coma.”
“What is coma.”
“A deep sleep.”
Almost 1:00pm, Ughelli, Delta.
What better way to unhinge from all the trouble in the world, Fego mused, than to go to sleep.
To lie down in an unaffected repost, by the shorelines, not feeling nor afraid of the waves that crashed all around you.
Fego felt the grumbling of a waking hunger in his stomach. He remembered he hadn’t had a meal since the day began.
He looked around the hospital. Sick people everywhere, people who brought them and nurses who took care of them, doctors who stabbed them in the arms and bottoms with needles. An ambulance screamed in through the ornate gate. It came to a halt at about a yard from where the large entrance that went to the Casualty ward.
A tired looking driver jumped down as the doors at the back opened, vomiting two men in neon colored vests.
They dragged out two stretchers, one after the other, each one held blood covered people. One of them groaned in pain.
Fego’s stomach growled again.
He walked towards the open gate without looking back.
He had to leave, to move on.
Joy’s mother was still sitting beside her when Fego left the place.
He knows she will never leave her daughters side.
Fego had asked the nurse when joy would wake up.
“Who knows? Anytime; today, tomorrow, next week. It could be a month. A year.” Said the nurse.
Or it could be never.
Trouble probably came to stay. Outside the gate, he found he felt a bit light in his blood circulation.
Why? Is that cruel of me?
He was deaf and mute, he will always be and that probably is his own trouble.
He felt someone behind him and he turned around.
It was Chioma.
Trouble never leaves us, so does love. In our deepest times of despair, there is always someone beside us.
Someone who swims the waters with us.
June 23 — 24, 2016. Ughelli, Delta.