“Everyone agreed that something had gone wrong; Kunle had died this way: getting to his twenty-second birthday, Kunle who hated fish, had slumped at a fish market and died.”
ON THE DAY that I, Tola, was to buy a soul, my father walked into my room and informed me that there were no souls to buy at any of the licensed stores. After my father left the room, I, prone to small, polite displays of panic, dug my face into my pillow and screamed for over ten minutes. After that, I made tea because it was simple and, mostly, without fuss.
That night, behind my father’s third car, Ngozi, my girlfriend of two weeks who was beautiful in a way that was unfair, moved away from what would have been our first kiss. I knew why she moved away: I wasn’t wearing the red band.
“You won’t really feel it where it matters,” she told me. “It’s a waste of time”. I made tea again and, between sips, I cursed the red band.
The red band, black decades ago, and green ages before, was given by the Ministry of Soul Acquisitions and Monitoring to everyone who had a soul. The band, a simple red affair with the Ministry’s logo — a child holding the sun — was worn like a wristwatch. Getting the red band was easy enough. Getting a soul was a different thing. Like most things in this country, the process is a long and clogged one.
When my sister, Flora, turned twenty two, Papa — understandably desperate — bribed a state officer to facilitate the process. She had gotten a soul on time but Garri replaced cornflakes on our table for months. Years later, my brother Kunle wasn’t so lucky.
Everyone agreed that something had gone wrong; Kunle had died this way: getting to his twenty-second birthday, Kunle who hated fish, had slumped at a fish market and died. Passers-by, deciding that moving a body without the red band was beneath them, left it there.
Papa was poor then.
Then Chief Alex Otiti, my father’s best friend, became the new governor’s Chief of Staff and everything changed. People now greeted him “Good morning, Sir” and most times, I thought they rushed the greeting so they could arrive at “Sir” with a mouthful of false respect.
It was Chief Alex who explained to my father and I, with regret, that souls were scarce. But he assured us that with his influence and connection, something would happen within a week. Papa, smiling, thanked the chief for his effort. But outside the office, his smile disappeared as he considered my face.
“Kunle’s death was an accident,” he assured me.
“What if the same thing happens to me?”
“It won’t. You heard what the chief said: within the week. That’s a week lesser than the grace period.”
MY FATHER waited a day before he told Mama. She wasn’t like him. While he tried to be calm, and mostly succeeded, she pinched her lips together and made her face a wall holding back tears. Yet she was the cynical one: sure when something was wrong, reluctant to term anything correct. When she pulled me in for a hug, I allowed it.
“What will you do?” she asked Papa.
“We will have faith.”
“I asked what will you do. Not what you’re telling yourself.”
And back and forth they went as if they were siblings linked by obligatory love and not husband and wife. But if I looked for proof that they loved each other, all I did was remember that Papa, when he felt Mama had been insulted by a neighbour, Mama Glory’s stupid first son or that woman with the weird name, would defend her with a single-mindedness that was as scary as it was effortless
I was tired so I went to my room.
An hour later, Papa followed and, in my room, he talked about how people had laughed at him and how his first wife, Esther, left him. He talked and talked. And it was not the steady stream of people who had failed him — that’s how he thought of them — that irritated me but the way he said it. The satisfaction of what he came to see as his triumph and the irrelevance of it to my situation.
Then, somehow realizing he had failed to cheer me up, Papa stopped and said, “He’ll get you one. Don’t worry.” I think people say “Don’t worry” the same way they say “No offense.” It was usually pointless. Then he left.
If my parents hid their fear and concern for my plight, others did not. Mama Glory greeted me first and when she did, it was sadness that pushed her words out. The old tailor at the junction, the one who insisted we call him Dave looked at me with something close to, but not exactly, pity. He wasn’t seeing me, I was sure. I was a glass and, through me, Dave saw all the children who had died without a soul.
I struggled with who to blame. And that was the issue with blame. It rarely, if ever, organized itself into neat piles that one could sort out and give out to people.
THE DAY it happened, I made tea with two cubes of sugar. By past 11 a.m., the door opened and my father walked in.
“My boy, how are you?” my father, hands behind him, asked.
“I’m very fine.”
He ignored the sarcasm and smiled. “I understand. I really do. Your room smells and your soul is here.”
And he showed me a box no larger than a shoe box. “I told you Chief won’t disappoint,” he said. “Here, take.” And I, in a daze, walked up to him and took the box.
His smile widened. “I’ll leave you to it.” Then he left.
For something close to an hour, I did nothing except sit on the floor and stare at the box. It was a grey thing and the only colour was the Ministry’s logo on it. Swallowing, I tried to gently open the box but desire is often a clumsy and senseless thing, so I ripped the cover off.
And my soul was there.Gently now, because senselessness could only go so far, I took the soul out of the box.
I looked at the soul in my hand. It was a tiny blue ball, pulsing with an eerie glow. I can’t tell if it’s made of glass or plastic. Small white lines of light raced across its surface making it seem alive. With shaking hands, I brought it close to my chest and as I did, the glow intensified and it felt lighter. When I pushed it into my chest, it somehow just faded into me.
I felt something spread through me, a tingling just beneath my skin. But it wasn’t the light I had expected. No. I felt like I had somehow dipped myself into darkness and it was consuming me.
I passed out.
THE FIRST thing I notice isn’t the pain or the images pressing against the edge of my mind; those come later. The first thing I notice is how the air in my room smells of damp clothes and neglect.
Then the images come and, with them, a pain that strolls from my left ear, across my head, to my right ear and back the same way. I feel like someone is leisurely hitting a hammer against my head. Only that this hammer seems to be made of a million tips.
A room burning.
A child running.
A spider upside down.
An explosion of red.
A man stabbed.
A knife. A knife. A knife.
I think I pass out again.
I wake up. I feel like I’ve been floating all my life and today, something has slammed me to the ground, telling me, “Tola, you this boy, stay here.” And I feel tired. I feel the sort of tired you feel when your body isn’t tired but something inside you is. And I feel lost too. Something’s wrong and I know what it is. I feel myself drowning and something else talking over.
Chief Alex lied to papa. This soul is evil and old. And it’s taking control.
About the Author:
Post image by Jan Arendtsz via Flickr.
Michael E. Umoh is a graduate of Mass Communication from the University of Nigeria, Nsukka. A fan of rock music and most things written, Michael believes his friends are right when they call him “weird.”