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Image by Jan Arendtsz via Flickr.

“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 got 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.”

“I know.”


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 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.

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 for whom to blame. And that was the issue with blame. It rarely, if ever, organizes 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 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 open the box gently but desire is often a clumsy and senseless thing, so I ripped the cover off.

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, pain 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:

portrait2-umohMichael 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.”

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11 Responses to “How To Buy A Soul | Michael E. Umoh | Fiction” Subscribe

  1. Omolara 2017/01/31 at 04:17 #

    This. was. gripping.

  2. Mz_omah 2017/01/31 at 15:17 #

    Amaaazzziiiinnggggg….I want more

  3. onoedosio 2017/02/01 at 23:42 #

    Oh my wow!!!

  4. flame 2017/02/03 at 18:32 #

    And I read every word. Beautiful piece. My imagination was well fed.

  5. Chigozie 2017/02/05 at 07:03 #

    Beautiful stuff! The protagonist reminds me of one with schizoid personality disorder. It’s like all his life’s he’s been numb. He has always had a soul, but it was always trapped, unable to expand its amorphous tentacles beyond the insides of his flesh. His range of emotional expression is limited, he also has become so numb he cannot sense things required of one to fit into the social norms, eg a smelly room. His girlfriend, aptly described as one whose beauty seems unfair (nna ehn, there are some people who need to be described with those words sha) doesn’t think he can feel. Oh but he can. It’s all just so repressed. Even in his narration, it all seems to ooze numbness, anhedonia, a great difficulty to sense, to feel, and to express. But he can. Society just thinks he can’t because of a stupid band.

    In a way the blue ball saves him, but in other ways it kills him. It frees his soul, only to control. It’s like bailing a man from jail only to put a dog leash (ahem… pretty mike) on him to do your bidding. We all know when the government gives you something there’s a catch.

    I imagine this to be some sort of distopian society where all children have their souls repressed from birth, so that when they are adults they can “willingly” hand over their freewill to have their souls freed in the guise of being graciously given souls they actually always had.

    Once again, great stuff!

  6. Omotomi 2017/02/05 at 09:47 #

    This is nice and intriguing.

  7. Gyasi 2017/02/05 at 11:39 #

    Honestly when I see strikes of Adichie on someone else’s work it irritates me. Can’t you guys be creative and have your own voice and ideas? What is Garri replace cornflakes, well I stopped reading there. good luck with your writing.

  8. Michael E. Umoh 2017/02/05 at 14:17 #

    @Chigozie, LOL. I didn’t picture a dystopian society when I wrote this but I find your idea of “soul repression” fascinating.

    @Gyasi I understand your irritation. At least, I think I do. I also think it’s misplaced considering the only thing by Adichie I’ve read is “We Should All Be Feminists”. And as for my voice, I’m finding it. It doesn’t have to come out fully grown.

  9. munene mwarania 2017/02/11 at 12:31 #

    @Michael Great story and an even better reply! To handle critics with such grace is, wait for it, very Adichie! All the best in your writing!!!!

  10. Michelle Jose 2017/04/20 at 17:55 #

    Woooow!!! That was one captivating story. It really got my imagination travelling. I applaud your creativity #wehdonsir


  1. [The JRB Daily] JRB Contributing Editor Bongani Madondo up for Brittle Paper Literary Award – The Johannesburg Review of Books - 2017/08/23

    […] “How to Buy a Soul,” Michael E. Umoh, fiction (Nigeria)  […]

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I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

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