Tonight. They arrived five minutes late. Tola and I have already boiled seventeen eggs, cooked three large bowls of rice, three large bowls of posho, made a hot pot of groundnut sauce and fried some grasshoppers.
Last week, they had made a special request. They wanted a cow’s foot. Tola and I got it from Mama Pam. She gave it to us for free and even offered free cooking lessons. We told her not to worry. They wanted it raw.
It is raining heavily outside so Tola and I have decided to keep the food inside the house until they arrive. We wrapped banana leaves on each of the dishes to keep the food warm. Even the cow’s foot. We think maybe it would keep it fresh. We think maybe they might reject it if it is not fresh enough. We googled “how to keep a cow’s foot fresh.” We have not wrapped banana leaves around the eggs. They told us to keep the shells on. We think maybe the shell would keep the egg warm. We think maybe they would eat the egg without cracking the shell first.
Baby Gloria is asleep so all we have to do is wait. We pick up each dish and place it on the floor. We have laid them out horizontally. Tola and I wait. The silence engulfing around and between us comforts me. I want to ask Tola what she is thinking. But we cannot speak. Not yet. We think maybe they were outside already. We think maybe they want to hear us speak. We think maybe it is better not to speak.
On nights like these, rainy nights, Tola and I used to carry Baby Gloria and sit her on the veranda on the front porch. She would chuckle at the sight of raindrops hitting the ground. She would flap her arms with excitement, wiggle her toes and lunge forward as if to catch the rain. She was too fat to crawl on all fours like most babies so instead, she wriggled. We would watch her with envy. We would laugh when she chuckled. Clap when she wiggled her toes. Tola would pick her up, press her lips on her tiny stomach, and blow raspberries that made Baby Gloria let out an ecstatic scream then clasp her chubby fingers on Tola’s ears as if to say keep going.
Tola stopped cuddling her ever since they arrived. She said there was no time for affection during times like these. Happiness was a luxury we could no longer afford. She said if Baby Gloria sensed she was loved too much, she would grow up with the false assumption that there is good in the world. So, we kept her at a distance. We fed her when she needed to be fed. Changed her when the stench of digested bananas oozed from her diaper. Bathed her when she needed to be bathed. And then hid her in the closet. We thought she was safe in there. We thought she was safer not knowing. We thought maybe they hated babies.
The shade. That’s what we call it. This place. Where we live. It is the shade. We like to say that it found us. We did not find it. It was constructed a year ago by the Ministry of Urban Planning and Development. At least that is what we thought. The shade. A structure of modernity built to show the people of this country that the people they elected to serve are actually serving. These are the words of Mr Munachi. He headed the urban planning division for eight years until he was fired by the government for stealing funds. The people currently in charge of the ministry claim the proposal to build the shade was declined. Mr Munachi allegedly stole money that had initially been allocated to recover the Zaachi forest that had been gutted down by an intentionally lit fire. The money was never used to regenerate the forest, instead, the city suggested housing would be more beneficial for the city. The shade was built where Zaachi forest once stood.
Zaachi was an impenetrable forest that often looked like it was strategically placed at the edge of the city. No one ever went into the forest because no one could ever cut through the thick ferns and vines that covered the ground. There were rumors. From a select number of people who attempted to walk into the forest. Those people claimed to have made it at least halfway through the forest but claim they ran out of the forest expeditiously because they were slapped by a person or people they claim to have not seen or could not name. Zaachi was known as a place of darkness. Nothing ever walked inside of it, and nothing ever walked out.
Tola is biting her fingernails. Actually, she has started to peel her skin off since there is almost nothing left of her nails. She has been ignoring my plea. Asking her to take it easy. She works too hard for them. Adhering to their every demand. Last week they said the rice was too dirty. They said they could not tell whether it was rice they were eating or a plate of stones. That night, Tola stayed up winnowing through three large bags of rice. She does not sleep anymore. She does not say much either. Only that we were too naïve to think that being given a free house by a corrupter would not come attached with unresolved vengeance. This place, she likes to say, is not ours. It was never ours. We are trespassers. Underneath these concrete floors, she always says, is a large snake carrying the soul of whatever inhabited the Zaachi forest. Each egg it lays is a soul released back into the earth. And they come knocking at our doors. Demanding to take back their space.
Tola removes her index finger from her mouth, kisses through her teeth and whispers to me, “Where the fuck are they?” Tola says.
“I don’t know,” I answer.
“The food is getting cold. I’m not doing this shit over again, I swear to God,” she says raising her voice.
“Keep your voice down,” I reply. “Maybe they did not signal this time round. Maybe they are outside already?”
“Look,” Tola says, “they always signal! You know we cannot go outside and check even if we wanted to! They signal. They always signal!” she whispers.
The very first night they arrived, we were not supposed to be here. We had deposited all of our belongings like cargo at Mama Pam’s. We had planned to uproot our bodies from the shade. Three weeks before they arrived, Mama Pam told us she saw an owl on our rooftop. It was the same owl that had sat on Marachi’s rooftop. Karungi’s rooftop. Mina’s rooftop. Amarachi’s rooftop. These women. These women also lived in the shade. They took them. They said these women did not provide fast enough. They said these women could not keep up. Mama Pam told us she was certain we were next when the owl tilted its head to the sky. The night they arrived, Tola had Baby Gloria safely wrapped around her back. The night they arrived, Tola reached for the door handle. We were leaving the shade. Tola reached for the door handle. It did not open. They had arrived.
“Should I go check on Baby?” I whisper.
“No! She will cry when she sees you and then what?” Tola replies.
“Should we not go and check if the child is still breathing? It is getting really late,” I say.
“Don’t,” she says. “They are up to some funny shit today. Leave the baby.” Her response irritates me.
Tola has always been bossy. She made the decisions. She decided who we spoke to. Where we called Home. The city was like an open supermarket. It was for everyone. We all roamed through it with ease marking different territories as our own. The day I met Tola, she was squatting in the Zaachi forest, sharpening her pocketknife on the ground. I used to think I knew at least everyone who lived within this city. Not by name but if you lived in this, here, I had seen you or had an encounter with you.
Tola was a fresh face. Awkward looking, tall, lanky and she often sharpened her pocketknife as if she was preparing for a fight that only she knew about. That day, I followed her around the city as she showed me places I had never been to before. We walked into high-rise buildings that only government folk had access to. She showed me how to pick the locks of the doors to my favourite restaurants. We would sneak in after hours and decimate their pantries. Then we would dance throughout the night, inviting strangers scavenging around the city to join us. Strangers often thought we were mad, but Tola made the rules. She said never apologise for living. That was until we found Baby Gloria. Tola changed the rules. We had to be more organised. We would live the right way. We would find a home. We moved into the shade.
“Five minutes. Five minutes. Fucking five minutes late,” Tola mumbles to herself.
“Would you stop that!” I snap.
“I have a bad feeling,” she replies.
“Would you like me to go check on the baby now?” I say turning to face her.
“No!” she snaps. She keeps staring at the floor.
“Tola! We always check on Baby, that’s always been the plan. Has it–” Tola grabs me by the arm, cutting me off mid-complaint.
“They are here,” she whispers.
“There was no signal!” I reply.
“I know!” Tola turns to face me. Her eyes are too white. For the first time in a while, I can sense that Tola is really afraid.
I used to think ghosts were ugly. In the movies, ghosts are always dressed in white robes and their heads are twice bigger than they were when the ghost was human. That never scared me. It occurred to me that people that made movies did not know what ghosts look like.
When I was young, I was afraid of the dark. I still had a mother then. She would say whatever lurks in the dark is a part of my imagination. According to her, I’m the master of the darkness. Whatever I imagine to be lurking in the dark will come to be. It is all up to you, she would say.
I’ve always wondered what darkness would look like in human form. Would it have vampire-like fangs and blood spilling through its teeth? Would it have a mouth for eyes and eyes for a mouth? Would it be bald and have three extra heads growing from the side? Would darkness be ugly?
Tola keeps her arm gripped tightly on mine. She doesn’t turn her head either. She is looking right at me.
“Tola?” I whisper.
“Yes,” she replies, her voice stern.
“They didn’t signal. How do you know they are here?” I ask, whispering.
“How do you know they are here, Tola?” I insist, “You’re hurting my hand, Tola.” I try to loosen her grip on my hand as quietly as I can so as not to make any noise. “Tola,” I whisper.
She continues to fix her gaze on me. The bleeding nubs of her fingers are now digging into my skin. I don’t know whether she is still here. And there is a smell. It smells like burnt wood. The room is no longer clear, and something is making its way across my eyes. I cannot see a thing. All I feel is Tola’s skin on mine.
“Tola… Tola, say something,” I yell!
“They are here. Right here,” she says. “They are here.”
Tonight. They arrived five minutes late.