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The sky loomed red over Ado and lightning threaded the sky like fulgurant fishbones, appearing then disappearing in a celestial game of hide and seek. On cue, the last hagglers disappeared from the main market as the traders boarded up their wooden stalls and noisily banged the shutters: a ritual that was as much a part of them as their other daily habits. At close of business, traders and customers were once again on an equal footing and they filed out of the market and onto Light Street, side by side.
Caddy boys drove wheelbarrows of merchandise through the crowd unconcerned with human obstacles, faces tight like fists and heads covered with polyethene bags and secured in knots that bunched under their chins. They all donned the same uniform of denim cutoffs and dark polo tops and whether tall or short, young, or old, their bodies were strong-limbed and muscular, in contrast with faces lined prematurely by life and the elements. They were peculiar hybrids of athleticism and old age.
‘Ma, you never see me? You never ‘ear am coming?’ a caddy boy shouted in passing as he sidestepped his casualty, who appeared to be stuck in the mud.
Time equals money and nowhere was this truer than the world of the market. The longer it took them to fetch an item, the more likely it was that their boss’s customer would be poached by another trader. Less wages meant less food, and this was anathema to bodies in perpetual motion.
The caddy continued for a few metres, then gave in to his conscience and turned to check if the person had managed to get up. He rolled his eyes, sucked in a breath deep enough to give vent to a litany of curses, then returned to the person, a woman, he was sure. He held the wheelbarrow in front of him to keep some distance; the last thing he needed was a sound beating from some angry old madam: caddies gave as good as they got, but the elderly remained securely outside this law.
‘Madam, you go get up or you no go get up? he said, shouting because the thunder and the plastic covering his ears made his voice sound thin and powerless.
‘Mek you get up or I go leave you here, now now.’
Why did the old biddy not move? He reached a shaky hand behind him to grab his torch from a pocket. The rain fell harder now and it was difficult for him to see or hear. Just my luck, he thought. As he gestured to click the light on, it fell to the ground and rolled under his wheelbarrow. Old or not, he thought it better to keep his eyes on the figure, as he stooped down to retrieve the light. Only a few minutes have passed, he thought, yet this moment has been the longest part of the day. This time, he held the torch tightly and clicked it on. The aura of light rested on a dark mound or bench and he exhaled with relief.
‘You no know sey dey burn two teef, yesterday. Na dem body be dat!’ a voice startled him.
The caddy recoiled, then looked towards the voice of a diminutive, elderly woman. She carried a white cane in one hand and supported herself on her companion’s arm, with the other. They were mismatched – an old mama, nondescript save for a beautifully white dentition, and a woman dressed in the nonchalance of a foreigner, nothing like the local women who, even if all clad in black, would find a way to stand out one from the other.
‘Madam, wetin you talk? You no get eyes for see am.’
The elderly woman addressed her companion, ‘Kesandu, dey burn tyre and necklace di two. Look am!’ She pointed in an exaggerated gesture that raised her shoulder to her face. Kesandu looked but stood very still. The caddy also turned towards the mound again, this time from a distance. He shuddered as he now saw the outline of two charred bodies, joined at one end by a figure eight. He looked at the women, then at the bodies, back and forth, between life and death. Then, the wheelbarrow dropped from his hands and he began to retch.
‘Take time. Breathe well well. Kesandu, give him salt cracker.’
The caddy batted away their offer of help and ran off, leaving his barrow behind in the rain. Kesandu forced the tension from her muscles and breathed deeply. This was the closest she had come to feeling something since she had arrived.
‘This is a warning, my girl. Mark my words. Somebody wants us to know they are here.’
‘Mama, what do you mean?’
‘Tonight, you must rest. Take my hand.’
The women walked slowly, past the market’s night watchmen, through the perfume of exhaust fumes and eucalyptus, on their way home.
While Kesandu undressed, Mama Nnuku prepared a bath. She poured in a mix of boiling and cold water, then added some leached tuber leaves. Her great-granddaughter’s strength had not yet returned, so she helped her into the bath, until the water reached the shiny scar on her abdomen. Kesandu tried not to wince as Mama Nnuku’s fingers danced over her scar, first with Ranransa stems, then, a thick layer of shea butter.
‘Mama,’ said Kesandu, the first to break the silence.
‘Ptshhhh, Kessy!’ The elderly lady pinched Kessy’s lips. ‘Everything will be clearer tomorrow. You must sleep. For now, speak from here,’ she said, touching Kesandu’s forehead, ‘we understand each other.’
‘Mama. Why am I here ?’
‘Our universal creator in heaven has his clothes down here on earth. Of your ancestors, I was sent back to be your guide here. It is well.’
‘Who were those men, mama?’
‘Kessy, you have inherited the diokpa from both your maternal and paternal lineage.’
‘Why was I chosen?’
Mama Nnuku brought out a small hemp bag from the wrapper cloth tied around her waist and uncovered it to reveal an ivory figurine.
‘When cousin Anyaso died, he had no male issue. It has now passed to you. Diokpa is power, my girl, and your ancestors are behind you.
‘And those men in the market?’
‘People have died for Diokpa and many are unhappy to see it pass to a woman, for the first time. The elders say that the spirits of those who die a wretched death are focused on conflict. Somebody is collecting broken souls focused on destruction, but they will not win. Come.’
Mama began to comb and braid Kesandu’s hair.
‘That medicine you brought with you, do not take it tonight; the tuber leaves will make you sleep well. Let me braid your hair, so that your dreams will stay close to you, even when you wake.
In all the years Kesandu had visited Ado, she had never known a night air so hot and close. She inhaled loudly and deeply the ripe petrichor of the post-rain night that entered at the window. She welcomed the heat that swaddled her, body and thoughts, then trickled like honey onto her eyelids so they fell. She lifted her hand to the point in front where a shard of light pierced the inky night and held up the figurines. Dark brown lines permeated the length of the carvings: tattoos that ran over their faces and sexes, then down to their pads of their feet. She recognized the quivering iteration of the energy she had felt earlier, in the market. Secret. Intangible. Rare. Morning, she felt, would bring her answer.
Sheila Atuona is a teacher and writer. Her writing has been longlisted for the Alpine Writing Fellowship Award 2021 (short fiction), and the Penguin Random House Write Now 2020 prize (non-fiction writing). She is a Sharp Scratches New Playwriting alumna. Sheila is currently pursuing her graduate studies in Creative Writing at the University of Oxford.