DARK CALLS THE DARK
The black 2140’s sedan glided wraith-like along the lonely stretch of road to nowhere. Inside, Victor Ogunyomi drove with his daughter, Ola, beside him. She was twelve, her face etched with the harsh experience of a piercing loneliness. Her eyes were always intense, ever searching, intelligent. She pressed her face against the window of the sedan’s side door and allowed the hot breath from her nostrils to cloud the surface. Then, with her fingers, she drew circles from the steam, staining the glass.
Instinctively, Victor pulled down the windows to let some air into the car. Ola frowned – it was a strange frown and it aged her considerably.
He looked sideways and caught her face. He pretended not to notice and drove on.
On either side of them were tall trees, lining the road like they were guardians of some kind. He did not know the type of tree, but they looked ancient, and must have been through a lot to survive out here.
The dark clouds above them may have been whispering flirtatious promises of rain, but for now, there was only an oppressive stickiness to the air – death masked as an arid climate. It followed them everywhere, tagging their car, and daring would-be acquaintances to approach.
A siren. Behind them, a patrol vehicle, lights blaring, sped toward them. The patrolman gestured for them to pull over.
Victor swallowed hard. He looked at his daughter. His eyes watered and he shook his head – a gentle “no” pushed itself out of his lips. He pulled over and watched the patrolman do the same behind him through his rear view mirror.
The officer climbed down. He was of average height, Victor observed. In the distance, there was a flash in the sky.
‘Lightning,’ Victor said to the officer as the thunder followed. ‘Must be rain.’
‘Do you know how fast you were going?’ the officer asked, now placing himself beside the car, where Victor could see him.
Beside him, his daughter frowned. Her fingers bit into the upholstery.
‘Ola, please,’ Victor whispered.
‘What was that?’ the officer said.
‘Officer, I don’t know how fast I was going,’ Victor said, turning his attention away from Ola. ‘If you’ll just write me a ticket –’
The officer bent down to look at him more closely. ‘You’re in a hurry?’
‘No, sir. I mean, yes, sir. We’re late for a funeral.’
‘It’s a little too late for a funeral don’t you think?’ the officer said.
Victor wiped his brow. ‘I mean, it’s not taking place now.’
‘Tomorrow,’ he replied.
‘Huh,’ said the officer. He gazed intently into the sedan. ‘So you were going really fast there, sir,’ he continued. ‘Now you tell me it was on account of a funeral taking place tomorrow I’m inclined to think you are lying to me to get out of a ticket.’
‘I don’t mind the ticket, sir,’ Victor said.
‘I think I already got that,’ replied the officer. He bent his face to one side until Victor could see the huge tribal marks scratched across his face, prominent features, like gullies in the ground. ‘Licence and registration.’
Victor reached across his daughter’s lap and opened the glove compartment. He pulled the relevant papers out and handed them to the patrolman.
He browsed through them.
‘So you’re from Ibadan? You don’t sound like you’re from Ibadan. I don’t know – your attitude, your moves … are you from Lagos?’
‘What makes you say that, officer?’ Victor said. His voice was lined with tension. Ola frowned again.
‘I don’t know; it’s just that we get some people from thereabouts from time to time. We keep on the look out for them. They tend to always be in a rush to get somewhere. It’s my job to see that they turn around.’
‘We’re not from Lagos,’ Victor said.
‘So your papers say,’ the patrolman said. He leaned in close again and peered into the car. ‘That your daughter?’
Victor bit his lower lip until he felt the wetness from drawn blood. He licked it off quickly.
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘How old is she?’
‘Twelve, maybe thirteen.’
‘Don’t know for sure? Yeah, you’re a regular father.’ He peered in closer. ‘She doesn’t look too well.’
‘I think she has a fever,’ Victor said.
‘If you don’t mind my saying, she looks a little old for twelve,’ the officer said. He squinted to get a better look. ‘I mean, she’s dressed like a child, but her face –’
‘She’s just tired, that’s all, officer,’ Victor said.
‘No, I don’t know if it’s that. Can you put on your interior lights, please, sir?’
‘Officer, I don’t know – she needs to sleep; the light will disturb her.’
‘It will only be for a minute.’
‘Officer, I –’
‘–Will do what you asked me,’ the patrolman said. His hand went closer to the weapon strapped on a holster around his waist.
Victor turned to his daughter and saw her fingers still biting down hard into the seat.
He cleared his throat. Hastily, ‘Officer, what about if I keep the lights off and you take a little gift, eh?’
The patrolman stood up straight. He took his pen and notebook. ‘What kind of gift are we talking about here?’ He wrote a figure down on the pad and extended it so Victor could see it.
‘I’d say that was a very agreeable gift,’ Victor replied, reaching into his pocket. He took out his wallet. The officer turned away respectfully, but left a stray hand lying in wait behind him. Cash now retrieved, Victor put it into the officer’s waiting hand.
Without looking at his gift, the patrolman put the money away into his shirt pocket. He stepped lightly away from the sedan. ‘Mind how you go now, but keep well away from my vicinity. I catch you anywhere near my watch and I’ll arrest you, gift or no gift.’
‘Thank you, officer,’ Victor said to the retreating figure. He started up the sedan again, waiting for the officer to give him the go ahead. The man waved him away and he pulled out. This time, he stayed well within the speed limit.
‘That was a close one,’ Victor said to his daughter. ‘Are you alright?’
‘Oh,’ she said, her voice from far away. She looked at her hands and saw that she was still clutching down hard on the car seat. She let go immediately, and looked up at her father. ‘Why were you speeding?’
‘It’s a deserted road, Ola,’ he said. ‘It’s fine.’
‘You can’t make mistakes like that,’ she said. He looked away. ‘Father, are you listening to me?’
‘Stop the car.’
He stopped the car and watched her get out. She went to the side of the road and stooped down to urinate. He also got out and stood watching her, eyes miserable, missing nothing.
‘I’m hungry,’ she said.
‘We’ll be there in a little while.’
‘Then you can eat.’
She finished urinating and got up, pulling her underwear up with her. She got back in the car. He did the same. He looked at her and felt his insides sting when she looked away.
‘Do you ever feel … tired?’ he asked.
‘I feel nothing,’ she replied.
Victor sighed deeply. ‘Why will you not look at me?’ She turned and gave him a hard glare. ‘Do you hate me?’
‘You’re not listening,’ she said. ‘I feel nothing.’ And she turned away.
He started the car, and together, they drove off.
It was almost seven in the evening when they pulled up again to the side of the road, but it had not gone completely dark.
‘What is it?’ she asked.
‘The engine’s stalled.’
‘Can you fix it?’
‘There’s a garage about ten minutes away, just before the village. I’ll need to leave the car there for the night. We can walk from there. It won’t be far. Can you take us?’
They made it to the garage in no time. It was a derelict building – its windows open wounds that had been boarded up; paint peeled off like withered skin, showing only raw flesh underneath. Ola waited by the door while her father went in to speak with the owner of the business.
She soon began to wander, strolling casually into the fields. Night was approaching fast, and with it, she felt rejuvenated. She touched her face, feeling the tiredness slip away. Her senses became alert – she heard a child crying. It was coming from somewhere in the forest. She stood for a while, listening.
A cough; panic – she felt her heart beat wildly. She stood beside a tree and rested her back against it. More voices, carried by the wind. She set her face against the currents in the air, felt a welcome coolness against her skin. She smelled the air, nodded in appreciation. She put her hand to the red earth and felt its rhythm. Footsteps. It was the same people: maybe a boy, definitely a man. Two of them.
Ola straightened herself and prepared to go into the forest.
‘They’ll be expecting us,’ Victor said from behind her.
‘You go ahead. I’ll catch up.’
‘I think we should be seen together. I’ll introduce you as my daughter.’
‘You won’t … I mean you don’t have to have everybody. I spoke with the mechanic inside. He’s a good man.’
‘So were the last couple.’
‘He even gave us his truck. He said we could use it to get to the village, then when he’s fixed our car we can return it.’
‘He won’t be needing it anymore.’
‘Ola!’ It was a stern rebuke. ‘You will not kill this man.’
The 12-year-old waved his protests away impatiently. ‘Please, father, don’t suppose to use the voice against me. It will not work against such as I.’
‘Then will you do it for me?’
‘Hmm,’ she said, distracted by the voices she continued to hear from the forest.
‘Please, do as I ask, because I ask.’
She turned to look at him. ‘As you wish.’
Victor nodded, his face full of the relief his heart felt. ‘Let’s play our roles for now when we enter the village. We’ll take the mechanic’s truck.’
‘We will,’ Ola said.
Victor started back and Ola trailed behind him, picking stones and throwing them nonchalantly – just another unconcerned youth. They got to the truck and entered. They drove west, entering the village about ten minutes later.
It was an ancient place, untouched by any progress the country had made in the last fifty years or so. All of the houses they saw were made from mud, their roofs from palm fronds.
There were no tarred roads, only that ubiquitous red dust – it was everywhere.
They drove for a few minutes before Victor pulled up to a house that looked more modern than anything they had seen here.
‘This is where the chief lives.’ Victor climbed down from the truck and waited for his daughter to do the same. She did and stood calmly beside him, her pretty white dress blowing gracefully in a slight wind.
They knocked and entered the house.
Inside was dark, and they met an old woman sitting in a corner of a waiting area. She did not turn to look at them. Ola considered the strange face. The ancient muttered to herself, face wrinkled beyond any perception of discernable facial features. What must have been a nose was wide but crooked, seemingly sentient and having a knowledge of its own. Ola smiled.
‘Good evening to you, madam,’ Victor said to the woman. ‘I think we are expected.’
The woman did not say a word to them, but she continued to mutter to herself.
‘I’m after the chief. He has the keys to our new house here in the village.’ Still nothing. Then, ‘Are you also waiting for the chief?’
‘You won’t get a thing out of her when she is in this mood,’ a voice said.
‘Do you have any lights in here?’ Victor asked. ‘I can’t see a thing.’
The lights came on in response.
‘Sorry,’ the voice now said. ‘We have to conserve energy. It can be expensive in these parts.’
‘She your grandmother?’ Victor asked, nodding towards the old woman.
‘She’s someone’s grandmother,’ was the reply.
‘Is she always like this?’
‘Only when there’s trouble,’ the voice said. The chief emerged slowly from a side room. ‘There is usually trouble here for such a small village.’
‘To whom does she pray?’ Victor asked.
The chief shrugged. ‘I only know who she prays for: the village, me. But she has many gods, all of them false.’
At this last sentiment, the old crow looked up sternly from her supplication.
The chief continued, undeterred. ‘Maybe you have chosen a bad time to come, my friend. I recognise you from two weeks and four days ago.’
‘You have a good memory, sir.’
‘I forget nothing,’ the chief replied. ‘You were to come with your daughter?’
‘Ah, here she is,’ Victor said, his hands searching for a shoulder beside him. They came up empty so he turned about to see Ola, but she was no longer in the room.
‘She … eh, must have gone out to play,’ he said weakly.
‘This is not the time for a young child to be out by herself in this town,’ the chief cautioned.
Victor swallowed hard. ‘She’ll be all right, wherever she is.’
At the outskirts of the village, Ola landed and entered a secluded mud house. She climbed through the window and then sat down on its sill. She spotted that red dust on her shoes and wiped it off, looking at her hands afterwards, knowing the red was the colour of blood.
‘Hey,’ she said to the petrified man inside, who sat staring at her.
‘I don’t have anything you want,’ he said in Yoruba.
She switched languages, speaking in his, ‘I doubt that.’
‘Are you an angel?’
‘No,’ she said, considering her white dress.
‘Are you the devil?’
She thought about this, and said, ‘No. But I think maybe this time you are not that far off.’
‘My son, he saw you in the sky. When he told me, I would not believe, even though I think I also saw it. We were in our farm, and then he ran off into the forest.’
‘I heard you,’ Ola said. She sat, watching his every movement, but she was as unanimated as humanly possible – only her lips moved – other than that she looked like the dead.
‘But then I saw you just now,’ the man continued, ‘I saw how you came down from the sky. Now you are in my house.’
‘Where is your son?’
‘He is taking his punishment outside.’
‘But his punishment is unfair. He was telling the truth.’
‘I know that now.’
‘Do you always punish your son?’
‘Maybe, sometimes; I only punish him for his good.’
‘And was the punishment in the forest for his good? I heard him. I heard you more. Do you always get excited when you do that to him?’
‘I don’t have a wife,’ the man said tensely.
‘You have a son. And he should not be a wife to you. Do you like it when he squeals? Is that for his good?’
‘Are you here to punish me?’
‘God sent you. Finally, I can rest.’
‘Please,’ Ola said, waving her hand impatiently. ‘You attempt to be a martyr in this? You see, you and me, we are both alike.’
‘How can you say that? You are not of this Earth.’
‘That is not the point,’ Ola replied testily. Her eyelids clamped open and shut again and again – gone was the previous coolness. ‘You and I were both victims, but we survived, and now we make others victims. My hunger is like your sin. It cannot be satisfied. Others get in the way and they become our new prey. You are a monster, just like me.’
‘I am human,’ the man said, defiantly. ‘You are a devil.’
‘No devil!’ Ola screamed, and it seemed she spoke with a thousand voices at once. ‘I am human, just like you.’
‘I am from Lagos.’
‘The biological attacks,’ he said immediately. Then he became even more fearful as he understood. ‘You should not be here. You will spread what you have.’
‘As do you. You have given what you have to your son.’
‘I did not mean to.’
‘But you have.’
He shouted angrily, ‘The same was done to me.’
‘I am not your doctor. I don’t get paid to listen to you complain. Your troubles are yours to bear. And so are mine.’
It seemed he looked at her compassionately for the first time. ‘Can I help you?’
She faltered; consequently she shook her head: ‘If you could, I probably would not kill you.’
He repressed a scream, got on his knees, shaking all over. ‘Then you will kill me?’
@ Uzor Chinukwue 2011