Cinema Road: Part Four | Ope Olum’degun

This is a continuation of an excerpt series from Ope Olum’degun’s novel-in-progress. To catch up click here, and then here, and then here.

Grandmother made rice and spinach soup with fried chunks of beef for dinner. She believed it was taboo to end the first working day of the week with a bad meal, so Titi and I always looked forward to supper on Mondays. But I wasn’t enjoying the meal, and for the first time in a while, I wished there was a power outage. I knew I looked worried. Grandmother would notice my anxiety and suck the thoughts out of me like she did with her plunger whenever the kitchen pipes were clogged with worms and solidified oil. But she wasn’t looking at me. She was shelling melon seeds into a tray on her lap needed for the egusi she made on Tuesdays. I stirred the rice and soup and shovelled the mixture into my mouth.

“Take it easy,” she snapped. “No one is chasing you.”

Nor do they have to, I wanted to say. With MC Hammer and Kokonsari out of town, the Hausas wouldn’t be wary of the vigilantes if they wanted to start trouble. We were in danger. How did Kokonsari think no one would notice their absence? Titi blew her nose into her shirt. Mine was dripping too – Grandmother never used scotch bonnets sparingly.

“You two did your homework already?”

We nodded. After we cleared up our plates, Grandmother turned on the TV. She twisted knobs and turned dials until Tokunbo Ajayi’s face filled the screen. A wide smile twisted Grandmother’s face into a caricature. Titi beamed. Tokunbo was the only Yoruba newscaster on the national network news, which was the only reason Grandmother watched it. Titi often drew cartoons where Tokunbo reported news she wanted to hear. Titi’s dad returned to the house today… he killed Abacha…, she would say in a bubble. That night Tokunbo was wearing a thick blouse with big shoulder pads.

“It’s yellow,” Titi said. Grandmother looked at me, inquisition in her eyes. Our TV was black and white, so we often played a game where we guessed the colour of people’s clothes on TV.

“Blue,” I guessed.

A picture of Abacha appeared at the tip of Tokunbo’s headscarf, and she alternated her gaze between her script and the screen. Grandmother hissed.

“The Head-of-State today signed the death warrant of eight members of the OPC who were said to have ambushed his convoy in Lagos yesterday…”

Grandmother’s lips folded into a thick circular pout. Her eyelids didn’t move as she stared at the TV while Tokunbo continued off-screen and we saw eight shirtless men in handcuffs and leg chains being helped down a Black Maria by soldiers. Their faces were covered. Titi and I knew what was required of us: silence.

“…during a rare Presidential visit to the nation’s south-western region.”

The leg chains were taken off and the men were led in a straight line into a patchy soccer field where a crowd was waiting behind a stake and twine barriers. Soldiers with whips and clubs monitored the crowd. The men had their heads to the sky and appeared to be singing.

“Chief Security Officer, Major Hamza Al Mustapha, declared that while the nation is strongly united, General Abacha’s government will not hesitate to quell any unlawful dissent with the full force of the law…”

Grandmother farted.

“…men were flown this morning from Lagos to Maiduguri for the trial, which stretched from three to four in the afternoon”

The picture skipped. A priest made the sign of the cross on the men, one after the other, and sprinkled holy water on them. Titi drew near me and placed her head on my shoulder. The priest left and a dozen soldiers with rifles marched onto the field. People in the crowd jumped and shouted. Their looks were mostly of approval. The soldiers each knelt on one knee about twenty meters from the convicts, held their guns at the ready, and darkness filled the living room. The TV made a quick whizz, and then went silent. None of us moved or said anything for a while.

Grandmother fumbled around and struck a match. I grabbed the hurricane lantern and held the shade open for her to light it. Her eyes were glassy. She took the lantern from me and handed it to Titi.

“I left my linen wrapper on the clothesline. Bring it in and lock the doors.”

Titi sprang out, happy to be briefly free from the tension. I knew she would stay out longer than she was supposed to, and I felt like going with her. I couldn’t stand being alone in the knowledge that MC Hammer might have been one of the men who were executed. Abacha’s soldiers would no doubt still be snooping around Lagos. And if Kokonsari was walking into a trap, we were all going to be in deep trouble soon. Grandmother struck another match and faced me, her cheeks and lips relaxed.

“It is well.”

I avoided her eyes and nodded.

“Help me with these seeds,” she said and pushed the tray towards me.

The swish of the tray across the table sounded weird. As I grabbed a handful of seeds, the sound came again, this time from outside.

“Kiniyen?” Grandmother and I jumped and the match died. The box dropped from her hands. Footsteps and inaudible voices circled the house from back to front, and towards the clothesline area. I thought I heard “hurry” in Hausa.

I sprang up and crashed into Grandmother, who apparently had got up too. She held on to me as we both tumbled on the floor, colliding with the table in the process. The tray spun off the table and spilled its contents on us like confetti.

I could hear Titi shouting at someone to leave her alone.

“Oh God!” Grandmother groaned, as I helped her up. We scrambled and groped our way out of the living room, and by the time we opened the front door, Titi was wailing. It had a deep, afflicted pitch. Not fear. It sounded like pain.

“Heeeeeeeeeeeey!” Grandmother yelled as we ran in the direction of the clothesline. “Leave her alone o.”

But no one was there – only Titi reeling on the floor a few feet away from the lantern. Something was sticking out of her right foot. It looked simple, yet awful. And cruel. Grandmother gasped. I closed my ears and looked closely. A piece of wood dangled under my sister’s foot, and it hung by a nail; the kind of nail the saw millers used to hang planks in their workshops. Six inches, they called it. And half of it was deep inside my sister’s foot.

“Who was it?” I screamed at her. “Who?”

She didn’t respond. She just wailed. Blood oozed in a thin line onto the ground. I looked around frantically, trying to guess what direction her assailant must have fled in.

Grandmother slapped me. “This isn’t the time to be looking. Come on, carry your sister.”

I lifted her in my arms and Grandmother held her leg up with the piece of wood. Titi was heavier than she looked. Grandmother carried the lantern by the handle in her jaws. We staggered towards the front door. Titi’s eyes were wide open and with each groan looked like they were tearing at the threshold of their sockets.

Once we set her on the floor inside, Grandmother told me to hold her still and then ran into her room. Titi’s face was wet. Tears, sweat and agony drenched her face as she tried to push me away. I held on.

“It’s painful,” she wailed.

“I know, Titi. I know.”

“It’s in my leg.” Her arms were thrashing. “Remove it from my leg.”

Grandmother returned holding out a twenty naira note and a dagger.

“Go and get me your uncle and his wife.”

Stay tuned for the finale in Issue Eight of Outside In!

Ope Olum’degun is a fiction writer who prefers to read non-fiction. He moved to the US from Nigeria in 2009 and is currently in the MA in Writing program at Johns Hopkins University. When he isn’t selling books and magazines to finicky Washingtonians, he’s developing and writing a radio drama series for the National Museum of African Art.


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