Tolani was sure she heard a rattle.
Like metal claws scratching dry earth.
It whizzed something out of her. She stilled for a moment. Held the Stephen King she was reading against her chest.
And the rattle stopped.
It’s just a noise, Tola!
She sighed, and continued reading.
It was King’s The Dark Half. The sparrows were flying in the novel. Fluttering their wings against the window of its protagonist, Thad Beaumont. And the rattle she thought she heard sounded like the sparrows fluttering their wings against her own window.
Her own window.
Feathers congregating in the air, held by a sinister force. Totally wiping out the turquoise of the morning sky. And leaving an enduring stygian feel.
Smelling of rot.
Of fresh, fecund rot—
Perhaps she was imagining it.
But what if she wasn’t?
What if tonight, the first night she’d be spending outside her husband’s hairy chest, outside their Ibadan home, was going to be her worst night ever?
Tolani suddenly wanted to go back home. She stared at the wall clock. Its dial read eleven-fifteen. Her heart thumped. In her ears. Over the profound silence that seemed to clang somewhere behind the shadows. She sensed she could no longer hear the music coming from the hall downstairs. And the shadows on the wall were thinning into slants, cinnamon strands of blurs.
Images without forms. Or life.
What if there wasn’t really going to be a revival tomorrow? What if it was her dark subconscious, seeking to destroy her finally, that made the Lagos chapter of Divine Healing Ministry send her the message?
Why would it?
So it could lurk over here and kill her!
Her dark subconscious. It had tried to kill her several times. It spoke to her. In lackluster voices. She imagined its words wrapped in speech bubbles dripping in ice. It told her it was okay to loosen her braids. To jump down the balcony. To bite into her fingernails and eat the cuticles.
It lured her into dark corners. And she saw its form carving out of the gloom, a mass of smoke.
Sapphire smoke. Ice.
She’d tried to drown its voice by reading King: It. The Stand. The Shining. Misery. Her school librarian, the first man to reach under her skirt and squeeze her moisture, gave them to her. His name was Segun. And he had the bluest eyes Tolani had ever seen.
And he believed. He believed my dark subconscious existed. He wanted to help me.
They say you can only conquer fear by diving into the waters—
—without bothering about the outcome.
You might drown. Get strangled.
Or swim ashore, a free woman.
But you shouldn’t care.
Not when a demon is inside of you. Folding itself to the exact shape of your body. Breathing your air, at the same tempo.
And no one believes you. Because you don’t agree you’re a river princess. You don’t want to wear the amulets. You want to be ordinary.
But deep down there, you know.
You know you see and hear things nornal people don’t.
But you shouldn’t care.
Her dark subconscious had left her ever since she started reading King. She’d set the King novels ablaze. She’d become a Christian. Old things have passed away.
But today, she bought The Dark Half.
Because she’d be bored here.
And now, her dark subconscious had risen.
In full force.
Jesus! Jesus, save my soul.
She dropped the book and shuffled to the bed. Adunni was sleeping, breathing smoothly. Bubbles frothed up between her lips. She kissed her forehead. Went to check her food flask. There was still food. Enough to soothe her when she woke midnight wailing.
Jide. Jide, her husband. He’d be snoring by now, lying spread-eagled on their wide bed. Her side of the bed would, of course, be empty. Tolani had often flirted with the thought that he could have something to do with Anyi, the house help. But she knew it wasn’t possible. Mama had once told her, “Every man has a demon between his legs. Forget all this I love you, I love you they use to deceive you. All we need to do is to tame that demon—”
“But Mama—” she’d tried to protest.
“I know what you want to tell me. Jide is different. Who told you? Even your father, I had to tame him. If you know what is good for you, find time to follow me to Baba Olori Aye—”
“I serve a living God. I’m not going anywhere.”
Tolani shook her head now. Jide was sleeping alone. He wasn’t doing anything with Anyi. Or anyone else. He’d held on to her bag this evening when she was leaving and said, “Must you go?”
She’d produced her phone and read the SMS to him again:
There will be a 3-day revival at Divine Healing Ministry headquarters, Alausa, Ikeja-Lagos from 20th to 22nd December, 2013. You should endeavour to be here in time for your personal convenience. Divine is Real. Miracle is Divine.
“But where would you sleep?”
“Baby, our church has a hotel. Some suites. Don’t worry, I’ll be fine.”
“How can I be fine and Adunni isn’t?”
“I’ll miss you.”
Tolani thought Anyi was watching while they hugged, kissed.
Could she have been rolling her eyes, sending some signal to Jide?
She didn’t think so. But a part of her wanted her to. She reached for her phone. Dialled his number.
And it rang. Rang. Rang. No response.
What are you thinking, Tolani? He’s asleep!
But Jide never left his phone on and went to sleep. It disturbed him. The ringtone. And if he put it on silent mode, the backlight woke him.
Now his phone was ringing. Which meant he hadn’t slept.
At eleven-thirty? Jide hasn’t slept?
She froze. Cold.
The shadows widened. Triiangularly. Like a lonely, meandering road.
And her hands were trembling, at first, unconsciously, then noticeably. The chill spread round her, raising her veins to elongated green tubes, squeezing something cold on her chest, strangling her.
The rattle was real, then.
She had heard it.
Exotic smells and a silence threatening to yell real hard.
The wind began to lift the curtains, to fling handbills off the table. Loud whooshes filled her ears. She pulled the adaptor. Switched off the lights. Hollow echoes filled the room, filled her head. Her teeth were clattering. She could hear them loud. Like pebbles raining on a bed of more pebbles.
She hugged Adunni. Climbed onto her side of the bed. Sleep transformed info a giant, towering above her, visible in the darkness. Chunks, or slabs, of mould-coloured flesh dripped down and soon, sleep dwindled into a skeleton. The network of bones glistened in the darkness. Like burnt gold. She saw what seemed like her floating along. Tearing her mouth to her ears. Trying to scream. Trying. But no sound was coming out.
When Tolani woke — if she’d really been sleeping and that had been a dream — she heard a voice at the door. Her heart flew to her throat and hung there.
“Madam, your husband is here.”
What?! This is twelve-oh-nine and Jide is here?
“Who are you?”
“Service, ma’am. Sister Chinyere.”
Tolani rose, tiptoed to the door. The doorknob felt oddly cold, smelt like rotting metal. “Jide?”
“Baby, it’s me.”Jide’s voice. Deep. Adenoidal. Cheering. “By God, I couldn’t sleep alone.”
Oh Jide, stop swearing. You’re in the premises of God. Anyway, now that you’re here I’ll ensure I drag you to Delivery Ground tomorrow.
She opened the door and let him in. He was wearing his Adidas shirt. That same cerulean v-necked polo that stuck to his body and outlined his rotund belly. Then his black jeans trousers that accentuated his slight knock knees. Faded jeans. Ripped jeans, gathering at the knees and ankles and thus forming balloons. Boyish Jide. He dropped his bag on the table. Buried his face in her hair.
“I couldn’t stay alone,” he said. “Went to Tokunbo. But couldn’t stay. I even drove to Mokola, to see if I could sleep there. But I couldn’t—”
“Don’t be silly. You didn’t just want to sleep.” She helped take off his shirt and shoes. “You could have as well gone to Owo, to lie in your mother’s bosom.”
“It’s not funny, Tolani.”
He lifted his bag and opened it. Produced a book. Handed it over to her.
Stephen King: Carrie.
Oh my God. How did Jide know I read King?
She ran her finger over the embossed title. It felt cold. The same cold. She retreated.
“How did you know—”
“I thought you’d be bored here, so—”
He shrugged, reaching for Adunni almost immediately. There was something about his eyes. It scared her. They were like shimmering balls floating in a sea of blood.
Jide knows I read King? How did he know? I burnt them before we met. I burned them. I’m sure.
Jide sniffed. Then Tolani saw a silvery thread fall from his eye.
“What?! Are you crying?”
“I don’t ever want you out of my sight. Ever.”
This is absurd. Jide, crying? Does this have to do with the rattle? Stephen King? The sparrows? Why is he holding Adunni like that, as if he was losing her, and he had to protect her? At all cost?
And he bought her Carrie?
“I called but you didn’t—”
“I was driving to you.” He laid Adunni back to bed. “Sit next to me, Tolani. I want to feel your body against mine.”
She sat. When he took her face in his palms, he felt cold. She flinched. There was something odd about all this. But she couldn’t place a finger on it.
They were sitting there, under the dazzling stare of the fluorescent light.
Staring into each other’s eyes.
And the shadows were slithering down the wall.
And the silence was ringing out loud.
And Tolani’s heartbeat was pulsating in her ears. A rataplan of beats.
The exotic smells no longer carried the faint blurriness of hallucinations; they smelt real. Smelt like scented roses. Like something else Tolani didn’t know. Something out of this world.
He rose to tear off his singlet. Then his boxer shorts. He pulled her up, rather violently. Yanked off everything she wore. The head net. The nightgown. Her bra and panties.
Jide has never been this spontaneous as regards sex. He’s not a sexual monster!
God, what’s this?
He shoved her to the bed. And he started to pound her.
Pound? Hey, Thoughts, couldn’t you find a more decent word?
But no other word came close to describing his violent thrusts. Balls of sweat formed on his forehead. Like transparent pimples. His biceps bulged out. She feared they might burst if she poked them.
Something is wrong somewhere.
She just doesn’t know where.
The winds were gone, as suddenly as they had come.
Soft music played in the distance now. Maybe Bob Dylan. Or Jim Reeves.
Jim Reeves. Jide’s favourite. He sang a whole lot about death.
In King’s novel, Rawlie said sparrows were harbingers of death—or something like that.
What are all these signs telling her?
Were all these making any sense at all? Did that rattle mean anything?
Was it even real?
Jesus, I believe in you. I have confidence in you. No weapon fashioned against me and my family shall—
“Baby, what are you thinking?”
She looked up at him. He groped for her nipple with his mouth, his fingers in her hair. But she was not aroused. And Jide doesn’t even seem to care.
“Nothing,” she said.
“Well, as for me, I’m thinking of giving you another baby. Tonight.”
What?! Adunni is just six months old.
Her phone rang just then. Twenty-five minutes after one. And her phone was ringing.
Who could be calling this late?
She tried to slip from under him, to take the call. But he held her, his fingers tightly interlocked against the small of her back.
“I have a call, for God’s sake!”
“I’m more important than whoever is calling you!”
“Have you started fucking around, keeping it from me?”
Jesus! Jide. Me, fucking around?
“Jide? What the hell is wrong with you?”
He collapsed on her as he reached his climax. A boyish smile played on his lips. He rose. Kissed Adunni on both cheeks. Then he pressed his face to hers, used his tongue to push her lips apart. And he left a part of his breath in her mouth.
“I’ll just use the bathroom. You can make all the calls in the world meanwhile.”
She grabbed her phone as soon as he left. Anyi had called four times. Mama, six. Tokunbo, three.
Who should I call first?
Mama’s number was strangely busy. Anyi picked up on the fourth ring.
“Madam!” She was crying. “Madam where you dey?”
She is crying. One-thirty. Everyone should be sleeping. But Anyi is crying.
“Anyi! What is it?”
“Uncle Tokumbo say make I no tell you, but I go tell you. Oga don die. E get accident for Airport Road. Madam—”
“What are you saying? Your oga is here!”
“Is it not Jide?”
“Yes ma. Oga—”
“You don’t know what you’re saying. Let me meet him in the bathroom. So you can at least hear his voice. What kind of an expensive joke is that?”
But my dark subconscious pulls back. Sparrows are the harbingers of the dead.
God, what’s this?
“Just wait.” She pulled at the doorknob of the bathroom. Still locked from within. Jide is still inside. It shouldn’t ordinarily mean anything. But why does it now? Jesus. “Jide? They want to speak to you from home.”
But why is my voice teary, unstable?
Jesus, save me. Save me God. Don’t let—
There was no response from the bathroom. No noise. And the door was locked from inside. Tolani though she heard the rattle again. Louder. Like a metal heart dangling in a skeleton, a body ripped off its muscles by mutilation.
She produced the key and turned. It opened at once. There, on the tiled floor, were Jide’s boxer shorts. And their shadows. Tolani felt the walls whirling, like she was in a trance. In the centre of a whirlwind. Engulfed by a raving sense of vertigo.
I’m thinking of giving you another baby.
And I’m your dark subconscious. Or whatever you call it. Your husband is dead.
Dead and gone.
Dead and gone.
And so gone.
Cold engulfed her in swift diffusions. She lowered to the floor. Her breathing raced. Breakneck tempo.
“Madam? You still dey there? Madam!”
I’ll call Segun tomorrow. It’s been years. But does it matter?
I’ll tell him, ‘My husband died the day he bought me a Stephen King.’
Not my husband. My dark subconscious.
Ola W. Halim writes fiction and reflections from Edo State, Nigeria where he also teaches English Language and Literature. His work has appeared on Kalahari Review, African Writer, Tuck Magazine,’ Brittle Paper, Black Pride Magazine, Dwartsonline, and elsewhere. He is working on a couple of novels, including the prose version of “Homecoming”, an epic poem about albinism and identity.