We could hear her all the way from our end. Being the last house on the street meant we were as far as far went, and we could still hear her. Mama kept shaking her head and muttering prayers, interspersed with the movement of her fingers as she angrily put her knitting needles through their paces. Uncle Hamza had once told me that the grief that death wrought was unfathomable until it happened to you. That any kind of comfort offered to the bereaved was useless in the face of that highly unwelcome visitor. He’d died two weeks later, with no warning or announcement, and I had understood what he meant. Or maybe it wasn’t the same. I had lost an uncle. Mrs. Barau had just lost her only child.
I wondered if perhaps it was better to lose the people you loved all in one go, all at once, rather than have that grief stretched out over months.
Beyond the sharp, broken edges of our fence, the street was lined with angry neighbours, huddled and shivering in jackets or sweaters, trying to keep harmattan’s cold grasping fingers at bay. Their eyes were blurry with emotion, their shoulders shaking with hate and violence.
“They have come for me again, Mama.” I said, trying and failing to tamp down my fear.
“They cannot have you!” Mama snapped viciously, glaring past the sheer curtains at the people gathered outside our house. The curtains had been thick and unyielding before, until three months ago when all the children under fourteen had started dying, and Mama had brought these ones out of storage, defiance in every line of her body. Every time someone came to stand outside our windows, she would put down her knitting, square her shoulders and face them head on, daring them to come and try taking her only son from her.
I shuffled through the room, past the faded armchair where my father was stonily pretending to read the newspaper, and grasped at Mama’s wrapper, trying to hide my lanky form behind her robust one.
“Mama, I don’t want to die,” I whispered, the sudden sting of tears burning the corners of my eyes.
“You will not.”
The voice did not come from in front of me, but from behind. My mother and I both turned to Papa. He calmly folded his newspaper and continued, “As your mother said, they cannot have you.”
I looked at him and he looked back, while the unasked question hung in the air.
But for how long?
It had started with Obi. Back before everyone realized what was happening. We’d found his broken form in the middle of the street, curled up in ways no living human was capable of. It was as though he had been dropped from a great height. His mother had screamed and screamed and torn at her clothes until she fainted from grief. Her husband had carried her away, his face scrunched up in a pain so great we should have all cowered from the force of it.
I’d been with him just the day before, helping him dole out the coconut candy his sister sold for extra cash. We’d gone house by house and talked about school and girls and ate half the candy, until his sister caught us and chased us down the street. He’d left me at the door to my house, whispering his intention to hide in the church until his sister calmed down before he returned home. But he never made it home.
As the person who had seen him last I’d been questioned vigorously about whether Obi had been sick, or if he’d angered anybody, or if he had ever said anything about harming himself. I’d started crying then, and all the adults had suddenly remembered that he’d been my friend, patting my shoulder and making sad noises. Shamefaced and awkward, their sympathy had been given freely. Until a fortnight later, when Amna had been found in the park almost folded in half, just four hours after walking home from school with me. They had lost their sympathy then. And never regained it.
April came with a heavy sun, baking everything in sight, and in its second week when I peeked outside my prison, it was to the sight of Williams—the only person not currently braying for my blood—dressed to the nines and leaning back on my father’s run down motorcycle like he was waiting for GQ to come up and start a photoshoot. He saw me looking and waved at me, grinning. I waved back, grateful for the existence of this one friend remaining to me. Williams simply refused to believe that it was now considered hazardous to interact with me. Or maybe it was because as an orphan, he had no parents to prevent him from doing so.
I hustled him to my room, barely stopping for him to greet Mama on the way. She mustered up a smile for him, one that did not reach her weary eyes.
“They want to take me into the old forest,” I told him once we were alone, picking at the sheets. “To kill me I mean. As compensation, for all the lives I’ve taken.”
I looked up at Williams when I finished speaking, gauging his reaction. He looked annoyed.
“Stop talking nonsense,” he said angrily.
“I’m not! I overheard my parents talking about it.”
“I said stop it! Your parents will never let anyone hurt you, and neither will I. You haven’t done anything wrong and no one can prove there’s any connection between you and the deaths so stop it!”
I listened carefully to the way the words sat on his tongue, the way they beat out a pattern against his thin-dry lips, and was suddenly afraid.
“But what if there is?” I whispered. “I don’t want anything to happen to you.”
Williams’s features softened. “Nothing will happen to me because it’s not your fault. Besides, it’s been months since anyone else’s child died. It was only ever a coincidence. It’s over.”
Because I’ve been locked up in my own home for those months. I did not say.
One day, Williams will be a grown man, and other grown men will stare into his hard, unwavering face and tremble in the face of his convictions, but those days were still ahead of him, and I could not quite find it in me to take his certainty for my own.
“Its not your fault,” he said again, offering me the grace of his kindness. “I know you Imran. You’d never wish for all your friends to die. You love too hard and too much to ever wish anybody any harm.”
I picked up my prayer beads with sudden fervor after Williams left. They’d been collecting dust under my bed for weeks, but I needed them now.
“Does the government know you know those words?” Obi had asked me when I’d recited sections of the Constitution back at him as we studied for our end of year exams. He’d laughed like a dying hyena at his own joke and I had grinned indulgently at him, this friend who had so loved to make me laugh.
Amna had always loved standing so close that there was never really any air, as if whoever her companion was owed her their undivided attention. She’d had eyes like honey, the shade of something sun-warmed, old and well-loved.
Othman had liked to hide in places no one looked, folding his body in the tattered rags of his parents’ expectations. I had been the only one who could draw him out.
Aisha had been a prodigy, running circles around adults twice her age, and collecting their resentment like seashells. While the neighbourhood had still been floundering in the wake of the horror visited upon them, she’d been the one who had noticed the pattern of the deaths and the frayed string that connected them all. It had not saved her in the end.
I pulled on the rounded balls again and again. One prayer for each friend that I’d lost. For each friend I had killed.
An unholy racket woke me up at the crack of dawn, echoing from the yard and filling the street with despair. For a minute I thought I was hearing Mrs. Barau again, until I realized the voice was my mother’s. Rushing outside I collided with my father, who tried to shove me back into the house. I pushed past him to where Mama knelt, tears streaming down her face. People had started gathering around her, but there was just enough space to see. Just enough to see.
Williams lay underneath the mango tree, his broken form contorted in a way no living body should ever be. His face was frozen in a mask of surprise. He really had believed he was safe.
I turned away, and started walking towards the old forest.
FATIMA ABDULLAHI is a Nigerian born writer and poet, with a penchant for the dramatic. She’s always loved reading, but the day she found out about Laila and Majnoon her whole world changed. A graduate of Mass Communication and an animal lover, she loves to write on subjects that tug at the heartstrings, like love, loss and depression. Her works have been published and are forthcoming in various publications, including Lunaris Review, The Decolonial Passage, Afristories, The Shady Grove Literature, The Best of Africa and The First Line Literary Journal. Find her on Instagram as @her_abstractions and on Twitter as @ellisande_.