A short story by Ibrahim Sheme
Asiya looked at her eyes and was surprised to find them staring back at her, unblinking and watery. As she parted her pouting lips and prepared her aching throat for the swallow, the eyes moved from their shrill stillness, slid downwards and poured into her mouth, down her throat, and down still more. As she swallowed the cold water more and more, eyes closed now, she felt the heat descending on the office, slowly assuming an oppressive character, reminding her that she was wearing her close fitting, self-woven cardigan over her atampa blouse, her hair shawled in a light, cotton scarf, her lower body covered in an expensive floral English wax. She put the glass down on the centre-table and poured some more of the refrigerated water. Just like before, her eyes were still there, but this time around they were swinging to and fro wildly in the rippling, ice-cold water. Should she wait as long as before for the water to stay still so that she could see her eyes swimming in the clear mirror of its purity? she wondered. She glanced quickly at her wristwatch. The time was 10:30 P.M. The office block was very quiet as all the staff but herself had closed for the day.
She picked her bag, stood up and briskly switched off the lights without bothering to rearrange the scattered papers on her desk. She put on her shoes, moved out of the office and locked the door. The click the door made, as Asiya stood in the dimly lit corridor, was like a thunder crash in the building. She glanced over her shoulder, expecting to see an evil spirit leap out of the rugs or the walls. Nothing moved. She could hear the muted roar of downtown as cars sped down Aminu Kano Avenue. She walked down the corridor, trying to make only the least sound. Why do I have to stay so late? she wondered.
She took the lift to the ground floor. As she turned the corner that led to the reception lobby she stopped abruptly with a sharp intake of breath when she saw him. It was Humpty-Dumpty. The goblin had lept out of nowhere and nothingness and stood watching her under his bushy, too bushy, eyebrows, his thick sideburns completing the frightening picture. Asiya didn't know just when she uttered a small, gaggled scream, at the same time taking several steps backward. Her bag hung from her shoulder, oscillating like a pendulum. Just like her eyes in the cup of water.
Humpty-Dumpty smiled. "Oh, I'm sorry to frighten you madam," he said, not moving. "So sorry. Don't tell me you didn't recognise me." He broke out into a vibrating laughter until tears stood in his eyes.
Oh yes, she recognised the voice. Then she looked properly at him, her long eyelashes fluttering. Oh God, it's not a genie; it's Malam Sama, the night-watchman. Asiya sighed heavily, frightened. "But you should have -- I mean, I ought to have known about your presence. You seemed to have emerged out of nowhere. And I was so carried away in my thoughts..."
He added understandingly, almost paternally, 'Don't get upset. I was outside, with Emma. We saw the lights go out upstairs in your office and we wondered. We had thought that everybody had closed. So I came up to check. Just in case..." he grimacfed, then shrugged. "Sorry to take you unawares. Absolutely sorry." He began to whoop-cough.
He still stood in her way. She gestured with her hand, indicating that she wanted to pass. He apologised profusely and stepped aside. Asiya passed by him and walked gingerly towards the staircase. The old man trailed behind. He even offered to carry her handbag but she said she could manage.
Nonetheless, her fright returned almost immediately. She didn't know why. Walking with the old man didn't give her any respite, which surprised her. She was still delirous. She could feel his eyes boring into her back, taking in the luxuriant sight of her height and, despite the thick atampa on her body, she felt naked, opened wide under his rabid stare. Hearing him trotting behind, his rubber shoe crashing on the floor like the waters falling down Kainji Dam, she got more scary images -- the old man trailing her with a bloodied dagger, trying to lunge it into the small of her back, for instance. Or, perhaps, he was staring at the rippling motion of her wonder-inducing bottom, fantasising a rape. No, that's crazy, she thought. Malam Sama is the most harmless man in Grapevine Insurance Corp., she figured. I am probably being hysterical, unnecessarily. He would even defend me against any incursion. Could he? He is pushing sixty from his looks. Asiya now wondered how manage he was still retained as a watchman in this cash-affairs organisation. Frail, stooping, tuberculous, he didn't look like he could stop a fly, talk less of a break-in.
Downstairs, she found her car in the shadows. It looked like a male gorilla crouching in the dark of a forest, listening to the tap-tap sound of a female human coming his way. But it was a beautiful car, a beautiful black darling which everyone in the corporation liked. Fumbling through her bag, she found her keys, opened the door and got in. The maigadi, watchman, bowed and even smiled. Opening the dashboard compartment, she brought out two twenty naira notes and gave him. He thanked her profusely, curtseying to collect the money. She noticed that her hands were shaky as she pushed the gear lever. At the gate she saw Emma, the other watchman. He opened the gate, saluted military-style and wished her goodnight. She replied with a nod and drove onto the street. Glancing back in her rearview mirror, she thought she had seen the lights come on in her second-floor office. Damn, let them come on, she thought defiantly.
There was little traffic in the city. Asiya manoeuvred the small Honda coupe through ranks of noisy taxis and expertly swerved from left to right and vice-versa. A young man in one of those new trend, saucerous sports cars, wearing a shirt and a tie, with dark goggles on, smiled at her. She was just about to smile back when she held up, scowled and trod on the throttle. Never love a stranger, she intoned outwardly. Never give a playboy an inroad to try his luck on you, babe. There and then she remembered that she had been feeling hot all day, and...damn it! She made an effort to push the thought out of her mind. How she wished the stranger would get back to her house again! She remembered that other night, when she cried with joy as he took her. God damn, I'm turning into a nymphomaniac or some upturned-headed pervert, she thought. But God, can't one afford to be normal once in a while? After all, it is a real human need. You can't cheat nature.
She remembered what her mother said every time Asiya visited the family home. "Asiya, I want you to get married before I die. A woman is supposed to get married at twelve, latest fourteen. You know it wasn't your father's wish that you should proceed to the university after secondary school. You know how hard I fought to let him allow you -- and that's only because I didn't want your friend Salma to overtake you or that you marry a man of small potential. But look at you now... You have even been to that white men's country and got another degree. Please, Asiya, let me hold my grandson in my arms before quitting this llfe."
Asiya was still looking for Mr. Right. Now she understood her greatest problem was to take care of her sexual needs. Her dreams worried her. Hardly did she sleep without dreaming about the stranger. He used to intercept her at all sorts of dreamland occasions and situations. Although Asiya was not particularly superstitious she wondered what the ceaseless dreams portended. Should she consult a seer to interpret it for her? Had it got something to do with her being single and a working lady at thirty-six? Or was she really turning into some sexual pervert? Asiya felt she was not particularly crazy about sex at all, but most times the need almost turned her crazy. Like today. She knew she had all what it takes, especially her three greatest 'B' assets -- beauty, body and brains. It wasn't her being good in bed that catapulted her to the position of Manager Administration at the insurance firm. If anything, no one in there could boast of ever peeping into the bare top of her knees. Beautiful and intelligent, with an MBA from Bristol, for her Mr. Right was always a man who could both satisfy her mother's strict scale of values and transport Asiya beyond the terrestrial murk of the present and the conscious and to a place without a name, a place only a few men existed and could reach. She had been there once in a while, naked, innocent, submissive, spread out like a petal after a downpour, a sequin and a spangle searching for a groove in which to stick and let her dam break like waterfalls. If only that stranger, that goblin of a man whose name she was yet to put a finger no, could return...!
Suddently, she felt hungry, this time for something to put in her stomach. Hunger gnawed at her entrails. She felt disemboweled. The last meal she had was a yam porridge with Coke in the senior staff canteen. She knew that it was too late for her now to start cooking when she reached home. There was a burger joint on the corner to her street where, if she was lucky, she might snatch something to bite. God, I hope they haven't closed now, she said to herself as her glance fell on the dashboard clock. The time was 11:46. But she was lucky, the joint was still open even though it was past closing time. Two cars stood in the driveway. As she parked, she noticed that someone was kissing a girl furiously in the back of one of the cars. Asiya averted her gaze as she walked into the well-decorated lobby. She quickly finished her food and drink and went out. One of the cars had gone. She heard the girl in the other car moaning and clawing at the glass window as the man made love to her. Beasts! Asiya thought angrily as, in the dim enclosure of the car, she also noticed, in the brief glance she took, that the car bore the calligraphic sign of Big Munch Burgers. The two 'beasts' could be staff of this place, Asiya told herself as she took Rugar Fulani Drive leading to her flat. Well, I have no right to call them beasts. I might as well be in that girl's position. Then her old ache for the stranger, the weird episodes of her dreams, returned. She recalled the stranger, the same faceless, nameless hulk of a man who meticulously undressed her. Her goblin. She even managed a smile. Then she scowled. The street was in pitch darkness. Oh my God! Asiya lamented. The notorius NEPA people again. No switching on the AC tonight. How can one sleep in this heart -- with meningitis killing hundreds? Isn't NEPA contributing to the pogrom?
Her home was in an estate of six adjoining flats. Saadou, the gate-man, cheerfully opened for her. She drove in. He came over and opened her door. "No lights again, Saadou?" she asked unnecessarily.
"No, Madam. NEPA again."
"Yes, NEPA. I don't know when they will ever grow up. This constant power cut is too much!"
For Asiya, there was nothing more humiliating than coming home fatigued from work and finding the house in darkness. She wondered when on earth someone would sue the public-owned electricity company for breach of contract. If the organisation can't work as an efficient public liability, then privatise the damn thing! she had always felt.
The Nigerien gateman was trying to tell her something in his broken Hausa as she was manoeuvring to park under the shed that was her garage. She kept nodding and saying, "Okay okay okay." He was fond of engaging her in small talk, but she wasn't ready for that now. Actually she considered the Tuareg a nice man, that was even why she was the only one in the estate that did not boss him around. Seeing the tension in her, he waved and went back to his duty post by the gate.
From the garage, Asiya unlocked the side door and entered her flat through the kitchen. She fumbled through the wooden drawers to find some matches to light the hurricane lamp. Something slipped across her legs, and Asiya screamed. The 'something' flew onto the water sink and stared back at her with blazing eyes the size of saucepans. The skylights coming through the window enabled Asiya to see that it was Kiz the cat after all.
"Kiz! Oh my God why did you frighten me?" cried Asiya. "Alright, come here let me hold you."
Asiya was running, like a woman possessed, through the night after Kiz, trying to catch the furry, golden-haired cat. The aminal ran into the house as Asiya followed her across the living-room, over a window, into yet another room. As she floated across a wide, smoky, unnameable space and stretched out her hands to scoop up the cat, something gripped her shoulders, suddenly, at the same time putting a big hand across her mouth, stopping her stifled scream. She tried to extricate herself from the vice-like grip, but it was useless. She felt him behind her and he was big. As big as she was. The sun stood a few inches from her eyes, like the lamp of a police interrogator torturing the brains of a detainee with its merciless dazzle. She struggled to free herself -- all to no avail. She felt his hot breath on her neck, from behind. One of his big hands was sliding down the small of her back, rubbing, then brushing, across her bottom. Asiya was almost swooning. The soccer pitch was gone. The space remained like an asteroid swinging in the cosmos.
Suffused in her recycled phantasmagoric frenzies, she clawed at his hand across her nose until her nostrils were free. Then she smelt him. Yes, it was him, "the" stranger, her own goblin! The smell told her everything. It was overpowering. He had come back. She never thought he would. When he told her that he might return on Friday, August the 6th, if his company gave him another day off, she thought that he was only crafting excuses. But here he was, her goblin, her genie, doing things that had kept her in a trance these past three weeks. Things she wouldn't want to give a name lest they became real. She was glad that he was here. She felt him slid his long tongue into one of her ears. She melted immediately. Like kadanya oil on a frying fan. Noting this, he took his hand away from her mouth, held her waist. Then he bent down a little and picked her up bodily. She felt weightless on his broad shoulder. Her eyes were closed and her lips parted a bit. She felt herself being carried through the great fields and orchards and into a structure that resembled her abode. Yes, she saw herself transported across a familiar corridor, beyond her study, across the sitting room, to the bedroom. It was another world. The spirit had overpowered her. Just what she had feared and wanted achingly all day. She felt herself gently lowered and deposited on the ocean bed. And she was fighting against sinking. But that masculine smell was all over her, pushing her down, down, down into her essence, then up... And she was singing. And crying. She was hanging on an icicle. But it was snapping. She allowed herself to go. The waves were closing in on her, clashing and crashing. Somewhere in the loud stillness of the sea she heard herself thrashing against maddening waters. She recalled the eyes sliding into her mouth, into her throat. And the gobling was also sliding. In and out. She saw big white clouds passing in the sky like garrisons on the war-front. And her mother was there almost invisible on the distant horizon, shaking her head. Was she disapproving of Asiya's behaviour, her indulging celibacy? But she was also smiling. Asiya felt herself and her gobling swimming together, rhythmically, and he was saying something she would rather not comprehend. Of course, he was not soliciting understanding, knowing that he had got it. She listened to his sweet nothings but could not understand them at all. White clouds had blocked her hearing and her vision. She remembered the girl at the burger cafe. There is a beast in every man and woman, she now decided. The clouds were throwing Asiya about like a tennis ball.
When the clouds turned grey and dark and moist she felt their waters breaking, like a woman giving birth to triplets, the juices of love dripping on her face, all over her wonderfully naked body. The rains fell in droughts, quenching her thirst. She sank deeper in the sea until she could feel the small of her back touching sand. A million fishlets swam by, each holding the other's tail with a tiny tooth, and tadpoles wriggling about in her brain cells, reminding her about her beauty, her brains, her shimmering nakedness. It took ages before she began to retrieve her dream-like life, her thoughts jagged like a century-old photo negative. The goblin was snoring already, his face in her sweaty armpit.
Then, slowly, the delirium began to lift and Asiya felt herself bobbing up towards the sea level, into a newer firmament, like a swallow proud of the purity of its flume. The wind had passed now, though its smell was still there. She was both a dead fish bobbing upwards and a whale that was given new life. Or that had given new life. As she opened her eyes to savour the beauty of the seaside, the room was suddenly plunged into an intense light, forcing her eyes open. She heard the boys down the road shouting appreciation to NEPA.
It was the blazing electric light that shook her awake, her eyes filmy and lugubrious like that of a cadaver coming back to life. She saw her face in the bedside mirror and noted a smile playing in the corners of her mouth. Her eyes looked below her bare navel. She didn't seize a bedsheet to cover herself, like she did that last time, because she no longer had anything to hide. When she closed her eyes even in this state of semi-wakefulness she saw him again. He was staring at her. She fell back on the pillow and resumed her fantasies. Nothing would make her throw them away. Not now when she had decided to take her mother's advice to get married. That was what my dreams portended, Asiya thought, deciding that she no longer needed an interpreter. She saw his eyes and they were boring into hers and they conjoined and she tried to read whatever was in his irises but couldn't because he was now searching for her mouth. She gave it to him. Wide. Eyes shut. His gentle, warm kisses and caresses assured her that the day's fight was over. Only love wasn't.