Dusk is playing a lullaby on the stained-glass windows of the catholic cathedral across the street from where I sit. I am pondering about life and death under the shadow of the blue and white tent that has served as home for my family for two weeks. The tent, one of hundreds in an internally displaced refugee camp on the outskirts of Benin City, is part of a tent town that started as a screening centre made up of a couple of tents. Now, it provides shelter for thousands of families. The number will grow, the tents will grow, eating deeper into the space farmlands and palm plantations inhabit now, and the line of cars that stretch back to the expressway will grow, clog the access and this place will become even more crowded. We would have to move then, for more people would mean less hygiene and death would follow.
Death, a word that denotes a finality, decay, and hearts rubbed raw by sorrow, has become a constant expression. I see it in the crosses that find ample expression in the stained windows and the steeple that crowned the cathedral, in the promise of resurrection, but only after death. I see it on the net and see it scrolling through live feeds, where individual experiences give way to numbers that only grows. I look at interactive maps and see it crawling across place names, a black tentacle that follows the roads and the rivers, moving from one town to the next, creating more numbers.
I wondered about what will become of the world if more than three-quarters of us fall victim to the new scourge, as the wild-eyed researcher in the news yesterday had insisted would happen before his mic was cut off and the face of the confused-looking news anchor replaced his own. I am too scared to admit to myself that everything that happening appears to prove him right—except blind faith.
I had looked at the interactive maps a few hours ago. It is creeping closer, maybe not as fast as it was a week ago, but it is coming. With our forward flight halted by stern-faced Guardsmen, I try not to listen to my wife and kids talking inside the tent.
I threw my mind back to the recent past, back to that sun-swept afternoon in Agege, three weeks ago, when we first encountered the death that is stalking us now.
“Fulani don’t eat carrion,” Adunni said in that matter of fact tone that I was still trying to get used after ten years of being married to her.
Wondering why she would drop a statement like that during what was a leisure drive along Old Capitol Road in Agege, I followed her eyes out the passenger side window to where two willowy men stood over two calves, arms akimbo. The calves were lying prone on a makeshift cattle pen and a bluish secretion seeped from their nostrils to mix with the dark green coat of droppings and muck that had replaced the laterite earth.
It was two days to Sallah and makeshift livestock markets tend to sprout like sudden, smelly sores in the neighbourhood until the festivities were over and the sanitation people found the will to act without fear of divine punishment.
“Those guys are too dark to be Fulani.” I said as I looked away from the obviously dead animals and their distraught owners - cattle had always been expensive but became more so after the big drought two years before.
I could feel Adunni’s eye boring into the side of my face, but I keep my eyes on the road. She does not like being countered without a follow-up explanation. I waited for her to say something, to tell me that she was the one who spent the first 20 years of her life in the North and as such knew the Fulani better.
We must have driven for five minutes without saying anything to each other when Adunni broke the silence. Not with a cutting remark, as I had expected.
“What do you think killed the cows?” she asked.
Surprised that she had let my jibe go unanswered, I shrugged, wondering why the sight of death had affected her that way. It was rare for Adunni’s tongue to lose its keen edge.
Silence, broken only by the horns of impatient drivers and the soft hum from the car’s climate control system, followed us home.
I did not think anything was amiss when rats no longer scurried across our living room, their movement only captured by the corner of the eyes.
I started noticing the demise of the rats two days after we drove past the dead calves, and it was with a sense of panic that I couldn’t place that I side-stepped three large rats jerking in their death throes near the garbage collection point by the gate that leads into our estate.
I felt more pity for the cows than I did the rats. In the context of the war we declared on the rats since we moved into the compound at New Oko-Oba in December 2058, I was in no state to be charitable to them. To me, their demise was the welcome result of another round of poison baiting.
Later, I noticed a pair of dead rats outside the burrows they had honeycombed around the soak-away in our compound, I felt a sense of poetic justice—of death well deserved. The buggers got what was coming to them.
By this time, I had forgotten my initial unease at the sight of the dying rats. Victims of poison or the stray cats that now and again made their home under the water tank at our backyard, who tend to play with dead rats when they have had their fill of the fish heads my neighbour piled into the refuse instead of into her family’s tummy. Perhaps I should have been alarmed when less and less rats darted away from my headlights as my car felt its way into its customary parking space beside the large water tank where the charging units stood, regal, blinking in an electronic symphony. I was also not alarmed when first the compound and then the house proper was saturated by the stench of putrefying meat. I was not too bothered and easily laid the reason for the deaths squarely on a highly efficient poison.
I did not apply any poison and my wife, a nutritionist, who had wanted to be a nurse, abhorred poison of any kind and so could not have applied them.
I could have asked the neighbours—they occupied the upper floor of our one storey house—but a week before, Adunni had quarrelled with the wife. ‘She keeps throwing dirty water on my vegetable garden,’ Adunni fumed when I asked what the war of words was about. She forbade any of her brood speaking to them. Adunni, I confess, has the temperament of a rattlesnake and can take things very far when she feels she has been ill-treated. Did I already mention how sharp her tongue could be? So, even though she was cussing all through the grimy task of seeking for putrid rats in crevices, cracks, and worst of all, inside her stow-away box, where she stashes all her favourite special-occasion Georges, Hollandis, Synto-wraps and other party-going wrappers and blouses, she persisted on not asking the neighbours what kind of wonder rodent killer was at work.
For a day and a half, we—Adunni, our twin girls and I—struggled to rid the house of dead rats and their stench. However, by the time we finished with the house, carrying the little dead things into the collection bucket my wife had thoughtfully kept in the middle of the parlour, with hands that were, as per her instructions, wrapped in plastic bags; we discovered that the stench coming in from the open windows was as strong as the one indoors.
Out into the compound, we went.
Out came the shovel and leather gloves.
It was easy gathering the rats we could find in the open, however, those in holes – even though they did not smell as bad as the ones in the open - posed a challenge until I came up with the idea to seal them up where they lay. We made easy work of the buggers: a shovel of earth here, a well-mixed lump of cement and sand there.
I noticed my wife getting madder and madder as we worked. Though she did not say what the matter was; I caught the upstairs neighbour peeping from her bedroom window and that gave me enough insight into the source of her anger.
‘Please don’t let her spoil your mood, you know she sees this type of work as beneath her,’ I said, trying to calm the storm brewing in Adunni’s eyes. She had never liked Nneka.
Our neighbour’s wife, according to my wife, was a spoilt brat, the sort whose parents granted too many concessions to make up for their lack of parental qualities. I do not know how true her assessment was, but knowing how annoyed she already was about them not paying attention to the stench she insisted they caused, I felt it wise not to inflame her more. Adunni moved away from me. It was as if my words irritated her. I was surprised when she beckoned me over to the large pit I had dug to bury the dead rats. I followed her pointing finger and saw for the first time the bluish secretions on the nose of the first one, then with growing alarm, on all of the rats I could see: those not already covered with earth or other rats.
“What is that?”
Never in all my years of rat baiting, poisoning and outright stomping, had I seen such secretions on dead rats.
“Don’t know,” Adunni turned to look at me, a worried look on her face, “Think this must be a reaction to the poison they ate, though I’ve never seen or heard of any substance that could cause this.”
“Neither have I,” I said, but I was sure I felt a twinge of recognition somewhere at the back of my mind. Not being much of the analytic thinker my wife and children were, I did not dwell on it.
I do not recall who suggested we check the rats already collected in the plastic bucket inside, but I recall it was my wife who suggested sending the twins back indoors, away from the excitement, but not before they had thoroughly scrubbed their hands with soap and rinsed it with water.
“Know what,” Adunni said to me as she closed the door behind the protesting twins she had just scolded thoroughly for acting naughty and not shutting up and doing what they were told, “What pains me is not that someone killed off these damn pests, but that that person is calmly watching behind a curtain while I clean the smelly mess.”
I did not respond, not that she expected me to. I know enough about the neighbours to know that the wife was not one to get her manicured nails dirty carrying garbage or smelly rats. Although the petite woman had not been wearing a surgical mask when I spied her earlier, I had expected to find if cupping her face. Without a doubt, the stench would have reached their floor—it was that strong. Anyway, my wife insisted she was responsible for the bunch of dead rats thrown from the top floor towards the general direction of the bins. The husband would not be callous enough to not bring the rats down to the garbage, she said.
A few days after we had buried the last of the rats, I ran into the neighbour, the husband.
Chike was a jolly fellow with a taste for flashy cars, was a cyber journalist. Though I worked for myself as a building contractor, I made it a point of duty to leave home at the same time as the blue collars. As such, we ran into each other now and then as we readied our cars for the day. We do not talk about much–sports, a little bit of politics, how exorbitant car parts were getting, and of course, the newest 4X4s.
Like me, he was on his way to work and had left the spiral staircase leading to their flat a few moments after I walked by. I turned at the sound of footsteps behind me to behold his sheepish grin. Why does that guy always appear to be laughing at something?
“Good morning Mr. Dotun,” he said with more enthusiasm than I had ever noticed in him.
“Good morning, Chike,” I responded, not willing to endure his habitual frown at any use of the officious ‘Mr’ for him.
“Well,” that annoying smile crossed his face again, “we haven’t had the time to thank you for what you did with the rats.”
Despite myself, I felt a touch of anger. Not only was the guy trying to apologise for letting us clean up their mess, he even had the audacity to tell me “we haven’t had the time to thank you.” I bite down my anger and turned to him (yes, I had looked away to hide any tell-tale sign).
“No problem Chike, the rats were a serious nuisance to us too. So no problem at all,” I managed to say this with more civility than I had hoped possible in the circumstance. Anger and its attendant violence are so tedious. So, while the grimy job of finding and burying all the dead vermin was a lot of bother, I did not say so, couldn’t say so. I tend to leave all the heavy lifting to my wife. I am used to it.
We walked together to our cars. Mine was closer. I stood by and watched as the door of his opened automatically, as the AI deduced he was close. I know I shouldn’t feel envy, but I couldn’t help myself when the cool smell of real leather hit me. Chike’s car was brand new, equipped with auto-nav and full-body protective cocoon. It was the type of car the guys in my club were all salivating over. I looked away. I thumbed my remote, and my ever-reliable Tokunbo door slid open, silent as a night hunter. It was a conventional door, unlike Chike’s eagle wing affair. Yes, we did not have the “in vogue” feel of Chike’s Benz, but we are not far off—even if the look was of a third model Toyota Catcher, from five years back. However, it is not easy to not envy, not when the thing in question was parked opposite the disused storeroom I call my home office. From where it was an imposing view every early morning and all weekend.
I was trying my best not to look back into Chike’s very becoming car interior when his voice forced me to turn towards him.
“By the way Mr. Dotun,” he began, eager like, “what kind of poison did you guys use? My wife and I had wondered for long whether it is a new variety. It sure doesn’t work like something stocked by rat-killer hawkers.”
I cannot exactly remember what I mumbled to Chike, whatever it was, it must have satisfied him, for I recall stepping aside for his car to edge past and with a cheerful wave of his hands, slide out of the compound.
“What do you mean they’d not apply the poison?” My wife asked for maybe the umpteenth time.
“Just that, Adunni. Chike asked me what poison we used and where we bought them. Why would he ask that question if they use it?” I said, knowing that she was not exactly hot, but was warming up.
“Daddy twins, I can’t believe how easy you agree to his lies. He’s just trying to divert attention, especially since they left the cleaning to us?”
“No. He sounded very sincere to me.”
“He would, Dotun Akintoye, he would. You can so be gullible eh. Who would’ve spread the poison? Who else lives in this house with us? We didn’t apply it, so it must be them. I intend to speak to that condescending woman and her husband o. I don’t care if her father owns this house.”
“Calm down, Adunni,” I said, for she was already shouting, not caring if anyone was listening. “It could have come from any of the houses nearby. You know rats socialise a lot. One visit to poisoned meat and the scourge spreads through the four-legged kingdom.”
My intention was to diffuse the tension with some light humour. Her sour look at me told me humour would not work. I persisted, “Imagine a guyman rat visiting his girlfriend two houses away and bringing back some titbits from their hangout to his guys who then decide to follow him for more of the awoof.” My reward was the sight of her beautiful smile replacing her scowl.
However, it would be much later that I found out my summary of the situation was right.
Life went back to normal, kind of, Adunni still refused to be on friendly terms with neighbours. We never saw another rat again, not inside the house, not within the compound. We felt that was a good omen. We never talked much about the issue with the poison as my hypothesis of the poison’s source carried even with my cynical wife. Perhaps the neighbours had overheard my argument with Adunni about their culpability because Chike never mentioned the issue to me again. Perhaps this was because there were no rats left to kill? Whatever the reason, I never asked.
We would have gone on living our lives, happy that the brief pauses and quick darts of the rats across the living room and those irksome scratches they inflict as they make their way across a sleeping body were now stories to be told with relief. We—I to be precise—maintained a somewhat cordial relationship with our neighbour, trading polite greetings and swallowing the anger of having to mow the lawn and care for the compound alone.
Things did not remain normal for too long. No, the rats did not come back, they never did. It was something worse that came.
It was late afternoon when I returned from picking the kids from school. Adunni’s car was in the car park but the silence of the house and the scent of fresh disinfectant, baffled me. The kids’ shriek of “Mummy we’re home” went unanswered. I walked into the bedroom, checked the bathroom, the guest room, and the kitchen. Adunni was not in the house. A quick check at the backyard showed she had been weeding her vegetable patch. The old-style hoe she was very fond of was lying between the ridges she had made me dig for her beloved plants. Beside the hoe where uprooted weeds, with clumps of wet earth still attached.
I went back into the house, ignored the twins’ chorused “Where’s Mummy?” and stepped to the front yard. I was crossing the spiral stairs that led to the second floor when a faint whimper reached my ears. I paused, cupped my right hand to my ears. Sure enough, the sound came again, accompanied this time with whispers. I looked up. The windows to the Nwaogu’s living room were open, the sounds came from there.
My legs were rubbery when I began walking up the stairs, and they got more so by the time I was turning the door handle to get into the room.
I opened the door and thrust my head in, the sight before me was enough to stop me in my tracks, and it did.
Mrs. Bisi Nwaogu, Chike’s ajebuttter wife and my Adunni were in each other’s arms on the single settee in the Nwaogu’s sitting room.
I heard a noise behind me and turned to see the twins coming up the stairs. I pushed the door all the way open and stepped into the room, the twins came in behind me. I stood in the room, numb, saying nothing, staring at my wife and Chike’s wife.
The twins stood beside me, silent, hanging to my hands as if staking territory, watching the scene.
“What’s going on here?” I asked.
The women, who until then were oblivious of my presence, turned to look at me. I noticed tears on Bisi’s cheeks. Adunni was dry-eyed, but I knew her enough to know that what I saw in her eyes was fear, the kind I had only seen once before on the day she had a near-miss with an okada man that ignored a stop sign.
“What is going on here?” I asked again.
Adunni did not pull away from the woman’s embrace. She opened her arms wide, beckoning on us to come to them. I held the twins back, stood my ground, my eyebrows quirking, askance.
“Darling, did you not get my message?” Adunni asked.
Darling? Could she be so brazen? She only calls me darling in the bedroom, the only place she lets go of that stern exterior of hers and lets me be boss. Yes, that is fear in her eyes.
“I did not, the twins were singing all through the drive back,” I said, throwing darts at her with my eyes, at least I thought I was.
Beside her, Mrs. Nwaogu went from gentle sobbing to open wailing.
Adunni looked at her for a moment and shook her head sadly. I flexed my fingers, my hands felt limp. The bewildered twins squirmed out of my grasp and ran to their mother.
What the hell is going on?
“Eko Atlantic City is under quarantine, Chike is there,” Adunni’s voice was flat and devoid of emotion as if she was announcing yet another curfew for the twins.
“Quarantine, what quarantine?” I asked.
Adunni did not answer; she instead managed to free one hand from a twin and pointed. I followed her finger to the left and saw a hologram that filled one part of the sitting room.
All my attention, when we walked in, had been on the women on the couch. I had not even noticed the hologram.
In the projected image, men in protective gear were leading several sickly-looking people into tents, others, too weak to walk, or perhaps dead, lay limp on stretchers. However, that was not what struck me. I stood there, stunned, trying, but failing to deny the suggestion that came to mind. The sick people all had bluish secretion coming out of their noses.
Captivated by what I was seeing, I moved closer. “How are you getting this?” I asked, noticing that the screen was without a media logo, so it could not be coming from a mainstream news outlet.
“Chike planted a spy camera yesterday. He suspected that something is going on and wanted to get first-hand information. He says an epidemic is upon us. I told him not to go, I told him not to go.” Mrs. Nwaogu said through her sobs.
“How come this is not on the news then?” I asked no one in particular.
“Chike’s camera’s streams to Bisi’s allincom, those are real-time images from his camera. I’ve tried reaching my colleagues in Eko Atlantic but the connection’s busy,” Adunni said, coming to stand beside me. The ever-perceptive twins stayed with the sobbing Mrs. Nwaogu.
I walked to the communication hub and as I dialed Chike’s call code on their high-end video phone, I could feel Bisi’s eyes burning holes in my back. At least she is not crying anymore, I thought.
Chike’s face came into view on the large view screen; he seemed relieved to see me. “what is going on?” I asked.
“Mr. Dotun. Thank God. I can’t talk much. Thinks are getting crazy out here. Things are worse than I thought. But tell me, the rats, did you notice any strange thing as you buried them?” Chike was tense, he kept looking over his shoulders, even though he appeared to be in a sort of enclosed lab.
“Yes,” I said, somehow knowing what he would say next.
“That means the plague has already reached the mainland and will soon climb up the food chain. You have to leave Eko now. Please take my wife with you; force her if you have to.”
I was about to inquire further when the screen went blank, but not before I saw the door behind Chike burst open and two burly soldiers enter the room.
We left Eko the next morning, way ahead of the mass exodus and death that turned that beautiful city-state into hell-on-earth, but not fast enough. By the time we made it to Benin four hours later, the quarantine was fully in place in Eko. We hoped to cross Benin and make it to Enugu where Chike’s brother promised safety in the form of a close-knit clan of hill dwellers, but a hastily set up quarantine zone for people coming in from Eko negated our plans.
All through the drive, we had kept abreast of developments. Though the truth was still scanty and bitterly guarded by the Eko government, Chike had managed to get the story out and the net links were abuzz.
I worried for a while when we could not get clearance to travel further into Chike’s ancestral home where we felt we might find safety.
In the quarantine camp, which grew by the minute as more refugees flowed in, we waited two weeks for the second round of test results to either clear us, or sign our death warrants. My wife and Bisi, more like sisters now, comforted each other, they both lost family in Eko. Of Chike, we heard little. Some say they placed him in a government facility safe from the epidemic; others said he tried to help the afflicted and contacted the late stage of the infection.
Because we left when we did, we managed to cross Ogun before the militia blocked all exits. From there, only horror tales escaped.
‘Sir...sir,’ an urgent voice intrudes on my thoughts, drawing me back to the present.
I look up to see a Guardsman looming over me, blocking the rainbow hue from the cathedral windows.
‘What?’ I ask, grateful for the intrusion but wondering what he wanted. The Guardsmen were notorious with how harshly they’ve been treating people since emergency law came into effect last week. Adunni says it is the tension, they are human after all.
‘Please head to the meeting tent, the result for the tests are out,’ he says, turning to walk away.
‘Wait,’ I call out, stopping him in mid-stride, ‘What happens now?’
The Guardsman looks at me as if he was pondering how much to tell me, then he just shrugs and continues on his way.
I get up from the plastic chair, take one last look at the Cathedral, and enter the tent to fetch my family.