Abikus die young, fact. Abikus have to be tethered to the physical realm to prevent them from dying, also a known fact. Why was Yele willfully confronting death?
There is a thing to do to hold abikus down on earth: First is a cloth of the finest adire material. The herbalist was standing by with it when our little sister was born. Second is a wooden box inlaid with old Punch newspapers; the herbalist’s assistant, a small blind boy with a calabash balanced on his head, was holding this. You never cut the abiku’s cord with knives or scissors or razor blades. My mother, all sweaty faced, was made to bite our sister’s cord, gnashing her teeth against the gristle until it broke, her lips covered in blood. And when the rest of the placenta spilled out, the blind boy was there to catch it with the wooden box and old newspapers. Our sister was then wrapped like a bean-cake in the red and blue striped adire cloth and fastened.
We blocked the path of the blind herbalist assistant, Yele and I, as he walked down the road, alone. His master had stayed behind to give final instructions to our mother concerning the abiku child. We had never seen him before, this boy. He wasn’t at our school, he never came to the football field, and we were wondering if he was a spirit. Sometimes, these herbalist guys conscripted stray spirits and used them as houseboys Yele said, known fact. “Perhaps we don’t know him because he’s blind,” I tried to argue but Yele countered by listing in alphabetical order all the other handicapped kids who still came out to play. Even Sadiq who was crippled played football last week.
The herbalist’s boy walked confidently. The swing of his arms was like an adult’s. He couldn’t be much younger than we were. Maybe four years old, or—max—five and a half. He wore shorts, was bare-chested, and the calabash stayed steady on his head. When a fly alighted on his arm, he slapped and scratched, just like a normal kid would.
“Hey, small boy,” I said. Yele was waving his hand in front of his face. The boy stopped and looked around, at us. His eyes were busted, milky-white, with stains in them like a sprinkling of glass.
“Yes?” he said. He picked his nose.
Yele poked him with a finger. “He’s real,” Yele said.
“You're not a spirit?”
“What do you mean?”
“We thought you were a spirit.”
“Oh, but I am a spirit.”
The boy continued to walk. Yele followed him and tried to look into the calabash.
“Don’t look into the calabash,” the boy warned.
“Okay, take a look then.”
We didn’t dare. We followed the boy and asked him all sorts of questions. Where did spirits sleep? Did folks like him eat? Why did he allow the herbalist to enslave him? Was there a debt to be repaid? Who was his mother when he was alive? Can he see other ghosts? Was our newborn sister really an abiku or was his master just some kind of sham? The last question was the most important; Yele took his time coming to it.
The boy looked bored. Yele desperate for some kind of answer tapped him on the shoulder. “Hey!”
The calabash tipped and fell to the ground. Little rectangles of coal fell out of it.
“Now see what you’ve done.” The boy said. He looked disappointed for a second and then continued to walk.
“What? You won’t pick it up?”
“It’s too late.” The boy stopped at a fork in the road and picked his nose again.
“What is too late?” I asked.
“I was carrying the world in that calabash. I have been carrying it since I was born a hundred and fifty years ago.”
“Ta! It’s a lie.” Yele said and pushed the blind boy’s chest.
“It’s true. You can look into it.”
“Ade, get the calabash.” Yele ordered. I stayed put. I recognized the tone. It was just like when he told me, Ade get the watch. And Father beat the shit out of me for us taking his watch to school.
“Ade, bring the calabash, you dumbass.”
“Get it yourself. Are you afraid of it?”
“Never!” Yele puffed like a peeved turkey. He walked around the fallen calabash twice, first clockwise, then anticlockwise before picking it. The blind boy waited patiently, his head slightly upturned like blind boys’ heads usually were, as if espying some window of light at the lintel of their blindness.
Yele brought the calabash. I looked away, but expertly—I didn’t want Yele to call me a scaredy cat later.
“Have you looked inside?” The boy asked.
Yele looked. Then curiosity got the better of me and I looked. There was nothing inside but coals.
“There’s nothing in it.”
“There was a special arrangement of coals.” The boy said.
“Oh that!” Yele said.
The boy smiled, “What, did you expect to see the continents in there? The coals were the balance, you disturbed it and in the next second the world will fall apart, earthquakes, floods.”
We waited for a second, looking up, expectant of cataclysmic events. Nothing. A bird chirped here, another replied there. A lizard scurried in the red earth.
Yele barked out his harsh, cynical laugh. “Ha! So you're a scam! You and your master! Scammers!” Yele slapped the blind boy across the face and kicked him in the shins. He said to me, running, “Lets go home Ade. We have our answers!”
We were abikus. Yele and me and our newborn sister with no name. At least that’s what they told us. We were not allowed to eat eggs, or vegetable soup made with efinrin. Whenever Mother was looking at the clumps of shrub growing around the house, she was looking for the yellow stigmas of rogue efinrin plants. When she found them, she screamed Tamunoee! and stamped them out; she killed them with as much anger as one would a cockroach found in a baby’s cot. We were not allowed to climb trees and we could only be goalkeepers when we played football. Sports were dangerous for abikus, known fact.
Abikus liked dying, even if they couldn’t tell you that directly. I argued once that I liked life, that I loved the color of trees and the smell of air when it wanted to rain, that I couldn’t possibly like dying, that I couldn’t possibly want to die, or secretly wish for death. And my father had replied, a sagely smile on his old face, “It is in your spirit makeup. Even you won’t know until the final moment.”
Yele was old enough for secondary school now, but no one allowed him to go. To get to secondary school, you had to cross the railway. Everyone shuddered at the image of Yele crossing the railway. They shuddered at the daily temptation he would face standing by the track when the train passed. Yele screamed that if he wanted to die, he’d take pills! Who willingly jumped in front of a train for petesakes? But they smiled painfully and ruffled his thick hair and told him that he couldn’t understand. It was his spirit. In the final seconds before he jumped, something would come over him. He would just feel the lure of death, the sweet lure of death and want it so strongly that when he jumped there would be a rapturous smile on his face.
“He’s a scammer.” Yele said, kicking a Peak milk can as we ran home. He didn’t particularly sound convinced. We each had our own wooden box with the inlay of newspapers. The boxes were under our parents’ bed. They were like little coffins. When I turned five, Father pulled my box out and told me, under the gaze of family members and extended relatives, what the box meant. It was my initiation into the life of paranoia Yele had entered two years before. The finest cloth of adire that had been used to wrap me at birth was now in that box, Father told me. I had worn that cloth only for the first eight days of my life before it was snatched from me in a simulation of anger and reproach and transferred into the box. The purpose of this ritual was for my spirit to always desire the softness of the fine adire and as a corollary the sweetness of life. For as long as the material was locked away, my spirit would desire it, and I would stay in this life. It was not foolproof but it doused the runaway spirit of an abiku some. I mustn’t ever see it though.
“I am telling you this now,” Father had said, “because I know boys; so you don’t come exploring one day and break the padlocks! I showed your brother his when he turned five, now I’m showing you your own. The only other reason is for when you're old and ready to die: all you have to do is look into the box.”
I liked that part, at first. It meant I couldn’t die no matter what I did. I could be a bullfighter or a pilot if I wanted to. Or a stuntman! But when my father noticed my cartwheels, he slapped my ear and said: “No! The locking away of the cloth is not that you can’t die but so you wouldn’t want to die. You're not immortal!” That stopped my cartwheels. Yele on the other hand wanted to know if any of it was true. The first phase of his enquiry was over. We listened to the world everyday for a week, studied the balance. The sky was still up and the earth down by Sunday. Yele ‘skissssd’, catching my attention when I left church and was peeing in a nearby bush. He was crouching beneath the window, his flowered tie touching the ground.
I ran to him. What?
He grabbed my hand and we ran all the way home. The front door was locked, but Yele had it all planned out; he had left our bedroom window open. We squeezed through, dirtying our Sunday clothes. The house was dark and pleasantly quiet. The smell of our morning plantain still lingered in the air. Yele got into the master bedroom and disappeared under our parent’s bed. He pulled out the two boxes. My heart started pounding in my chest.
“Wait, Yele. . .”
He opened the wardrobe and climbed up to the uppermost layer. He found the rusty keys under layers and layers of my mother’s Guineas and Aso-okes.
“Wait! Wait!” I clutched him feeling as if I needed to pee even though I just emptied my bladder. “You can’t do it Yele! We will die!”
There was fear in his eyes. He didn’t hide it. But there was a stronger emotion too: a deep need to know if it was true, to know if he was going to spend the rest of his life running from eggs or trees or trains.
“Do you want your key? He asked.
I stared at the rusty key dangling from the thread. I turned and ran. I squeezed through the window and fled back to church. Tail between my legs, I crept to my seat beside Mother. Father was asleep as usual, his chin to his chest; he always slept in church.
“You cannot go to school,” Father said for the umpteenth time, looking at Yele over the rim of his glasses. “This is for your own good. And you must drop this nonsense about school once and for all. I am tired of hearing it. You and Ade and your sister, Simbi, will till the farm. It is a good life, the best life for your kind.”
All our elders and relatives had gathered: Uncle Abikpo who looked like a human praying mantis; Auntie Shalewa who was called omo meta, baba meta (three children, three fathers), and even Bòda Kehinde who was our favorite, a bricklayer, who always had crisp one Naira notes for us when he came visiting. They all nodded in agreement.
Yele stood in the center of the circle they formed, his hands balled into fists, a stubborn abiku expression on his face if there ever was one. To the shock and horror of all present, Yele pulled his adire from his pocket, threw it on the floor and stomped it. Mother who was just sauntering by, slumped, the tray of drinks in her hands falling to the ground in a clash of cymbals. Father shrieked, leaping to his feet. He rescued the soiled adire from the ground. “Why!?” He cried cradling the red and purple striped cloth. “Yele! What have you done?” And my father, who I’d never seen cry, burst into tears.
I caught Yele’s eye from my corner of the universe and saw he was shaking like a leaf, but resolute. For abikus who see their cloth, the end is only a matter of days … or even mere minutes, known fact. Yele was dead boy walking! There was only one remedy. Not as effective as the first but worth a shot. A repeat of the childhood ritual. Yele had to wear the adire again but this time for months and then have it snatched away from him in a simulation of reproach.
“No.” Yele said with finality.
It was the end of our childhood as we knew it.
“Jo-or, baba oko mi,” Mother pleaded. She would sit by his mat all night, asking him to reconsider. She would cry, curse, thrash around like an epileptic, twist his ear or slap him across his mouth. Yele simply stared at her without remorse. I begged him too. I watched him like a hawk in those early days afraid he would hang himself with his shoelaces any chance he got. No one could sleep and he laughed when he caught me following him one night to the pit latrines.
“I do not wish to die, little brother,” he said that night.
“What, am I going to jump into the hole and drown in all our collective shit?”
“I don’t know. Are you?”
A little green frog leapt out of the bushes and croaked—a lonesome sound in a night that was still and breathless. I hugged him, bursting into tears.
“It’s not too late, you can do the ritual again,” I begged.
“I would not put on invisible chains, Ade. One day when you’re older, you’d understand.”
Yele started at the free public school across the railway just after planting season in ‘92. I would follow him as far as I could, stopping at Baba Olomi’s compound, where people lined up to buy water in buckets. I would stand on tip-toes and watch him cross the railway, surprisingly without incident. I truly expected him to splay himself on the tracks like a sacrificial lamb but day after day, he crossed the railway and waved to me from the other side, a toothed triumphant smile on his face.
And like clockwork, he returned from school everyday.
Adelehin’s short stories have appeared in The Best of Everyday Fiction, Takahe, On the Premises (second place winner Mar 2008 & Honourable Mention Oct 2021), The Tiny Globule, Page and Spine, Pandemic publications, Omenana, Sub-saharan Magazine, The Naked Convos, Kalahari Review, Canary Press, Our Move Next anthology and Fiyah. He was once nominated for the Commonwealth short story award (2014) and was recently on the Nommos award long list for speculative fiction (2021).