The Old Woman … By Chidera Duru

I helped an old woman carry a basket of fruits to her roadside kiosk. When I dropped the basket, the woman looked at me, her gaze soft and piteous, and she said, “My son, I would have blessed you, but you see, there is no use. You will die tomorrow!”

My ears immediately felt stuffed, as if with wool.

“What?”

My heart started racing. She did not speak to me again. Instead, she started arranging her fruits on her table. I stared around. Swerving cars and rushing legs produced an ominous beat, like a soundtrack to the scene.

“Mama, what did you say?” She looked up. “You heard me…” She shrugged and then looked away.

Words and thoughts skewed my mind, littered my horizon. Then I sighed, got a grip on myself and stared at her. I wanted to say something, but my words were trapped in my mouth. So, I turned and started walking away. I waved down a taxi and got into the passenger’s seat next to the driver.

“What was that witch saying to you?” The taxi man asked immediately I had fastened my seat belt. “Sorry?” I asked. “The old woman, what did she tell you?” He turned to face me. There was something disturbing about his concern.

Before I could find the words to say, he added, “That woman is known to predict the future. Whatever she says always happens. You shouldn’t be going close to such a person. She is a witch.” His voice was husky.

All the air in the car went out. My mouth became dry and there was a rotation in my head, more like the whole world was spinning.

“Please, stop me!” The words forced their way out of my mouth. Before he could protest, I had opened the door and alighted. Then I turned and found my way back to the old woman’s kiosk.

“Excuse me, ma. Please repeat what you just told me a while ago.” She looked up tiredly. There was something both honest and terrifying in her eyes. It was like she already mourned me. “Oh, sweet little boy…” Her voice was unsteady, like the sound of a dying engine. “It’s a pity you won’t see the end of tomorrow.” Her eyes now wore a dark intensity. “You will be murdered tomorrow!”

My teeth jammed together and couldn’t part. A heavy shiver ran down my body and settled at my legs, like hands grabbing them. My breathing now lacked timing, speeding on like a car with failed brakes. She shook her head and returned her attention to the fruits.

Then suddenly, my mouth became free and I began to yell, “Back to sender! You are the one who will die. Your generation will die…” The words, no matter how much force I applied to them, did not sound convincing. She looked at me one more time and shook her head. This time, there was pain in her eyes. Then she did not look up again. I hurled more abuses at her, things that sounded as empty as the hollow I felt in my heart. Passersby walked past us as if we were made of gas.

When I was tired of yelling, I turned and ran towards the car park, the prediction ‘You will be murdered tomorrow’ running after me like a predator. I boarded a taxi back home. At home, my parents produced fast torrents of questions after I had shared the story with them. Who was the woman? Why didn’t I tell her ‘back to sender’? Where did I meet her? Why did I offer to help a complete stranger at Douglas road? The questions shook me, frightened me more than the fear I saw in their eyes.

“Take us there. Let us see her and ask her questions ourselves!” This was Dad talking. We went into his Mercedes and drove down to Douglas, the same spot where the woman’s little table had stood, but we did not see the woman and there was no sign of her table.

“We have seen no such person here today,” the people around told us. Mum looked at me as if I was a mental case.

Nnaa…” she said tentatively. “Mum, I swear, this was where I saw her…” The people around looked at me as if all I said was hocus-pocus. But it was the look on Dad’s face that darkened the air, lent a malignant theatricality to the whole situation. “It could have been a spirit!” Dad said coldly. There was a strange hint of menace in his expression.

Sweat gathered in my palms. A coarse substance, more like overheated saliva, surged through my throat, made it sore, as if it was bruised; and my heart thumped furiously. Mum held my hand. I clutched desperately at her arm, feeling unsafe, vulnerable. My parents started praying there, among fast moving people and concerned onlookers. Some people joined us to cancel every spirit of death. And, as their voices rose high and surrounded me like ferns, it felt as if something, anything was reaching into their center where I stood to drag me away to my death.

At night, I was jittery, lying next to Mum in the master bedroom. Dad sat in the living room halfway through the night, as if lying in wait for death.

Nnaa,” Mum would say to me at regular intervals, “are you no longer a child of God? He has not given us a spirit of fear, but of sound mind. And we shall not cast our young. Always say these words. The battle of life is the battle of words!” I would nod each time.

Mum looked at me as if I was a mental case… The people around looked at me as if all I said was hocus-pocus. But it was the look on Dad’s face that darkened the air…

“You are turning seventeen tomorrow and no force on earth can cut your life short.” She said calmly, meaningfully, towards midnight. I nodded, grateful for the fact that she lay at the outer part of the bed. Then there was a startling, tense silence in which I imagined dark shapes thrusting out their hands from the roof.

I accompanied Mum to her shop the next day. “Nnaa, do not fear. God is in control,” Dad said before he drove away, to his office. Mum bought me bananas and groundnut and that took the edge off my anxiety. I could still feel the tension inside, just lurking around the corner of my mind, like a spy.

Towards 4pm, a truck pulled up in front of our shop and a particularly offended looking group of men climbed out and barged into our stall. Without saying a word, they started to carry some of Mum’s wares, those ones used as samples, away.

“What is it?” Mum rushed out and stood in their way. “Have I not paid you?” They ignored her. “Chibuike,” Mum called one of them. “I know you. If I anything happens to my goods, you are the one I will hold responsible, not them.” If the Chibuike heard Mum, he did not show it. Mum held on to one of the cartons being whisked away.

“Madam, don’t make us angry!” the Chibuike said, his teeth clenched. “What will you do to me? Will you fight a woman?” She was breathless.

Nnaa,” she called out to me. “Go and call your father… Fast!”

I took some Money from the drawer and I ran out. As I approached World Bank roundabout, I saw an unusually dark-skinned man, wearing old clothes and unkempt dreadlocks, standing near the junction and looking sternly at me. There was a brown bag hanging across his shoulder. I became apprehensive. Then I turned sharply and crossed the road. From the corner of my eyes, I noticed that he was also walking across the road, towards me, at an unusual speed. I ran into a taxi whose driver was shouting, “One more passenger!” The taxi moved. I looked back from the window. The scary looking man had disappeared. I heaved a sigh of relief, my entire body quivering. Our driver drove through Porthacourt road to avoid the traffic. It made sense. Then he cut into 4040 road.

“Driver, I hope you will get to Okigwe road?” I asked. “Okigwe road? I’m going to West End.”

“I’m going to Okigwe road.”

“Why didn’t you tell me that, did anyone not hear me shout West End?” I knew I was wrong so I asked him to drop me and paid him for the ride so far. Then I was left on that quiet residential road that leads to Old Nekede. For a minute or saw, I looked around, no car was close. Then I turned front and to my horror, the man with the dreadlocks was standing across the road. He looked at me the way one aims at a game. Then he started running across the road, towards me.

I turned back and started running, my heart banging madly at the walls of my chest, like a stranded visitor. Every time I looked backwards, the man was running after me with speed and fury in his eyes. My senses worked fast. Nobody was on the road. I would have run to one of those sealed, black gates, but he would catch up with me before I knocked. The sound of his footsteps approached me hurriedly.

“Jesus! Blood of Jesus!” I screamed when I saw that he was closing up to me. I swiftly diverted into a track road by the corner.

When I glanced backwards, he had disappeared. I continued running, my breathing uncontrollable. I soon stopped on the lonely track road that had trees standing motionlessly, as if shocked by my presence. I squatted to catch my breath. When I looked up, I saw the man, running towards me from my front, brandishing an axe. I turned back and started running. Then I sprinted into a gated uncompleted two storey building. I bolted the gate from within and quickly ran into its stairs. There was a darkish air of abandonment in the building, and the silence in it stared coldly at me, like a warning, or even a foreboding.

I ran into the first floor and sat on the floor, catching my breath. My chest felt like it had expanded. Shortly, I heard hacking sounds. I looked from the window and discovered that the man was hacking the gate with his axe.

“Mummy!” The word escaped my mouth before I covered it. When he finally broke in, I screamed, “Help! He wants to murder me! Help!” My voice ricocheted through the neighborhood of uncompleted buildings and jutting trees.

The man started to climb the stairs. I ran out from the first floor and ran upstairs to the second floor. I heard his footsteps thumping after me. “Help!” I wailed again. It was like being helpless in a nightmare. I ran into one of the rooms and hid behind a pile of woods. I thought of my mother, what she was doing at the moment. I remembered Dad. I thought of how she would feel when she finally learnt that I had been murdered. Tears poured from my eyes, burning hot tears.

Before long, the woods started to be pushed about. I ran out. I now faced my pursuer. His eyes were bloodshot. His breathing was loud. He tried to grab me with his heavy muscled arm and I slipped through his grasp. As I made to run out, I tripped over a block and fell. He ran to me, marched my chest with a heavy foot and I lay flat on my back, and then he raised his axe.

“My mum!” was the last thing I shouted as I saw his axe rise, swoosh through the air and land on me. Then I slipped into quiet….

– CHIDERA DURU, Author of “The Sound of War”

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