The trouble starts when I pick up my umbrella, and it pricks my finger.
“Ouch!” I examine the wound. It is not bleeding, but when I squeeze it a thick, brown substance very like foundation starts to come out.
“What’s that?” asks my cousin Ginika watching the liquid.
“Dunno. Pricked my finger. This came out.” I squeeze some more. Suddenly the neat little prick rips along its length like a ladder in tights.
“Hmmm. That doesn’t look right. We should see someone.”
We get on her Vespa, me holding my index finger out, umbrella in the other hand. It’s slow going before we hit the main road; up and down, around potholes brimming with rainwater, beside gutters teeming with rubbish. Children scuttle out of our way leaving rubber balls, tyres, and hastily drawn ‘Swell’ games on earthen streets, only to come back to their play when we pass. People wave. I recognise some of them as my father’s guests at my traditional wedding a few days before and wave back. The rip has reached the first joint on the finger. The brown trails out shiny and thick to coat my nail, blown backwards by the wind.
At the village hospital the doctor sees us as soon as he hears Ginika’s imperious British accent.
“Harrumph,” says the doctor. He is shaped like a cockroach, head smaller than his body. It doesn’t help that glasses cover more than half his face; thick, powerful lenses giving him bug eyes.
“Harrumph,” he says again and probes the wound. It tears some more.
“It keeps doing that,” says Ginika.
“Does it hurt?” the doctor asks.
“No. I feel a bit like a zombie, actually.”
“Zombie?” says the doctor. He scratches the top of his sparse dome. Flakes of dandruff rain down like manna onto the shoulders of his dusty brown coat.
“Yes, zombie. You know like in The Mummy. Grrrrrr brains.” I gesture with my arms straight out, doing the penguin paddle of a typical zombie.
“Ah, Fela,” says the doctor brightening. He is thrilled. “Zombee o, Zombee.” He executes a small dance. His tie flaps about, a big band of faded blue pointing to his talking shoes. Ginika eyes him. She clears her throat.
“So can you do anything?”
“No,” he says. When we leave he is still dancing in his oversized coat, wiggling his bottom.
Ginika spits at the clinic. “Stupid people. I know where we can go.” She starts up her motorcycle again. Of course she does, I think. Ginika knows all the nine villages of our hometown like the back of her hand courtesy of annual holidays to Nigeria. Unlike me.
Another bumpy ride. Lots of foliage slapping my face, loose sand slowing the wheels so that Ginika has to push off in places with her feet. We weave around women with baskets on their heads and babies on their backs. The occasional dog dashing across. Stupid sheep standing in the middle of the road as if wool has suddenly become vehicle–proof. It gets cooler the deeper we ride. The light is dappled green from all the tall, tall trees. Ginika pulls up in front of a concrete bungalow in the middle of a clearing, still swirly from broom marks. She claps and says kpoi–kpoi.
A woman steps out of nowhere. She is in green and brown Ankara print like she is pretending to be a tree. Her hair is all tied up in a scarf of the same material, elongating her head.
“Ozulu, we have a problem,” says Ginika.
“Let me see,” Ozulu says. She takes one look at the wound. “What did this?” I hand the umbrella to her. “Hmmm. Follow me. Take off your shoes.” Ginika already has hers off.
Inside, I see the concrete is in fact greyish clay. It is cold against my feet. Spacious. There are patterns drawn into the walls and a fireplace filled with dry wood.
“Sit,” says Ozulu. Everything is made from clay or mud or wood; raffia mats on the floors, mud benches line the walls, there is a mud bed piled with cloth and pillows and what looks like a deckchair with padded cushions. I take the deckchair.
Ozulu reaches into a fired clay pot. Her arm disappears up to her armpit. When she pulls it out again she has scooped a big cup of water. The tips of her short butterfly sleeves flutter in the breeze coming from the open doorway. She dumps the water into a cream enamel basin and peers into it.
“Ah. Come and see,” she says to me.
I go to her and look over her shoulder. It’s like watching TV in HD. A man is clutching my umbrella and swaying. A ripple on the water and the scene changes. Now he is bending low, going through the small doorway of a brown mud hut covered in white chalk squiggles. The thatched roof brushes his back. The water ripples again.
“Paul? What does he have to do with anything?”
“You know him?” Ozulu asks. Ginika joins us over Ozulu’s other shoulder.
“Yes. He’s my ex, Paul.”
“Where is this?”
“I reckon that’s his hotel room. He leaves for the airport soon. He wanted to stay back after the wedding to take in some of the local sights…”
“He is here now? In this village?”
“Ngwa, call him now. Tell him to come here.”
“I told you that Whiteboy was trouble.” Ginika casts me a disparaging look.
“Gini,” I warn her with my eyes. My eyeballs feel as though they are rolling through sludge. The liquid on my finger has turned to paste. It has bits of white along the seams of the wound.
“He bewitched the umbrella,” says Ozulu. She gets up to throw the water on the soil outside.
“Bewitched?” I can hear the flies in the clearing, sluggish from the humidity. They echo the buzz of the many load–bearing motorcycles on the road, far away from the clearing, strangely soothing. Everything is magnified; the sounds of leaves swishing in the breeze are wind chimes, birds flitting from branch to branch conduct mini–operas.
“No. Not Paul,” I say. “He couldn’t hurt a fly.” I start to close my eyes.
“Don’t sleep o,” says Ozulu. She doesn’t raise her voice but I can tell when a warning is a warning and not a suggestion.
“Do you want me to make the call?” Ginika doesn’t even wait for me to answer her before she starts dialling which is a good thing because I can’t move my neck to nod. I feel a tickle on my hand. The skin has split down to the web of skin between my fingers.
Paul arrives in a fluster. He jumps out of the vehicle before his hired driver stops. Immediately the air changes. It becomes hot and suffocating and the trees’ leaves clack–clack endlessly like wooden planks smacking out a secret code.
“Darling, I came as fast as I could.” He sprints towards me. “Are you alright?”
Ginika grabs him by the front of his kaftan. “What the hell are you playing at, Whiteboy?”
“Nothing.” Paul flinches under the onslaught even though she comes up to just under his chest. His forehead is dotted with perspiration. “That’s a bit tight.”
Ginika tightens the hold some more. He starts to cough.
“Enough,” says Ozulu, and even the trees quieten down. “You. Come here.”
Paul stumbles towards her, iron filing to magnet. He brushes the embroidery at his neckline to straighten it. It is white thread against butterscotch linen. His sandals are brown; his toes look like cooked potato chips, long and golden. If my mouth didn’t feel full of toffee itself, I might have told him he looked good. On second thoughts, perhaps not, I think. Paul had a way of holding on to things forever. Which explains why I invited him for my traditional wedding in my village.
“There will be mosquitoes,” I said. “It’s the rainy season.” He threatened to jump into the Thames if I didn’t. Ginika still thinks I should have let him.
“Tell me,” says Ozulu. Paul looks at Ginika glowering behind him at the doorway. She flexes her huge thighs as if she is considering Famke Janssening him between them.
“Erm…” Paul tugs on his neckline. He pops the single button.
“I’ll start you off. You went to see that fool Agwoturumbe for a potion. Don’t lie. I’ve seen it.”
“What kind of potion?” Ginika’s shadow moves closer. Paul flinches but he can’t move forward away from Ginika because Ozulu isn’t letting him. My armpits squelch with oiliness.
“A love potion,” says Paul. Ginika slaps him on the back, hard. My hearing is a bit woolly but the cords on her neck don’t lie so I know she’s put her back into it. She hits him and he contorts his body, sinking onto the hard ground, trying to burrow.
“Ginika, ozugo,” says Ozulu. Ginika obeys. “Now tell me what that vagabond Agwoturumbe did.”
“He… I… he made me say a spell we wrote. You know with an object that belonged to my beloved…”
“I am not your beloved,” I say but apparently nobody hears me. They are still turned towards Paul.
“I chose the umbrella because… well, you know how I love the fairy tales Muna.” He gestures to me. “I chose the umbrella because…”
“…pricks her hand on a spindle, quite clever actually. You see, since umbrella spokes can be described as spindles or in the very least, spindly and in the absence of a real one…” Paul is standing almost straight again, buoyed by pride. Typical. It is just like Paul to make a shambles of things and expect to be praised nonetheless. This is why I broke up with him. Well, one of many.
They all turn to me. So I say ‘Idiot, idiot, idiot,’ glad that my tongue seems to be working again. The veil of lethargy lifts for a moment and I give what I hope is my most fearsome look. Paul blanches. Ginika smirks. Ozulu looks indifferent.
“Do you have it?”
“Eh?” asks Paul like an idiot. I slump back into my deckchair. It’s not the firmest and I seem to be slipping down the side but beggars can’t be choosers especially when they can no longer hold themselves upright.
“The spell. Do you have it on you? I want to see it.”
“You can’t. I have it in here.” Paul taps his head with one long finger. He looks around as if he is waiting for someone to pat him on the back again but Ozulu’s stare makes his smile falter.
“Yes. Right. How does it go? ‘Eke, Nkwo, Orie, Afo…’ ”
Paul’s Igbo is not the greatest but considering that he learnt it within three months of meeting me it is quite impressive. That was another reason I dumped him, this need to ingratiate by intently subscribing to all aspects of Igbo culture. Suddenly, it was a crime to eat foods other than Onugbu soup and breadfruit and Ji Awai at our house. Or to speak English. It was too bizarre. At first I was proud; what person wouldn’t be? Then I realised it wasn’t me me he wanted. He wanted to belong and it didn’t matter whom he needed to fixate on to get in.
Ozulu is listening hard. I see her inhale sharply. The hollow at the base of her throat stays concave. She is holding her breath. Ginika too looks like a dog about to bite. I rummage in my brain. What was Paul saying? I cannot concentrate. My mind keeps wandering and all I want to do is…
“Don’t sleep,” says Ozulu without turning around. “Did you say ‘Ihe’?” she asks Paul.
“Sorry?” Paul is distracted. He had continued reciting, happy at a chance to show off his skills. He never could pick up on non–verbal cues.
“That last line. Did you say ‘Ihe m bu n’obi’?”
“Yes. ‘What I love the most’ I believe.” Paul looks as if he is about to launch into recitation again. Ozulu raises her hand.
“You stupid nincompoop,” growls Ginika.
“That foolish man,” Ozulu says. “Does he not know the gods are tricky?”
“What?” Paul looks distressed. He hates to be on the outside of anything. “What am I missing?”
“All these Efulefu relocate to the village and think they can suddenly all become dibia to reconnect with their roots. No cleansing, no training, nothing. No mastery of the language either by the looks of things. And yet that poser Agwoturumbe grew up in Enugu city, a few hours that way.” Ozulu points with her chin.
Ginika looks pained. “It’s like giving a child a gun to play with.”
“Will someone tell me what is going on?” Paul’s lower lip sticks out as if he wants to cry.
I pull myself up and wipe the sweat on my forehead with the back of one hand. Is it me or is my sweat brown? I think.
“You said ‘Ihe.’ ”
“That’s right!” Paul looks indignant.
The deckchair is slippery on the back of my thighs and my dress is riding up and suddenly it all makes sense. “Ihe. Thing. Not ‘onye,’ person. You asked to be given the thing you love the most and then you bewitched my umbrella to prick me and transfer your spell to my blood.”
Paul thinks for a moment. His mouth drops open. “But… but…”
“Please tell me I can kill him now,” says Ginika, pulling a pocket knife from the back pocket of her jeans. “Please, somebody just say the word.”
People often forget that Ginika grew up in roughest Peckham because she speaks posh on account of her scholarship–bestowed accent. Paul seems adequately frightened.
“You love chocolate. That’s the thing you love the most. Oh Christ, I’m turning into bloody chocolate, aren’t I?”
“But… but…” says Paul again. Now I really want to slap him but my body feels like a boulder is on it and I really really have to close my eyes now. I hear a thump.
“Why do you have to be so violent, Ginika?” he wails.
“Because I don’t like you.”
“But I like you. You’re a fierce Igbo goddess.”
Ginika thumps him again. “Shut up, goat. I am not a goddess. Don’t bring their wrath down on me.”
“I can fix it! Let me call ‘Turumbe…” Paul pulls out a phone from his breast pocket and dials quickly.
“Too late,” Ozulu sing–songs, peering in another basin of water. “Looks like he’s getting punished already. He’s in no shape to help anyone.” A small smile curls round her mouth. She throws the water outside again.
“Is she going to die?” Tears stream down Paul’s face. “Please, please, Muna, I don’t want you to die.” He crawls on his hands and knees to me. “I love you. I love you so much, I wanted you to stay with me forever, that’s all. Like we are supposed to.”
“But we aren’t meant to be together,” I say. Breathing feels like sucking in corn pap through a straw. I am getting restless because there is something which I am forgetting to remember. Paul takes my hand. I don’t have the strength to pull it back. Something warm slides from inside my ear to drip on my shoulder.
“Please say you forgive me,” Paul blubbers. He kisses my hand many, many times. He pauses, licks his lips. “You taste like Bounty.”
“Figures. You know I hate Bounty. Couldn’t you make me some nice dark chocolate instead?”
“I like it,” says Paul with lips that seem to have been dipped in excrement.
“So should I kill him or what?” asks Ginika. “We can make it look like militants kidnapped him or something. This is Nigeria, after all.”
“No. Your cousin will be dead by nightfall anyway. Let me consult the Oracle.” Ozulu disappears behind a doorway hidden by a raffia mat.
Paul has given up on crying. He is now licking my arm unashamedly. It tickles and seems to stop my arm feeling too heavy so I let him. He closes his eyes, licking, licking, head tilted like a cat. Ginika taps the knife against her teeth.
“Kill him, kill him,” she mutters like a demented person. Paul scuttles to the other side of the deckchair away from her, picks up my other arm and starts to lick again.
“Mmmm… Mars Bar,” he says.
Ugh. All the ones I hate.
“I see you already have the right idea,” says Ozulu, coming out of her inner sanctum right behind him.
“How do you mean?” asks Ginika.
“Turns out he has to eat her,” she says.
“Right… right here?” Paul raises his head from my arm. When he speaks strings of caramel criss–cross his teeth. “In public?”
“Idiot. Not like that,” barks Ginika.
“You have to consume her. Energy doesn’t die, it simply changes state. But if you eat her, at least we will be able to control where she goes. She will be on this plane and…”
“Inside Paul?” It is a cruel cosmic joke. Paul wishes for us to belong together and he gets his wish. All this while I have been mellow, could barely hear my own heart beating but suddenly it speeds up. The chocolate gushes out of my ears and streams down my eyes, blinding me.
“What’s happening? Muna!” Ginika drops the knife and runs towards me.
I cannot bear the thought of being in Paul for one minute. To be with him forever? Hellish. The more I think about it the more the chocolate gushes. There is a crumbling sound. Paul looks sheepish, my finger in his hand.
“Sorry,” he says, stuffing it into his mouth. Ginika slaps him hard and it flies out.
“Ow!” says the man I will be bound to for the rest of this lifetime.
“Try to calm down,” Ozulu says to me. “I will make you something to drink. It will slow your heart rate so that you don’t melt so quickly.
“You hate me because you’re racist!” screams Paul. “You can’t stand that I, an outsider, know as much as you about your culture.”
Ginika scoffs. “Please. I hate you because you’re you. I like Tom alright.”
“Tom,” we say in unison. I forgot to call my new husband. My phone starts ringing. My handbag shakes where I dropped it by the door.
“That’ll be him now. Gini please —”
“He knows,” says Ozulu. “He knows you’re going.”
“I know.” All along I had been calm. Too calm. But now my distress must have alerted Tom to the fact that all was not well. It’s been like that since we met.
“Puh,” scoffs Paul. “I’m her true soul mate.”
I do not favour him with a glance. All that is within me is reaching for the phone in Ginika’s hand, but she places it to my gloopy ear.
“Something is wrong,” says Tom, cutting to the chase as he always does. His voice washes over me like a blast of cold air from a freezer. The runny chocolate slows to a trickle.
“Yes. I’m melting.”
And this is part of the reason I married him. There is no problem too big for Tom. I can picture him in his shirt and tie, sleeves rolled up to bare veiny forearms, hardhat firmly on his head. I wish he didn’t have to return to work immediately, that I didn’t let nostalgia keep me back. I keep stopping to breathe, to swallow. When I finish, Tom exhales.
“I’ll kill that sonofabitch.”
“No don’t! I’ll die, too. Then I might be stuck with him forever.”
Tom pauses a long time. “Tell me what to do.”
But I do not know. I do know the exact moment he takes the hardhat off to run his fingers through his hair though.
“Muna, you fight. Fight. You hear me? You understand?” His voice is low–low.
“I hear you.”
“We have this life to live. Our life. Ours,” says Tom.
I don’t know what to say. Talking seems to have drained me further. The sound of drills punctuate the empty spaces of our conversation.
He grinds his teeth. “I’ll handle everything, you hear? Don’t worry.”
I hand the phone to Ginika. I don’t want to talk about my own funeral arrangements or obituary fake though they might be. Ginika nods a few times and hangs up.
“Ngwa,” she points to Paul. “Eat.”
With a rapturous look, Paul dives in.
Curious thing, being eaten. There is not really pain, more of a discomfort, like having spiders crawl all over your skin or walking with small, smooth pebbles in your shoes. After I speak to Tom it is easy letting my mind drift. Here is Paul, chomping on my cheek, his face bulging, chocolate leaking through his teeth as if he is in the throes of a nasty strain of something. He takes a bite out of my neck, breaks off a shoulder, and crunches a nougat wrist. When he reaches for my breasts Ginika wallops him but Ozulu puts a hand out to stop her.
“He must eat all of her to keep all of her. You don’t want some of her faculties gone, do you?”
Paul smiles the smile of a triumphant child that doesn’t realise it is in trouble. He suckles on a breast which stretches high, high, high before breaking off. It wobbles in his mouth, gleaming a dull red.
“Turkish delight!” Paul claps. He attacks the other one with gusto. By the time he gets to my belly button he looks peaky.
“Can I rest for a while?”
“I am sure you can but you may not. Finish up! This is your fault, stupid!”
Paul eats and eats and eats. It amazing how long I remain conscious, but with each bite the strings which tether me to my body break off one by one.
“Gini,” I croak. I think ‘Take care of Tom’ but I can no longer find the right words. Ozulu peers into my face.
“She’s going,” she says.
“Gini —” I try again.
“I know,” says Ginika. She wipes away her tears before they drop. “I will.”
I let go and float away.
I bet you’re wondering how I wrote this. I took Tom’s advice. Testicular fortitude, my friend. There’s a lot to be said for this life. After he went back to London, I settled in Paul’s balls — them being unoccupied and all. It was easy to spread, take over his whole self, easy to push him out. He tried to get the doctors to take his balls when he realised what was happening, of course. He told them he felt a lump. They found nothing. He tried to cut his balls off himself, and I caused him to twitch all over and faint. After the third time, passing out and gashing his head open on the sink with a knife in his hand, he was put on suicide watch and medication. I slipped in then. Tom signed my release forms a few days ago. Nowadays, all that is left of Paul is somewhere in the toes of my right foot, misshapen as a result; corns and calluses and weepy, yellowing nails.
I put a sock on it.