No one knew what to call the place that was halfway between dreams – a patch of earth, hugged on one side by a murky river and hedged on the other by a series of mournful hills and a dark forest – a place where travellers rested before moving on, so they just called it Zango. The layover. At least, that was what Laminde’s grandmother, Kaka, had told her when they were shelling groundnuts for soup. Kaka’s earnest face, like crumpled, dusty khaki was set in a perpetual brood, her biddy eyes stared down at little Laminde, as if to burn off any doubts the child might have regarding this account. But Laminde’s seven-year-old mind believed that Kaka was as old as the world itself and had been sitting on a tree bough snacking on gurjiya, watching God’s magic split heaven and earth.
“For years, it was just a sleepy in-between place until some itinerants got drunk on rest and forgot to complete their journeys. Their wives and children, and in some cases their husbands too, tired of waiting for them to return, packed their belongings in ashasha sacks and joined them,” Kaka said, eyes staring past Laminde, as if saying this tasked her memory, as if the child had disappeared into a haze, unnoticed, uncelebrated, just the way Zango had been birthed. It was years later that Laminde would fill in the blanks that Kaka’s long silences were with things she gathered from conversations in markets, at school, and the other places secret histories were procured from.
After the wives came, prostitutes who serviced the travelling men set up permanent shacks not far from the park, where the roar of truck engines and the blare of car horns masked the noises of indiscretion, and Zango became home for good. This bit, her grandmother never said, but Laminde knew. Everyone did. The prostitutes’ shacks still stood and, in their rafters, if one looked carefully, traces of the dust stirred by the first men, who had made Zango a town, and their trucks, could be found.
“Before this place was called Zango, it was once called Mazade by a people consumed by a plague,” Kaka had said, staring before her as if she could see the deserted houses in the evening sun being eaten by termites. But Kaka was already losing her mind at the time and no one knew for sure if she remembered anything right.
What Laminde did know years later, sitting by her window and looking out into the streets filled with residents and travellers, was that deaths in Zango were often as dramatic as life in her was. Sometimes they were bizarre, such as the time Babale died on the eve of his wedding, gored by a rampaging bull that had escaped its minders. The bull, fleeing after its gory deed, fell into a gaping manhole and snapped its neck. Or when the matriarch Balaraba, long afflicted with gloom, was found dead in her cane chair, facing the door with a smile on her face. Nobody knew what she had been waiting for or what had come through the door and left with her soul. But her smile endured, its impression visible through her shroud, even when they laid her in the grave.
Babangida too died happy. He had lived most of his life trawling the streets of Zango, feeding off peoples’ throwaways. One afternoon, he stood, pole stiff, in the middle of the street and started laughing. He laughed nonstop for three hours and forty-seven minutes before he slumped. Once or twice a year, a corpse with erect manhood, would be found by the riverside. If the rumours were to be believed, they had died in the brothels, from manpower overdose. The whores and their pimps would carry them out and dump them in the river so they could wash up elsewhere. Sometimes they just left them on the banks.
In Laminde’s estimation, none of the dramatic deaths had yet eclipsed Vera’s. Vera had been sitting at her usual place under the pedestrian bridge braiding a customer’s hair, as she had been doing for years, when she started coughing out strands of hair. When the first hairballs came out, the crowd of horrified women that had gathered, drawn by her violent fits, oohed. They watched her heave and pull out a long strip of braided hair that went on and on and on until it seemed she had swallowed a pony-tailed woman. When the strip slipped out, all one
meter, seven centimetres of it – because Zaki actually measured it – coiled in front of her like a juvenile python, Vera keeled over. Her face, half-buried in the mass of hair and puke, conveyed the full horror of what she had seen come out of her. It was this kind of death, this particular one with its attendant horror and agony, that Laminde wished for her co-wife Ramatu.
She knew precisely when that yearning lodged in her heart. She remembered the exact moment at the General Hospital, a year after they started sharing a husband. But the resentment that allowed that seed to even sink roots was planted long before, on the day her husband Bello had sat before the casserole of tuwo da miyan taushe, she had served him, and announced that he was taking a second wife. When she eventually spoke, it was in a whispered voice of disbelief. “A second wife?” “In fulfilment of the sunnah, yes,” he had said. “A second wife?” she had asked again. “In a fortnight, yes.” He had taken off his cap then, carefully washed his hands in the lemon green bowl she had set before him and began to eat. “Masha Allah! This is delicious,” he had proclaimed, reaching for another dollop.
Three years she had been married to Bello before that night. Three years, in which she had born him a beautiful daughter, in which they had loved and laughed and tiffed, as lovers do. Three years in which she had, in moments of unguarded rage, locked him out of the house, and enjoyed his pleading voice from the other side of the door. Their marriage was far from perfect, she knew that much, but it wasn’t yet beyond redemption. It was just a bloody marriage, as all other marriages were. And then he had assaulted her with this news and these ululations, and these women who had brought a stranger into her house and projected snide missiles in her direction: “Now Bello will know that he has married a wife indeed.” – “If the sun rises, no palm could block out its light.” – “Malam Bello ya gaji da jagade-jagade.”
She? Jagade-jagade? Like worn flip flops? Bello had called her queen, his whispered promises had sprouted gardens in her heart. He had pledged undying fidelity to her and called her most beautiful, in impassioned and lucid times. She? Jagade-jagade?
That resentment, over time, became a cloud that drifted in her mind with neither the significance nor weight it had had in the early days. It was easy because her co-wife, Ramatu, upon their first meeting, had flashed kind eyes at her, stooped in veneration and called her Yaya. And treated her with the deference she would accord an older sibling. Every morning she would come to Laminde’s door to enquire about her well-being and make small chat. When Malam Bello brought home balangu, she would, as the younger wife, share the spiced meat into two portions and invite Laminde to choose first. On the days that Laminde’s daughter ventured into her room, Ramatu would braid the child’s hair, tattoo her hands with henna and draw lines of kohl around the child’s eyes. Though she envied Ramatu’s beauty, her elegant deportment, and her fashionable laces and stilettos, Laminde concealed her envy deep within the smile.
The first time the night ferried Bello’s moans to her, she jumped out of bed, afraid he was dying from a sudden malady. Closer observation revealed that he was only afflicted by severe pleasure, causing him to make noises he had never made in all the years he had been with her. She remained on her bed and collected her tears in a napkin. Eventually, that misery, too, she buried in dollops of tuwo, as she did with chloroquine tablets, and swallowed. And the nightly sounds? At first, she countered them with the noise of the TV, or the radio, or music from her phone. Eventually, she learnt to wing her mind and let it take flight to the moon, where she revelled in solitude and celestial light.
“Your daughter asked me last night if your new wife was killing you,” she said to him the night he came to her room. “I told her you were being attacked by bliss. She did not understand that.” In the wrinkles of his frown, she read the secret verses of his shame until he turned away from her. “Could you at least try to keep the noise down, please?” He hissed, picked up his cap and left.
She wished she could resent Ramatu. She really did. But accosted by impossible stomach pains, the ones her mother told her were preventing her from taking in again, it was Ramatu who had rushed her to the General Hospital, stayed with her and taken care of her daughter. “You mustn’t stay here,” Laminde rolled on the narrow bed, “the mosquitoes, your condition.” “No, problem, Yaya. I came prepared. I’ve got my socks and a spare blanket. I will be fine”, Ramatu replied. She settled in the chair by the bedside and pulled on her woolly socks.
“My love, what are you doing here?” Bello said when he came that night, bending over Ramatu, “What are you doing here?” he patted her cheeks and wiped the sleep out of her eyes. Ramatu grumbled something about watching over Laminde, drawing protests from their husband. He patted Ramatu’s bump, whispered in her ears and ordered her to gather her things. As he walked his bride to the door, his arms around her waist, Laminde wanted to swallow her heart and die. He never looked at her as she lay in the narrow hospital bed. His disregard for her did not vex her as much as what he called his bride. My love. In her presence. She had always been matannan – as if she was a random stranger he had picked off the street. This woman. A nameless thing, unworthy of endearment. This woman.
It was in that same hospital that the seed of loathing cracked in her ribs months later, after her sleep had been interrupted by Ramatu’s squeals as the child inside her pushed. When the noise first reached her, Laminde thought it was a resumption of the moans that had first tormented her. But Bello was beside her that night, snoring as Ramatu’s voice travelled the night to her. She hurried out of bed and found Ramatu crawling out of her own room, her face glistening with sweat. “To the hospital, quick!” Laminde said. “Fetch a car,” she instructed Bello, who had been woken by the sound of her opening the door. She offered Ramatu some water and fetched the birthing things Ramatu had put in a plastic basket atop the wardrobe.
In the hospital, Laminde swaddled Ramatu’s son in a shawl and laid him on his mother’s breasts. She stayed by Ramatu’s side until morning when the doctors came for a check. Laminde took the child off his mother so the doctors could work. She was still holding him after they had left, when Ramatu’s aunt and her sister came.
“Why did you let her touch your child, you fool?” Ramatu’s aunt said, waving a clenched fist. As she collected the baby from Laminde, somewhere between her clasped hand and the fold of the shawl, a leather-wrapped fetish fell and slapped the hospital floor. “My God! See! A laya!” Ramatu’s sister said, gesticulating frantically as she kicked the fetish away. The thing slid across the tiles to the foot of the wall. Ramatu leaned over the bed and stared at the little square patch of leather. “You don’t let women like this touch your son. Who knows what she has in mind? What sort of hex she wanted to plant on him,” the aunt said. “Your child is the first son. He will inherit his father’s house and you let her touch him?” Ramatu’s sister said. “Wallahi, you are not smart at all, Ramatu. You are not.”
Laminde gaped at her, too stunned to speak, to think someone would attempt to set her up like this, to think that they hoped to fool anyone with this charade. Ramatu had been looking at her, eyes narrowed, a v-shaped crease between her brows. She reached for her baby and cradled him close to her body, turning him away from Laminde.
She was surprised by the speed at which the seed sprouted, finding nutrition in Ramatu’s silence and accusatory glares, and the incidences that occurred in the run up to the naming ceremony. There was Bello’s excitement as he ran in and out of the house with baby things, with a new cot with baby-blue frills, his anxious repainting of Ramatu’s room, which later extended to the entire house, apart from Laminde’s room. The only thing of hers that was touched by the new coating was her daughter, who received a splatter of sky blue across her face as Bello shook out his brush. “Get away from there,” he snapped at the child. “For God’s sake, Laminde, keep an eye on your daughter!” Her daughter? As if she, Laminde, had locked herself in her room for an entire year, stuffed herself on vegetables and shat out a baby at the end of the process. Her daughter? Like an inconvenience. When the girl, shocked by the violence in her father’s voice, burst into tears, Bello threw down his brush, rushed to her and carried her. He wiped away the paint stain and her tears and carried her out of the house. When he brought her back, he had a bag of candies, biscuits and other suitable inducements for a girl of three. He set her down in her mother’s room, leaned on the doorpost and sighed as he looked at Laminde, who held her face in her head.“I’m . . .” but the words stuck in his throat. He reached into his pocket. Counted out some notes and laid them before her. Then he retreated, taking backward steps until he turned and left. She raised her head, looked at the bills. She reached for them, lined them up neatly and ripped them, letting the pieces fall around her feet. She drew her daughter to her and kissed her on the head.
In the weeks that followed, Ramatu’s silence melted into a condensed tar of belligerence that manifested in different forms. Laminde would sit in her room and listen to Ramatu singing as she swept half of the compound, claiming her space with her broom strokes, a line of rubbish demarcating the boundary between their halves of the compound. Because the line was fluid, it shifted every morning Ramatu swept, creeping further and further towards Laminde’s door. And slowly, Ramatu moved her things, like an occupation force, into the newly acquired territories. Her baby’s clothe dryer moved a few inches forward, a stool today, a clothes line materialising overnight. Even the nightly noises became a frontier as Laminde was kept awake by Ramatu’s passionate moans when Malam Bello was in her room. Mingled with Bello’s grunt, it formed an obscene symphony. Laminde never imagined lovemaking to be such a noisy affair, except in porn. And when it became a nearly nightly performance months after the birth of the boy, Laminde realised the true intent of that racket. On the nights Bello was in her room, the only racket he made was his snores, triggered immediately his body hit the bed.
In the afternoon, she watched Ramatu sit in the compound, stretch her legs before her and sing praises to the mothers of sons who would inherit their husband’s house. Of all the things that disappointed Laminde the most, none compared to Ramatu believing such a cheap trick by her aunt, or that she would want to hurt her son, with teeth, fist or fetish. What broke her heart the most was Ramatu’s unwillingness to even listen to her offer a defence.
“I did not marry our husband for inheritance. I married him to keep him alive,” Laminde said one afternoon. “Say what you please. Mine is the first son,” Ramatu said. “And you cannot touch him.” Laminde clenched her fist. Ramatu looked at her and hissed. The immediate victim of Laminde’s wrath was one of Ramatu’s buckets that were placed to claim territory. She kicked it and the plastic flew halfway across the compound and landed with a splitting sound. Ramatu scanned her with a derogatory look and hissed. “My poor bucket did not marry our husband. I did. If you have any issues with that, come take it out on me.” In the event of a fight, there could only be one victor. Laminde had no doubts about her capacity to trounce Ramatu, but what would she gain from that? A pyrrhic triumph? It was that moment that eroded the last reservations she had for a Vera-kind-of-death for Ramatu.
When she left home that morning, she was certain what she wanted, what she had always wanted. She had heard of the mallam from some of her friends, those who had patronised him for charms to curry their husband’s favour, to gain advantages in their trade, to get one over their co-wives, to get the job at the local education board. Almost everyone is Zango had heard of Mallam Sadi Kankat. “You have not spoken, Hajiya,” he nudged, drawing patterns on the sand. He leaned back and his eyebrows hitched up as he regarded her. “I—uh— think I have…” – “Yes?” – “I have stomach problems,” she said. “Yes, I have stomach problems,” she said firmly, as if to convince herself.
“Indeed, you do,” he smiled. “I see it here, truly.” He wiped off the patterns on the sand and drew new ones, frowning. “But that is not why you came. You came because of your co-wife. You want something nasty to happen to her.”
“Well . . . I thought I did, but now, I’m, uh, I don’t think I want that . . .” He gestured proudly at the display case behind him, filled with vials holding colourful liquids – smoky grey, curdled-blood red, bottle green, liver, cyan, fluorescent purple, an endless array of potions in grim and vibrant bottles. “Fear not, Hajiya,” he grinned, “this is Zango, and here, we have assorted dreams and nightmares in bottles. You only need to choose one, and it shall be yours.”
“Wow! You want the fate of Vera to visit her,” he said, looking at the sand before him. “How did you know?” He smiled. “These sands, they never lie. I am a seer, you see,” he caressed the sand, wiping the board clean. “Oh,” she slung one end of her veil over her shoulder. “Well, I really don’t think I want that anymore.”
“It’s an easy thing,” he said, then lowering his voice into a whisper, he added, “the fate of Vera. It was my handiwork, that one. Easy. I could do it for you. For your co-wife. Cause her leaf to fall, just like this.” He snapped his fingers.
“No . . . it was a terrible thing to think of, sir . . .” He held up his hand for silence, his brow furrowed in concentration as he read the inscriptions in the sand. He wiped the sand and drew, wiped and drew again, his finger shaking. She was disturbed by the trembling of his lips, by the sheen of sweat appearing on his forehead.
“Oh my God!” he muttered. “What, sir?” – “The needle has dug up a hoe?” he muttered to himself, wiping clean the sand and drawing furiously. “A leaf storm! The tree! There’s a tree, don’t you see? There will be a storm, of leaves, don’t you see?”, he said. “I don’t understand,” she said. “Don’t you see, we are all tied to the fate of the tree. All of us! All of us!”
“I think I will just go home now,” she said, convinced that this had all been a bad mistake. He rose and staggered past her, brushing her aside as he went, “Beware the tree!” he screamed as he walked out, frightening the other women waiting for him. Laminde heard his voice with his grim warning fading down the path she had walked up moments earlier. Her hands poised over her racing heart as she tried to catch her breath. This is Zango, she muttered to herself, strange things happen here. This is Zango! As if that explained everything, as if it should.
Again the curtains of silence fell with a profundity that astonished her. The cessation of Ramatu’s taunting songs and her expansionist sanitations surprised Laminde, much as her sudden belligerence had, and when this silence went on for days, replaced by sounds of Ramatu scurrying to her room every time Laminde went out into the compound, her curiosity was stoked and she started to pay attention. Bello, who had never seemed comfortable in her room since he married his second wife, started avoiding her eyes and muttering to the corners when he meant to speak to her. And once, in a desperate rush to reach her choking daughter, she’d brushed her husband, she felt his breath cease. He took to creeping into her room quite late in the night, sneaking into bed when he thought she was asleep and hurrying out long before the call for the dawn prayers.
She became comfortable in this silence, wore it like an ornament even, that she did not realise the force of the hush around her when she walked to pick up her daughter from school. It was at the end of one of these walks that she was confronted by the reality, staring starkly through the eyes of her daughter, in the downward turn of her lips. She knelt before the girl and asked what the problem was. “Faruk said his mother said he should not play with me again,” the child said.
Laminde was never sure who Faruk was – some best friend of her three-year old perhaps, but she looked around her and saw that in the busy school compound, there was a bubble of space around her and her daughter. She noticed the furtive looks in her direction and how parents and their children, tactfully skirted round this bubble.
As she walked home, her daughter shuffling beside her, she paid attention to the way conversations stopped once she came into view, how after she’d passed, they would start off as whispers behind her, how her neighbours suddenly feigned busyness upon her approach so they would not have to exchange greetings.
“What did Faruk tell you?” she asked her daughter when they got home. “He said that his mother said I should not play with the daughter of the evuls woman,” she said. “Evil woman?”
“Yes. That you are so full of the evuls you drove Malam Sadi Kankat mad because you wanted to do the evuls things to Ramatu.” – “Oh.” Laminde gasped. “What is the evuls, Mama?”
The padlock on Ramatu’s door lingered for days and nights until Laminde came to the conclusion that her co-wife had fled their matrimonial home. “She lives elsewhere now,” Bello said, when she asked him. She sighed. “You too want to live elsewhere now, don’t you?” she asked him. He looked down and fidgeted.
“How come you never asked me anything?” she said, “All these rumours being spread about me. How come you never said anything?” His lips trembled. “Malam Sadi Kankat is roaming the streets now, muttering gibberish. They said you were the last person to see him before he lost his mind. There were witnesses.”
“I see.” She did. For the first time. She’d been found guilty of harbouring an evil so dark it drove the man who had masterminded the worst evil in Zango insane. She had been tried, in a court in which her account was never required, nor her plea sought, and had been found guilty, and condemned to a prison of silence.
When she woke up that morning and found a huge wad of notes on the table and her husband gone, she knew he wasn’t coming back.
“Mama?” – “Yes, love.” – “I hate it outside.” – “I know. I do too.” – “I don’t want to ever go to school again.” Laminde pulled her daughter to her and pressed her into an embrace. “Can we stay here, forever and ever? Just us.” – “We can try, my love,” she said.
That evening, a week after she had last seen her husband, and satisfied with the amount of food she had in the store, Laminde locked the entrance to the compound, boarded it up with the leftover wood from the renovations on accounts of Ramatu’s birth, deriving great pleasure in driving the nails into the wood, shutting out the world and its judgements.
“What are you doing, Mama?” the child asked. “We are imprisoning Zango outside,” she said to the baffled child. “Keeping the world out. Now, hand me that nail.”
After driving in the final nail, she threw down the hammer and observed her work. It would hold, she knew. Laminde walked to the middle of the compound with the keys in hand and regarded her daughter, whose eyes were full of questions. She launched the bunch over the fence into the scrubland behind and spread her arms to embrace the sunlight.