SLEEP PAPA, SLEEP

By

Suyi Davies Okungbowa

Max Aniekwu stands in the shadows cast by an abandoned danfo under the bridge at Otedola, where he always meets his buyers. Grime lines his wrist and tucks under his fingernails, making his increasingly sweaty palms greasy. Dark clouds splotch over a sky as gray as TV static, announcing an impending thunderstorm, yet Max sweats, and juggles the Ziploc bag from one slimy palm to another in search of some friction. He shifts from foot to foot and wipes his gleaming forehead with the back of his free hand, leaving dark stains.

Max knows something’s different here. Beside the fact that the buyer is late, something in his chest doesn’t sit right. He knows he should never have taken this shit, not from Chidi of all people. Max wipes sweat from his brow again, suddenly rethinking it. Chidi, whose tips and contacts have twice gone bad and landed three colleagues in the police net. Chidi, who every trader worth his salt in the black market has blacklisted.

He should turn around right now, dump the bag inside the abandoned danfo and leave. But that’ll ruin his cred on the market. Rule number one: never stand up your buyer. He’ll struggle with finding another buyer for sure, and God knows how he’ll eat then. Remember, Maximus. Remember why you gats to do this shit in the first place.

There’s a couple peals of thunder, and a mild drizzle starts to bathe the bridge overhead. Max, unable to shake off the spiders marching up the nape of his neck, seriously considers a break for it. Worst case, he’d ask Chidi to call the buyer and apologize. Set another delivery time and date. He’s tired from all the digging, anyway.

He’s still thinking this when a shadow falls on all other shadows around him.

Max looks up, into the scraggly face of a gangling dark man. The man wears a long, gray kaftan that cloaks a sheathed curved dagger clamped to his belt. He’s draped an equally gray shawl over his head, hiding most of his features, but Max can still see two lines of vertical tribal marks etched into each cheek, right below piercing eyes.

“Ne Maximus?” he asks. His accent is heavily northern.

Max swears under his breath, anger flaring. Not only did Chidi tell the buyer his full name – you never tell a buyer your name; you never know what they’re going to do with it – Chidi the idiot also brought him an aboki. Was he not clear enough about his preferred client types or was Chidi just stupid? Even after Max made him repeat it like a mantra: get only middlemen who buy and smuggle to storage centers in Cotonou and Yaounde, for shipping to boutique museums who do live exhibitions in China, Mexico and Poland.

Anyone else is a big risk with the police, especially these fucking guys who everyone says only buy to eat – though no one has ever been able to prove that. Which makes it more of a problem. Knowledge is power, and the lack of it, danger, his father used to say. Truest word, that.

Max looks the man up and down from shawl to sandaled feet. Twilight looms, and with the street lights yet to come up, there is nothing before him but a tall, gray ghost.

“Your order?” Max inquires.

There’s a moment of hesitation, then the man says, “Yatsun, hakora, da kunnuwa.”

Max nods. Having lived in Kaduna for a couple years, he knows what those Hausa words mean.

Toes, teeth, ears.

Max opens up the Ziploc bag and shows him its contents. The man stretches a bony index finger and pokes about in the bag, inspecting the five dead toes in the plastic, poking at both ears and making a squishy sound. The teeth are wrapped in clear cellophane, and for a minute, Max thinks he’s going to open it up and inspect that too, but he seems satisfied after the ears.

He reaches into his robe and produces a black polythene bag. He pulls out a bundle of dog-eared one-thousand naira notes and begins to count. Max counts along silently and re-zips the package. The man stops at fifty and hands it over.

Max hands him the bag, grabs the money and shoves it into his jeans pocket. Keeping his hands there, he turns and heads up to the bridge in the rain. He jumps into the next yellow danfo down to Berger, climbs out and hops into another to Isheri, his hands tight in his pocket the whole time. The bus snakes its way into the heart of the maze that is Lagos. Max drops off at Ishola Bello and walks the remaining couple of miles in the rain, down to his miniflat at the end of the close. At no point does he look back.

****

The dead of night prods Max awake. Electricity is still out from the week before, and the rain from dusk has mixed with the bottled air in the cramped miniflat, producing humidity that is thick to the touch. Max slogs through the living, out front to the verandah and powers on the 650VA gen. A couple yellow bulbs blink into life, except the living room’s, which is burnt out. He turns on the TV for light, flicks through a couple of DSTV channels. Most are out of subscription, so he settles on EWTN, the Catholic station. He doesn’t know why he still watches it. Maybe because his father, Mazi Aniekwu, made him watch it when he was growing up. The Catholic way, as he’d say. His father’s been dead for years now, but Max has found rhythm and solace in the routines, the chants, the incense. It’s his go-to for post-harvest downtime.

Max leaves the background noise on and heads for the kitchenette. There, he pours water into a bowl, squirts in liquid soap, and washes his hands for the sixth time since returning from the bridge. He turns out the water, squirts another dose of soap and starts again. Have to wash the death off you, his father always said. He was wrong, though, Max knows. You can never wash off the death. Never.

He finds a mug and mixes three hits of fruit bitters with a hit of schnapps, drags it down. It traces a familiar burning dryness from his throat to chest, settles in a squirm of wet warmth at the pit of his stomach. He pours another slush and takes the mug to the living, just as the priest begins the Liturgy of the Eucharist.

There are mud tracks on the floor tiles that he didn’t notice before.

They run from the door, but don’t end at Max’s feet at the entrance to the kitchenette. The TV’s light is insufficient, so Max squints to follow the tracks, which he notices are odd because while one is a complete footprint, the opposite foot has most of the sole with no trace of toes.

The footprints end at the couch where a man sits with his back to Max.

The mug slips from Max’s hand and crashes onto the floor. The man on the couch doesn’t stir or flinch at the sound, devoid of all movement but for the flickers of television images over his head. Cautiously, Max steps around the broken ceramic and to the front of the couch.

The man’s eyes are open and stare at nothing. There are only bloodied holes where his ears should be, and Max discovers the cause of the odd footprints: one of his feet has five stumps instead of five toes. If Max could see into his mouth, he’d see that the teeth were gone too.

But the face…

Max is frozen with shock at the face.

The face is that of Mazi Aniekwu.

****

If asked later, Max would not remember how the next few hours of this night go.

First, there is a persistent urge to swoon that Max fights and fights. The TV lights blur, and he no longer hears the priest’s invocations. He hiccups, dashes into the restroom and hurls the schnapps and Mummy Isheri’s jollof rice and Coke into the sink. He wants to turn on the tap to rinse, but his hands shake too much. He pulls off the faucet head.

After a time he cannot measure, Max finally manages to rise, but he does not return to the living room. He locks the bedroom door, gets in bed and throws the blankets over his head. He does not put out the lights.

****

An hour passes, maybe two. Max’s eyes are bloodshot wide, and his tongue tastes of ethanol, bile and dread. Sleep is a faraway phenomenon his mind cannot comprehend, but Max persists, counts the seconds with his heavy heartbeats, asks questions and answers them himself.

The generator groans from low petrol once, twice, then shuts down.

Oh God, fuck it.

Another hour passes before Max dares to rise and grope his way across to open the bedroom door. Armed with a smartphone torchlight, he focuses the beam on the floor.

There are no footprints where the first beams land. Hope and relief start from the bottom of his stomach and grow and grow as the beams pass from tile square to tile square, showing nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

The next tile has a footprint. It’s one without toes. The tile after that, footprint. And after that. And after that.

The thing that used to be Mazi is still seated in the couch when Max lifts the beam from the floor. It sits frozen, but the blink-blink of its dilated pupils are directed at Max.

Max spins, speeds into the bedroom and slams the door.

 

****

Max stays holed up in the bedroom for half a day before any manner of common sense returns and he realizes it will be impossible to spend another night with it and hope to remain sane. If it does not return to the depths from which it came, he will have to take it back himself.

Then dread piles in his chest when he realizes he has to touch it. He hasn’t touched his father since… when? The day he packed up and left the man alone with his big dreams of grooming his son into taking over the family’s funeral parlor. That was no life for Max, and he didn’t want to be a pawn in Mazi’s fantasies.

But Kaduna was hard for a twenty-something with no university degree, and after several failed efforts to land some steady way to build his life, Max decided that a life as an undertaker was better than surviving on hope alone. So he packed his bags once again and headed back to Lagos.

Except, by then, Mazi and everything he built was gone. No trace, no extended family, no last will and testament, nothing. The most credible story came from word on the streets, that it was Mazi’s apprentices, a group of three known harvesters, who murdered him. Not only that, they also ran off with everything he owned. There were stories that said they’d cut him up and sold his parts in the black market. Na im make him body lost, they said. Others said he’d been buried somewhere remote. No one could point Max in a direction.

Max knows it’s his fault. If only he’d stayed, you know. If only.

And that’s why he decided to stay, then. Wait and see if those bastards ever came back. Wait and see if, somehow, someway, maybe he could make something of himself and not put all of his father’s sacrifice to waste. He visited Nwansoh, the biggest name in the harvesting business and a friend to his father, apparently. The woman took a good look at his hands and said, “Come work for me.”

Under her tutelage, he wormed his way into the market in no time. Met her nephew Chidi on an early run and took a fast liking to the guy for some reason he couldn’t place, especially since Chidi was, and still is, pretty shit at his job. Maybe Chidi reminded him of what he would’ve been; young man stuck in the family’s grim business according to his father’s wishes. Maybe Max is living Mazi’s dream vicariously through Chidi. Or maybe Max is saving him. Maybe saving Chidi is the one thing that keeps the shadow of guilt over Mazi’s death at bay.

They’ve done business ever since. Max is good at this, a natural. But over time, the lines have blurred and he no longer remembers why he does it: to find those bastards, or because it’s easy work that puts food on the table.

Or worse yet, because it keeps him close to Mazi.

****

Handle this thing, Maximus. Handle it.

Max grits his teeth and tiptoes out of the bedroom with his eyes shut. To look upon it will be acceptance of its existence, and Max will not look, will try to un-know what he thinks he knows. He gropes, breathing heavily, teeth clenched. He reaches out, retracts his hand, reaches out again and yelps when his fingers touch something damp and sticky.

Max sweats in his fists again, rocking back and forth because his legs no longer do their job. The thing sits as he left it. Blink-blink. His feet already turn of their own accord, facing the bedroom, but Max knows he can’t, he can’t.

He bends and lifts a leg, the one with toes still complete. The body slides off the couch as one unbendable unit and thumps on the ground like an ounce of hardened bread. Its skin cracks and bursts when it lands. As he pulls it, more cracks appear and travel upward, upward. Fluids ooze out of them. Max coughs but does not stop dragging. Across the tiles, to the kitchenette, where he shoves it under the shelves with his leg and shuts the door. He turns and retches, but there is nothing left to vomit. He breathes, struggles to quell his marching heart. He shuts and opens his eyes, shuts and opens, blinking away the ghostly caricatures that form on the edges of his vision.

Finally, he rises, fetches his only two neckties and binds the thing’s hands and feet. He ties a hankie over his nose when he does it, because the thing smells like the fucking corpse that it is. Max will not look it in the face, choosing instead to look at the stumped toes and remind himself that it is not Mazi. The hankie soaks a couple trickles of tears from his watery eyes. Max tells himself it’s because of the smell.

He has to borrow a car. Chidi’s hearse, maybe. The bastard was dumb enough to make this mistake so he has no choice but to help in getting out of it.

****

It’s drizzling under an early gray sky when Max catches a danfo to the funeral parlor at Ojodu. It’s a stall squeezed between a coffin maker and a provisions store, long enough only to house a casket and a corpse table. Chidi sits on a stool under the canopy outside, for the lack of a corpse to attend to, running his fingers over a phone screen in a way assures Max he can only be playing Candy Crush. Before he hails Max’s arrival, Max grabs him by the singlet and shoves him into the back room of the parlor. There’s an office the size of a toilet cubicle in the back, too small to have a desk, but with a desk in it anyway. Max shuts the door and puts Chidi up against the wall, a heavy wide palm on his chest.

“Maxy, wait, wait,” Chidi pleads. He’s thin and haggard, and has nothing on Max, who has spent too much time with crude weights fabricated by a roadside welder.

“Don’t be calling me that name, are you mad?” He hates it. Maxy. Sounds too much like Mazi.

“I no tell you say the guy na aboki because you for no do,” Chidi says, “but I need that money die, I swear.” He touches the tip of his tongue with his index finger and points to the sky.

“You stupid idiot,” Max snarls. “Which kain grave you arrange for me?”

Chidi frowns.

“Answer!” Max pushes against his chest, carefully. Too much, and he just might crush it. “Who dey inside that grave?”

“I no know na. I no check before I mark am.”

“Eh?” Max slaps him across the cheek, hard. Chidi yelps. His eyes water and sweat pools in the curve of his singlet. Finger marks start to materialize on his cheek.

“Wetin be the first thing I tell you when we start this business?” Max asks, his hard stare boring holes in Chidi’s face. Chidi breathes and breathes and says nothing.

“You gats to check the fucking register for every single harvest!” Max says. “You gats to check! You don’ forget wetin Nwansoh talk? You don forget?”

Chidi mumbles a no.

“And even if you forget, you no get eye? You no see wetin happen to am? You no see say na everlasting fuckup to-”

“Harvest your own person, I know,” Chidi says. “But no be your person we harv-”

“Fuck you!” Max screams, fighting a choke in his throat. He releases Chidi and pounds the desk, kicks a chair. “You for check this grave, Chidi! You for check this grave!”

He shuts his eyes but tears come running through the floodgates anyway, pouring anger, hurt and dread onto his cheeks. He turns his back on Chidi and hides his head in his arm.

Why? Why?

He would give anything to see his father again, yes, but the real one; the one who taught him to watch EWTN. Not this, not this.

Chidi shuffles on his feet and watches Max, unsure. After a silence punctuated with Max’s sniffs, he asks, “You dey cry?”

“Shut the fuckup.” Max wipes his eyes and turns to him. “Wey the wagon?”

Chidi coughs. His breath smells of tobacco. “Why, wassup?”

“Are you mad? You still dey ask me question?”

Chidi’s frowns. “Ah? Na my car now. I gats to ask-”

Max’s grip on Chidi’s throat is strong enough to cut him off.

“Get me the fucking keys.”

****

Max returns to the miniflat at Ishola Bello after the fall of darkness. There are dull throbs in his joints from digging twice in two days, and the drive back from Jafojo Cemetery was especially jarring because the hearse is a rusty old container. The only thing he can think of is sleep.

He strips and takes a freezing bath, then proceeds to wash his hands in the wash basin. He does it six times, seven times, but it does not stop him from replaying the blink-blink of the Mazi-thing’s eyes once he put that first shovel of humus into its face. Taking another freezing long bath does not drown out the sight of its gap-toothed mouth, the stumped foot as the earth closed it up. Even sleep and two sweaters cannot melt the iciness in his chest.

Max wakes after midnight, swamped in a cocoon of wool and sweat. He pulls off the sweaters and heads to the kitchenette for a slush mix.

There are footprints from the door, one foot with toes, one without.

They are thicker, muddier than the last time.

There’s something sitting in his couch.

****

Heavy pounds rattle his front door by morning. Max opens the door a peep and finds himself staring into Chidi’s face. He sidles out and shoves Chidi backward.

“You this boy, you no dey hear word? We never gree say no visit? Ever?”

Chidi puts his hands up. “I know, I know. But I get work today, so I need the wagon.”

“Ugh.” Max shoves his hands into his trousers and tosses him the keys. “Oya go. Leave me alone.”

Chidi lifts a finger. “Wait first. Another thing.”

Max rolls his eyes. Chidi pretends not to notice.

“I go Jafojo this morning, go check the register last last.” He blinks, zones out for a second, as if trying to disbelieve what he saw. “The name wey I see there, the name no make sense.”

Max already knows. “Just go to work. We go talk later.”

“Na your Popsie name dey there, Maxy. Na Mazi Aniekwu dey the register.”

Max holds Chidi’s eyes. “Go to work.” He turns to leave.

“Them say the body don dey since like four, five years,” Chidi continues, oblivious. “Nobody know say na him, because him join one mass burial like that, different people from different hospital wey them bury because nobody come claim them for mortuary after many years. I been dey ask, but nobody know which mortuary your Popsie from come.” He sighs. “Bro, I swear, I no know-”

Max puts up a hand. “Just go.”

Chidi sighs again and heads for the car. Max goes back in, shuts the door and listens to the grunting sounds of the hearse until they’re out of earshot, before he opens the kitchenette.

The thing is still there, where he’d bound it with the neckties and stowed away under the shelves once again. Max studies its blinking, stumped for next steps and worried about his safety. Imagine what the police would think about having your father’s mutilated body in your kitchenette. How many years in prison does one even serve for something like this?

Max runs a hand over his head. This was how Nwansoh’s madness started, first with the simple panic that leads to denial. Then came the slow descent into dementia, so much so that she had to be driven out, to sea. He feels it already, the onset of his own promised madness. What is this exactly, juju or what? He’s never really believed in all that rubbish, but then what happened to Nwansoh happened, and now there’s a dead-but-not-dead father in his kitchenette. He isn’t going to sit around asking stupid questions.

****

Nwansoh’s shanty is six two-by-four timbers dug into Oniru beach’s sand with tarpaulin wrapped over and around them, situated only as far from the shore as the waves go at the highest tide. The woman herself is as ragged as the tarp and as old as the sea, her skin as pockmarked as the stabs of footprints in the sand around her shanty: stray dogs, seagulls, crabs left behind by high tide. Max notices his are the only human footprints beside hers.

They sit opposite each other on little stools outside the shanty, the breeze snatching her words. She peers into Max’s face through cataract-ridden eyes, her hair wild and separated, like seaweed.

“I told you, you don’t touch your people,” she says.

“I know, I know. It was a stupid mistake.”

“You don’t touch your people,” she repeats, “because if you’ve kept them alive enough in your chest, they will come back. Then you will think you can let them stay, you will think you can’t lose them again. And that’s how you become mad, old, rotten.” She shakes her head “That’s how you become them.”

Max has known the hidden dangers of harvesting all along. Difficult to recognize a loved one who has bloated, shrunk and then decomposed, and sawing off body parts in pitch darkness didn’t help. You had to fail to know, and by the time you did, you’d already awoken something you couldn’t send back to sleep.

“You’re saying I can’t take it back?” Max asks.

She gazes at him, blank. “You don’t touch your people. It is known.”

“Biko, Nwansoh,” he says, leaning in against the breeze. “There has to be a way at least.”

She shakes her head again, mumbles to herself. Max watches solemnly, remembering the once vibrant woman from her days as senior mortician at LaSUTH, when she still topped the harvesting charts on the market. Not the crackled and remiss caricature that sits before him now, the ash dust of morning after a night of glowing embers.

She stops mumbling, then says something. The breeze swats it aside.

Max leans in. “You said what?”

“You need to destroy it,” she screams back.

Max lifts his eyebrows. “Like, burn the body?”

She laughs, shakes her head. “You’re foolish. You think I haven’t tried that?” She casts a quick glance behind her, at the shanty’s opening. “Burning only worsens the smell when they come back.”

“I don’t get.”

“You still have things that keep bringing it back. You need to destroy.”

Max thinks, then it strikes him. “I’ve sold them already.”

“Destroy it,” she says, looking past him at something distant, beyond the shore.

A thrill runs up Max’s calves. “You mean I have to go and get it back?”

Her eyes shift to him.

“Destroy it,” she repeats.

Max swears under his breath, then to Nwansoh, “So there’s no other way?”

She shrugs.

“Did you destroy yours?” he asks. When she frowns, he adds, “You know. Your sister.”

Her face stays expressionless for minutes, blinking.

“You’re still here,” Max says. “You must’ve found a way.”

She studies him for a beat, then slowly, pitifully, she shakes her head from side to side, and glances back at the opening to the shut-off shanty. Max follows her eyes and notices two sets of footprints there. One leads out to where Nwansoh sits. The other meanders about the opening, but never goes past it.

Max knows he must go back to the buyer.

Or else.

****

Chidi pulls the hearse off the Ketu-Oworonshoki expressway and eases down the windy path to Chinese Village. The arch-and-turret simulation of the Great Wall that passes for the entrance into the village looms above. Max thinks the “China Commercial City” written in Chinese characters bears a dismal look. It frowns down at them, caught the wrong way by the light of sunset.

Inside the village, it is quiet, which is all sorts of wrong. It once possessed the vibe of the commercial hub that it’s meant to be, until the customs authorities raided in 2006. So now, the shop windows have lace fabric, flower vases and jeans hung next to their Closed signs. It’s a dead man’s town with people living in it.

Chidi drives to the far end of the village and pulls into a cramped nook before turning off the engine. Dusk quickly approaches and the place stinks of decomposing refuse. There’s a row of back doors to what used to be shops or living quarters or both. Or still are.

When Max gets out of the car, Chidi doesn’t follow.

“No way.” He folds his arms in the driver’s seat and pouts. Max slams the passenger door and heads for the door Chidi has pointed out. He knocks, once, twice.

“Wanda?” A voice asks from inside in Hausa.

Max doesn’t respond. The door pulls back, and the buyer’s marked face peers out. He studies Max for a second, then frowns and steps out in a flurry of robes. Max’s eyes don’t miss the dagger underneath.

“Me ya sa ka ‘a nan?”

“We need the goods back,” Max says, pulling out the money from his pockets. “See, I have your money. Two sixty. I added ten on top, for the wahala.” He hands it out to the man, but the man doesn’t even look at it. His face is set, focused on Max.

“Ba mayarwa,” he says.

Shit, thinks Max. No returns.

“We can’t sell it anymore,” Max says. “We need to use it for something else.”

The man’s eyes rest on Max, then flit behind him to Chidi at the steering. He finally gives one short nod, and retreats into his quarters. There’s an antsy wait where Chidi smokes two cigarettes in huge drags and Max hops from foot to foot and sweats in his palms.

Finally, the man re-emerges with the familiar ziploc bag and hands it to Max. Max tries to give him the money again, but he isn’t even looking at it. He’s looking at Chidi.

“Ba kudi.” He points to Chidi. “Ina son wannan.”

Chidi spooks immediately he notices the man’s finger, and starts to get out of the car. Max is about to tell him to calm down, that he’ll take care of this, but it happens so fast.

They appear out of nowhere. Five or six men, robed as the buyer himself, with daggers jutting from underneath the robes like so. They pounce on Chidi, clamp his mouth and constrain his arms without any effort. One of them whips out his curved dagger and holds it to his face.

“Wait wait!” Max says, suddenly confused. “What do you want, what?”

The buyer cocks his head, stares at Max.

“I say, we no want money,” he says in broken English. “We want,” he points to Chidi, grappling between the men, “man.”

“No, no,” Max says, tightening his fists. “You can’t just… take him. For what na?”

“We no take am,” the buyer says. “Only goods.” He points to his body parts as he says them. “Yatsun, hakora, da kunnuwa.”

Chidi’s eyes widen in understanding as the men clamp down harder. One of them pulls out his curved dagger and steps on Chidi’s ankle to hold his sandaled foot down.

“Stop!” Max screams, but it’s too late. The man lifts the dagger and brings the curved edge down.

Chidi howls.

Two toe roll into the dirt.

“Stop!” Max clenches his fists and charges for them. “Stop!”

The men back away and circle the nook, dragging Chidi along. A trail of blood follows their path and Chidi’s wails and whimpers echo off the walls. A shutter opens somewhere in response.

“I’ll kill you,” Max says, following them. “I’ll kill you, I swear.”

They draw their daggers and keep them pointed at Max until they reach the buyer where he stands. They stop and one of them hands the freshly cut toes to the buyer. The man rolls them in his palm as he steps out to meet Max.

“We stop,” the buyer says, “if you bring our things.” He shows his hands. “Dukiya,” he says, weighing one hand. “Mutum.” He weighs the other.

Goods. Man.

I’ll turn you into fucking goods right now, just watch, Max thinks, head pounding and vision blurred. These savages must be fucking crazy, if they think he’s going to let them butcher Chidi like that. Chidi might be a bastard, but he‘s Max’s bastard. Max needs him. Yes, he’ll even admit it now; Chidi is his vent, his release. Saving Chidi is the one thing that keeps the pressing guilt of leaving Mazi to die from smothering Max in his sleep.

Oh.

Max stops and unfurls his fists. The haze in front of his eyes wipes away.

You still have things that keep bringing it back, Nwansoh had said.

You need to destroy.

She wasn’t talking about the parts.

Like a punch, it hits Max. A solution. The solution.

Goods or man, right?

“Wait,” Max says suddenly. “What of goods and man?”

The buyer cocks his head. Yes, Max realizes. If Mohammed won’t go to the mountain, the mountain will come to Mohammed.

“Leave him,” Max says. “I’ll bring what you need.”

The buyer shrugs, then taps on the back of his wrist, universal sign for get-the-fuck-moving.

****

The thing feels heavier than before when he pulls it from under the shelves, but Max doesn’t care. All he can think of is Chidi with one of those curved daggers paused just above his fingers, above his teeth, above his remaining toes. Max quickens his pace, murmurs a made-up mantra to himself. Yes, he is exchanging-replacing-a dead thing with a living one. Yes, he is doing a Good Thing.

He shrugs the body into the wagon and bumps the boot, gets in and flies back to the Ketu-Oworonshoki expressway, practicing his negotiations.

Take everything, he’ll say. Just take it. I’m done.

Mazi used to say knowledge is power, and the lack of it, danger, But Max thinks it’s a blessing sometimes. Like now, when he‘ll sleep better not knowing what they do with it. How he’ll sleep even better knowing it’s never coming back.

****

Blood seeps from Chidi’s toes and stains the back seat of the hearse as Max lays him in it. Max rips his shirt and ties two tourniquets: one on Chidi’s ankle and one over the toe stumps. Chidi whimpers through both.

Max gets in the hearse and turns the rear-view mirror away as he eases out of the nook. He will not look back at the men who, under the pale light of yellow bulbs, circle around the thing that was Mazi and unsheathe their blades. He will not look as the buyer lifts his curved blade and brings it down. He will not look as the next man does same, and the rest follow in synchronized motions of lift, fall, lift, fall.

He will not look.

He will not look.

 

 

 

 

 


Suyi Davies Okungbowa writes crime and speculative fiction from Lagos, Nigeria. His fiction has been published or is forthcoming in Lightspeed Magazine, Mothership Zeta, Omenana, Jungle Jim and other places. He is an alumnus of the Gotham Writers Workshop in NYC. In June 2016, he was crowned winner of TheNakedConvos’ The Writer competition, a Pan-African writing contest. When he’s not writing, Suyi works as a Visual Designer. In-between, he plays piano, guitar, FIFA, and searches for spaces to fit new bookshelves. He lives on the web at suyidavies.com and tweets at @IAmSuyiDavies.

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