EATERS OF FLESH
© 2016 by Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso. A different version of this story was originally published in Haunted Grave and Other Stories. Published by Parallel Universe Publications. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Your mum disappeared.”
That was how Dad said it, as if he were cracking a joke about the crazy attitude of Arsenal’s coach with his friends. I didn’t even realise when I stood up and pushed my ceramic plate away. It fell from the dining table, breaking as it hit the ground with a shrill sound. My ogbono soup spilled on the floor, staining the white tiles. Dad grabbed my shoulders with his rough hands and forced me back into my seat.
He leaned against my chair, his eyes on my face. His glare was unbearable so looked away from him and instead tried to concentrate on the white curtain in front of me. The curtain was used to demarcate our dining room from the parlour. It had a pattern of hibiscus flowers on it. I forced myself to count those flowers to numb my thoughts.
“Everything will be okay,” he said with, his voice now coated with seriousness.
But I knew that wasn’t true.
I collected the key to Mum’s room from Dad. I needed the memory of her like a junkie needed cocaine. For the first time in three years I had the chance to see her room again. I was lucky to be the last of her two surviving sons to be weaned from her presence when the illness began to take too much of a toll on her. Anyway, Dad didn’t see it as an illness. He said that it was her excessive religious involvement that caused her peril. He would always scream at her, “Religion is bondage, free yourself.” But her friend Onyinye believed the illness was a spiritual attack from her enemies, especially since the disorder began a day after her forty-fifth birthday when Dad had given her a Honda Jeep as a birthday gift. She said Mum’s relatives, who envied Dad’s love for her, had struck her with madness.
I opened the door. My eyes automatically went to the eastern side of the room where I saw her last. She had been sitting on the ground beside her bed with half of the bedsheet on the floor. An untidy heap of her clothes and shoes were on the bed.
Her hair was unkempt, her sky-blue wrapper haphazardly tied so that parts of her underwear were exposed. Her chubby body was gone. What was left was a skeletal entity. She was flicking her hands in the air as if she was dancing to an inaudible beat. When my eyes caught hers, she’d called my name, become quiet and hugged her legs, resting her chin on her knees.
In the place where she’d sat then, there was only a plate of pap and four balls of akara. The food was untouched. Perhaps the last meal she’d been given before her escape.
My eyes swept across the entire room. It surprised me to see how neatly everything was arranged. No rumpled bed, no clothes on it either, no shoes kicked away in every corner. Perhaps Dad had asked our housemaid, Nneoma, to clean up the mess. But if so then why did she leave the food?
I needed something of Mum’s, something with her scent to hold onto, something that would bring memories of her back to me. I opened her wardrobe. I took my time caressing each item of her clothing with tears pouring from my eyes.
In the middle of her clothing collection, my hand felt something thick. It was in her blue jeans, the one I bought for her on the last Mothering Sunday we celebrated before she broke down. I put my hand in the pocket and pulled something out. It was a red journal with a thick paper cover.
I opened it.
The leaves of the journal were all torn out but one. On the centre of the page she inscribed in bold letters:
I SAW HIM TODAY.
I turned the page. There was a drawing of a heart with an arrow piercing through it. Nothing more. Who did she see?
C’mon, speak to me, Mum.
“Gozie! Gozie!” my dad called from the parlour. I squeezed the journal into the back pocket of my black trousers.
Police. Two of them. They were in their early forties, judging from their physical appearances. One was in a uniform and the other wore navy blue trousers and a white long-sleeved shirt. The one in uniform sat on the sofa. The other sat on the chair beside him with a jotter in his hand. Dad was toying with his keys, the key holder of which had a small sticker on it with the inscription, ARSENAL FOR LIFE. The two policemen were observing as I entered, but pretended that they were taking random glances.
I greeted them.
“Take a seat,” Dad said with a pulpit voice, waving to a seat on his right.
I went there and sat.
“These are the policemen that will help us find your mother. They were here yesterday when you weren’t around and just checked our house.”
The one on the sofa cleared his throat and said, “I am Matthew. We are from zone two, Uwani police station. Accept our sympathy and we assure you that we will do our best to find your mother.”
“I understand that you are her only child in Nigeria, the other is studying abroad?”
I nodded again.
“There are certain questions we need you to answer to aid our investigation. Are you okay with that?”
I nodded again.
They began their questions, which were centred on who Mum’s friends or enemies were and the last time those people had come in contact with her. Dad would interject at different points to show that he was the only true friend Mum had had. Before they left, they asked me to contact them if I suspected anything.
“Trust your instincts.”
When they had gone, Dad told me that we would travel to see some of my maternal uncles in the evening.
“Why?” I asked.
“You can’t predict these locals and how they reason. I have been hiding this from them. If they hear this from a secondary source, they may start thinking that I used your mother for some crazy ritual. You know most of them think backwardly.”
I sneaked into the toilet. I was tired of Dad invading the privacy of my room, leaning on the wall, hands tucked in his trousers, with his ‘I-just-came-to-check-on-you’s.’ Perhaps this was his means of reassuring me that everything remained the same. I posted a note on my door for him.
In toilet. Acute diarrhoea.
I pulled Mum’s journal from my pocket. I sat on the white ceramic bowl of the toilet, pretending not to be bothered by the smell of camphor and antiseptic. I opened her journal and the writing over and over again as if I were cramming it for an exam.
The main question on my mind was: where was the rest of the journal?
Clearly it was torn and the person that did it made no pretence to cover it up. It was haphazardly done. A lot of the edges of the torn leaves were still stuck in the jotter. Who did this and why did they leave only one page?
A knock at the door. It was Dad.
“I am still here. The diarrhoea is terrible.” I took a heavy breath as if I was in pain.
“Then we have to go to a hospital.”
“I am not going anywhere.”
“Are you masturbating?”
Fuck you. I didn’t say that.
“Sorry that you are going through this,” Dad said.
We were in his grey Peugeot 406 going to my mother’s home. He was driving. I sat beside him looking out through the window. I wound down the window to allow some air in. I hated the smell of air fresheners, but there was a yellow Air Wick right in front of me. I ignored it. I usually preferred sitting in the back but that wouldn’t be possible with Dad. He had told our driver to take the evening off so that he would have a private moment with me on the way. Although I wasn’t in the mood for discussing anything with anybody, with Dad I had no choice. It was one of those crosses I had to bear for being his son.
I didn’t know what to say so I decided to cast my mind away from him by looking through the window, watching trees blur past us. Right from childhood, I had always thought that it was the car that was constant and the trees that sped by. My father had corrected me often. “Things aren’t always the way they are seen,” he said. It is strange that, up till now, I still think the same way I thought over a decade ago. When I got bored of watching those trees, I adjusted and returned my focus back to the car. My eyes met my father’s. The way he jerked nervously like a lad caught stealing fish from his mother’s pot told me that perhaps he had been watching me for a long time.
His right hand slipped to squeeze my left hand where I rested it on my lap. His left hand on the steering wheel, his eyes rested mainly on me, he only stole a few glances watching out for an oncoming vehicle.
“You have always been the same,” he said.
“How?” I asked.
“Since you were a child, I have watched you whenever I was in the car with you. You like to look through the window whenever you have something under your skin.”
“I really want you to share that… whatever it is… with me.”
I looked away.
To start with, I never knew I had the tendency to glance out of the window when bothered with thought. Perhaps my father was right, because sometimes we are what we never knew we were, and it is that part of ourselves that we hardly change until a close person brings it to our knowledge. But even if this was truth, I think it was silly for Dad to claim ignorance of what was bothering me. Or was he seeking something else from me? The journal; did he know about it?
“Things weren’t always this way, you know,” he broke my thought. “Your mum used to be great. We had good times when we had you, Uche and Ebuka. We bought our 504 just after Ebuka was born. Things were good for us.”
Dad had banned Uche and me from using the white Peugeot car after Uche, my elder brother, had had an accident with it. That was four years ago, about the same time my mother’s illness began. Dad had parked the car in a corner of our compound, which Nneoma had nicknamed the ‘compound annex.’ Since the accident, only Dad drove the car, and even then, only on a few occasions. But he would always be in it during the weekend taking a nap, head bent on the steering wheel. It amazed me that he didn’t lock away the car key somewhere in his room after banning us from using it. He still kept the key on the top of our 12-inch TV in the visitor’s room. Perhaps it was still part of the memories he had of Mum, which he didn’t want to lose hold of.
“She was an Arsenal fan too but then… but then…”
His voice sounded as if he was choking. I turned, and saw he was crying.
Uncle Odinaka was sitting in a white plastic chair under the shade of an udara tree. He cupped his snuff in his right palm, and with his left, he tapped it to sniff. He sneezed and some of the brownish droplets spread onto his white singlet. I called the colour of the singlet white because I knew when it had been that colour, when Mum bought it for him as a gift. The colour of it now was something yet to have a proper name. He used the edge of the yellow wrapper that was tied across his waist to clean up his streaming nose.
Dad parked a stone’s throw from the udara tree. As he turned the engine off, I knew what he would say. “Don’t eat anything from anybody except the ones I approve and don’t shake hands with any of them.”
I never knew at what point this began, but what I could recall was that since Ebuka, my eldest brother, died, Dad had suspected that my mother’s uncles had something to do with it and would always give me this instruction whenever I travelled to my mother’s home with him.
We approached Uncle Odinaka. When he saw us, he stood up and started towards us. I realized why Mum used him as an example whenever she felt that we weren’t eating as we ought to.
“Do you want to be like a single ‘I’ like your Uncle Odinaka?” she would say.
And truly, Odinaka looked like an ‘I’ with a flat stomach and bottom. He looked like a strong wind could blow him away.
From his gestures, I knew that he wanted to hug Dad as he usually did Mum whenever I came with her, but Dad just smiled and tucked his hands in the pockets of his white kaftan. Odinaka understood, so he withdrew. But I went to him and hugged him just the way Mum used to. If eyes were a sword, Dad would have slain me. I tried as much as I could to avoid his eyes. Then I told Uncle Odinaka that I was tired and needed some rest. He gave me the key to his house. I thanked him. Without looking at my father, I left them standing under the tree.
In the visitor’s room, I bolted the door behind me. My hand went to my trousers. I brought out the journal. Again I read the entry:
I SAW HIM TODAY
I turned over the page to the heart pierced with an arrow. I tried to make some meaning of it. But the more I struggled with that, the more confused I became. I was like that for almost thirty minutes when it occurred to me — I began scraping off the white paper of the thick cover of the journal. After a few minutes, I saw:
LOOKING FOR MORE, COURTING TROUBLE. TRY BED.
When I came out of the house, Dad was still under the udara tree. About fifteen other extended relatives sat with him in a circle. From where I stood in front of Odinaka’s bungalow, I couldn’t make out what the discussion was about. The way Nna, my mother’s nephew, who looked like a scarecrow, was speaking, swinging his right hand up and down and sometimes pointing an accusing finger at my father indicated that it was not a friendly chat. Tochi, Odinaka’s younger brother, sitting on Nna’s left, kept shaking his head. Odinaka, kept using his two palms to intermittently gesture at Nna to calm down.
I looked away. My eyes again found my mother’s jotter from my pocket. I examined what she wrote again and again. Nothing was forthcoming.
My eyes went back to the udara tree.
Virtually everybody there was standing up. I think my father was in the middle because I couldn’t see him. Whatever led to the present situation I couldn’t tell but I was certain that if nothing was done my father could be in danger. I walked over.
Immediately they saw me, the commotion began to calm. Chidi, Ejike, Mmadu and Ude, the elderly older cousins of my mother began to sit down.
“You have a week to provide our daughter or you will face our wrath,” Nna said as I approached them.
By the time I reached them, they were in a conspiracy of silence. I greeted them. They responded in chorus, like little children in a nursery school, rehearsed. My father’s hand grabbed mine, pulling me to him. We were heading to our car. I just managed to throw Odinaka’s key to him.
I expected my father to burst out in anger as he usually did when boxed into a corner, but he didn’t. We drove home in silence. Even though I had a an idea went wrong with the meeting, I needed to hear it first-hand from him. But he didn’t speak.
The only thing he said to me when we got home and were about to come out of the car was, “Your mother was deep. She wasn’t the woman you saw and think you know.”
I wanted to ask him what he meant, but he slammed the door and entered the house, locking his room when he reached it.
I stole the key to Mum’s room from where Dad hung it on a wall in his room while he was in the toilet. Since we’d returned from my mother’s family house, I had been monitoring his movements. He had locked himself up in his room, producing strange sounds like falling metal objects, and murmuring. Lots of murmuring. All this tension, mystery and strangeness ramped up the feelings of fear inside me.
What was going on?
When I heard his door open and I saw him rush out, I immediately sneaked in.
Mum’s room was dark. I leaned my back on the wall and waited for my father to be done with his business in the toilet before I began my searching, since a corridor linked my mother’s room to the toilet and then to my father’s. It turned out that he went for the ‘complete cycle’, as we jokingly called it among ourselves at school. When I heard the door of his room click, I turned on the light of my Nokia phone. I went to the edge of the wooden platform bed and began hunting. I started at the headboard. I checked for notes or messages or an encryption but there was nothing there. I searched at the foot of the bed, under it, between the mattress and the frame, nothing. Where was the trail?
I sat down to think. I couldn’t hear the strange noised from Dad’s room any longer. Instead, I heard the croak-like sound of his snoring.
As I flashed the light on the wall, it caught the mirror, reflected back in my eyes.
It was like a flash, as swift as a shooting star but the image was there.
The face of my mother in the mirror, blood in her eyes streaming down like unholy tears.
I wanted to scream but I could not find my voice.
My jaw was wide open, but no sound came out. My entire nervous system was gone, all that was left of me were frozen feet, paralysed hands, and an immobile head.
And then, as suddenly as it had come, the image vanished.
My body began functioning again.
My instinct was to run out of the room – and I followed it. Halfway to the door, a voice within me, its urgency like the scream of a drowning child I saw years ago in Ofi River, persuaded me to do otherwise.
The voice urged me to go back to the bed and search again. I walked back, tense, my mouth drained of saliva.
I searched the bed again. The result was the same. But the voice inside me urged me to further my search, focus on the mattress. I rubbed my hand across the foam. It touched something rectangular. Soft, like paper.
When did it get there?
I slipped my hand under the mattress cover and fetched out the piece of paper. It read:
I knew you would find this but I hoped you wouldn’t. If you are reading this then it may be too late. Your father is not what you think. He knows them. He is one of them. They ate my son. They will eat you. Run as fast as you can.
Was this written for me? Certainly it wasn’t part of her journal. I read it over again trying to make meaning of it. What did Mum this Dad was?
A scream from Dad jerked me out of my thoughts. The scream was continuous. I ran as fast as I could to his room. I turned on his light. I saw him kicking his legs on the bed where he lay, struggling like a person being suffocated. He was still asleep.
I went to him, shook him awake.
His bare body was drenched in sweat.
He woke and hugged me like a kid would his mother after a nightmare. I held him close, his head on my shoulder, mine on his chin. He was breathing heavily.
“Calm down, Dad, calm down.”
After a minute or two he recovered from the shock, and untangled himself from me.
“You have to leave this house,” he said.
“Why, Dad? “
“Your mother is evil, her spirit torments this place as I speak to you,” he said. “I told you that she is deep. She is not what you think. Leave this house. The house is haunted by her.”
I checked my wristwatch. It was 12 a.m.
“So you are telling me that she is dead?”
I felt desperately confused.
“She is not dead.” He said, his eyes avoiding mine. “She knows how to manipulate her spirit out of her body. That is Cherubim and Seraphim for you. That Church ruined her life.”
“But why is she haunting us?”
“I don’t know what she wants. You see I don’t want anything to happen to you. I will still go to meet her relatives for the second time about her being missing in the morning. If anything happens to you, it will be my funeral, they will be convinced that I am the one responsible for her disappearance.”
“Nothing will happen to me, Dad.”
“I am not asking you to believe, I am telling you what to do. Leave this house.”
“Where do you want me to go Dad? It is 12 a.m.”
He closed his eyes and lay back on the bed, hugging his two legs. I knew that I had to leave. That was how my father works. Comply with his instruction first then come for explanation and perhaps negotiation later.
My hands were akimbo as I was thinking of what clothes I needed to take with me. Deep within me, I knew that wherever I was going, I wasn’t going to stay long.
I brought my school bag near the wardrobe. I collected a pair of ash jeans, a red polo shirt, a jumper and two boxers. I went to my toilet, collected my red towel and sponge that I hung on the back of the door. At the edge of the sink was my herbal toothpaste and toothbrush, on the wall just above the sink was a mirror. I went there to collect the toothbrush and the paste.
I slightly raised my head to the mirror.
I saw something like a human shadow, difficult to differentiate whether it belonged to a man or a woman, pass in a twinkle of an eye.
Cold descended on my body.
I looked again, but saw nothing.
“Bullshit,” I swore as I slammed my hands on the steering wheel of my car. I was in my deep blue Mercedes 190, trying to start it. It seemed the car battery was dead. No matter how many times I turned the ignition, the car didn’t respond.
I thought of what to do next. To use my mother’s Honda Jeep? I declined the idea. If she or her spirit or whatever wanted to get at me as my father had said, I had a feeling that it would be easier for her if I were in her car. Dad’s 406 Peugeot wasn’t an option either. That would anger him. The only option left was the white Peugeot 504.
I entered the house and collected the car key. I was heading to my school hostel, Zik, at the University of Nigeria, Nsukka, to pass the night before it occurred to me that I was in the car that my brother Uche had almost died in.
There was a buzzing and vibrating under my pillow.
It stopped and then came again, ruining my much-needed rest. I lifted the heavy weight of sleep from my tired brows and lifted my pillow.
It was my phone.
Dad was calling.
I picked up the call, yawning and stretching my body, still lying on my bed. My head was hammered by a headache.
“You took the 504. Are you crazy?” he screamed. “What happened to your car?”
“Don’t Dad me. Bring that car home immediately.”
He cut the phone.
Outside, I stared at our school garden, the one between Zik and Belewa hostels. The two hostels were opposite each other but were linked by a footpath that ran through the garden. There, the dry, hot, and dusty wind of harmattan was tossing dried leaves, pieces of paper, clothes, and sand around. Sometimes it spun the rubbish in a vortex, creating a dust devil, tall like a pole and moving fast like the torrent of a river. Uche used to threaten me that he would drag me into the vortex and it would take me to a land of demon women with half-skeletal bodies, and they would marry me off to their princess or make me their pet. I would run to mum who would assure me that Uche’s words were vain threats and that there were no demon women in the wind.
A male student in ripped grey tracksuit trousers was battling with the harmattan cyclone in the garden over his clothes. He dove, rescuing an olive green sweatshirt, but he wasn’t lucky with his two white boxers. He cursed and watched the wind take the boxers and drop them on top of the zinc roof of Belewa’s hostel.
Apart from him, the whole school seemed deserted, like a graveyard. The twit-twooing of owls made me shiver. I walked to the parking space in the front of Zik hostel where I’d left the car; the back left tyre had gone flat.
“Shit!” Slipped from my mouth unconsciously.
I had no option but to change the tyre and drive the car back home before Dad descended on me with rage. I opened the trunk with the hope of finding a spare tyre.
There were two red candles tied together with a tattered strip of red cloth and a red paperback booklet titled Evening Worship of the Sons’ of Light with my father’s name written across its spine in red ink beside the tyre I was looking for.
When had Dad become religious?
Sweat rolled down my armpits.
Something didn’t seem right.
I didn’t know what I was more afraid of in that moment: my mother’s spectre or my father’s mysteriousness.
I had to know what was going on.
I had to search my father’s room.
He would be going to see my mother’s family as he told me before I left the house last night. If I had to search, the best opportunity would come when he was out, meeting my mother’s uncles.
I called Dad to tell him about the flat tyre. I lied, telling him that the car engine was having problems too. I wanted to use the time I would buy with the lie to keep him from worrying me to come home quickly. To give me enough time to figure out how to break into his room.
“Come back before evening, in fact before I return from my in-laws,” he yelled. “I need the car. You understand? Just drop it and leave the house immediately. I don’t want to meet you at home when I come back. You have terribly annoyed me. ”
Dad’s door opened after I had loosened the bolts of the lock with my screw. Ejiofor, my friend who is a carpenter, had given me the suggestion.
“Act fast and fix the lock back,” he’d admonished.
Inside Dad’s room, I was surprised to see the bed now dressed with a red bedsheet, the pillows stuffed into two red pillowcases. In the middle of the bed was a wooden red cross surrounded by what looked like small bones. He had even changed the purple curtains that were in the room yesterday to red plain ones. A surreal feeling engulfed me. The saliva in my mouth drained away.
The room looked like it was being prepared for something… but what?
There was red.
Red. So much red.
Something in my mind told me to check the wardrobe. It was locked. I had to loosen it just as I did to the door.
There were no clothes in it.
Instead, there was a wooden table three inches high. It was painted red. A red table cloth also covered it.
My heart thudded in my chest.
Oh God, Dad, what have you been doing?
Two red candles were standing on a red candle stand. A book was opened and faced downwards on the altar.
Cold descended upon me when I read the title:
RITES OF SACRIFICE
I could hear my pulse beating in my ears.
Dad, what have you done?
My mouth was shaking, body trembling.
I picked up the book, taking care not to close the page it had been turned over to. At the top of the page, in bold print was written:
ON THE WEEK OF THE SACRIFICE, ENSURE NONE OF YOUR LIVING FAMILY MEMBERS ARE IN THE PREMISES WHERE YOUR SACRIFICIAL OFFERING WILL BE CONSUMED.
My eyes scanned the entire page. There were detailed diagrams showing what looked like crude dissections of a human body. The phrase, “Eat Raw”, appeared over and over again.
At the bottom of the page, also in bold print was written:
IF ANY LIVING FAMILY MEMBERS ARE IN THE PREMISES, THEY WILL BE BLESSED WITH MENTAL ILLNESS.
The book slipped from my hands and fell on the ground.
I heard a crash.
My heart skipped a beat.
I jumped and spun in the direction of the noise.
The crash had been sharp and sudden, like ceramic shattering on the ground, perhaps a cup or a plate.
It must have been a plate.
I listened, no further sound came forth. I could not shake off the feeling that my father was on his way back. Everything in my mind condensed to one sound, repeated in my mind over and over again: RUN.
I rushed out of our house, my feet pounding madly first on the tiled floor, then, as I exited our house, the street. Thoughts flashed across my mind like light glinting off a knife blade. Had dad killed Ebuka? Sacrificed him to some evil cult?
Had Mum witnessed Ebuka’s sacrifice and become ill and insane? Had mum died? Had her spirit returned from beyond the grave to warn me? Was it even her spirit I had seen in the mirror or something else?
Your mother was deep.
Had Dad’s nightmare been real? Was had she returned to torment him too? Or had he been faking being tormented in order to get rid of me, to save me from witnessing a sacrifice and suffering my mother’s fate? Was there to be another sacrifice in our house… today?
I thought of what Mum had written in her journal.
I saw him today.
What had she seen? Where had the rest of the journal gone? Tears were streaming down my eyes as I ran. Ran away from the house that had once been home but was now a strange place, a terrible place.
I ran as hard as I could, my lungs burning.
I knew that I was not going to set foot in that house again.
I knew I would never be courageous enough to confront my father. But I could call Uche and tell him what I had seen. I could call Uncle Odinaka and tell him too, hoping that he would sort whatever had happened out with my father. I could break my phone SIM card, and delete my Facebook and Twitter accounts. Change my name. I could try to find another life elsewhere, hoping that the nightmare of it all would not haunt me forever.
I could try to start again.
But in that moment, all I knew for certain was that I had to run.
And not look back.
Ezeiyoke Chukwunonso is a charter member of the African Speculative Fiction Society (ASFA) and an MA graduate of Creative Writing, Swansea University Wales. A collection of his stories, The Haunted Grave and Other Stories has been published by Parallel Universe Publications. His short stories have appeared in anthologies such as Emanations: Foray into Forever, Future Lovecraft, Lost Tales from the Mountain: Halloween Anthology Vol. II, the African Roar Anthology and many other places. He has been short listed for the IdeasTap Inspires: Writers’ Centre Norwich Writing competition, the Ghana Poetry Prize, and the Quickfox Poetry Competition.