My daughter looked up at me from the place on the floor where she was kneeling and smiled. It was the same as her old familiar smile but… wrong somehow. Twisted. Like her face had been removed from her skull and then reattached by someone who wasn’t exactly sure how. I frowned, uncomfortable at the sight.
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It started with an, “I know a man who can help her.”
I don’t even remember exactly who said those words and made the recommendation, but it was definitely one of the cleaning ladies at my office when they organized a commiseration visit to see me – the one people described as the big madam at work who had lost her husband and whose daughter had fallen into a coma months earlier, the one with the light skin and fine hair who was now the one to be pitied and prayed for. Fate had reduced me to a charity case.
There had been about a dozen of them, a uniform mass of rolling, plump flesh and chunkily braided hair that smelled of palm oil and Dettol. They’d all stood outside my daughter’s room, offering their condolences and praying loudly for her recovery. As they left, one of them had pulled me aside and whispered those words, shoving a piece of paper with an address and telephone number scribbled onto it in rough cursive.
I was of course, sceptical. Usually, men whose numbers were offered in such scenarios almost always turned out to be frauds. False prophets and snake oil salesmen claiming to have some preternatural knowledge that could end an unfortunate series of events. But pain and powerlessness have a way of stripping away scepticism like rotten skin until all that is left is the hard, stark bone of desperation. The need to do something besides weep and hope for my daughter overwhelmed me.
“Okay.” I eventually whispered to myself one afternoon when Dr. Kolade brought me yet another inconclusive test result.
I pulled out the piece of paper with the number on it from my purse.
But somewhere in my heart, I knew I would regret it.
He was not what I was expecting. For one, he wasn’t decorated with fetishes as one would expect of a witch doctor. He looked so ordinary; I could have easily passed him on the street without suspecting who he was. He wore a fitted navy blue suit without a tie, brown oxford shoes. His salt-and-pepper hair was cut low, thinning at the centre of his head and he was clean-shaven with only a small stubble of grey around his chin. He seemed more like the CEO of a small-to-medium size business than a witch doctor.
Second, he agreed to come and see her in the hospital immediately after taking my desperate phone call. That was unusual.
“How long has she been this way?” He asked me, looking at my daughter’s supine body on the hospital bed.
“Over four months now,” I murmured, my eyes heavy. “The doctors say she is in a coma but they don’t know what triggered it. It happened two weeks after we buried Bidemi, my husband.”
He hummed, his obviously manicured fingers twitching as he stared at her. The fluorescent light of the hospital room made her bedding almost glow.
“This one will require a lot of power,” he said, more to himself than to me. He walked up to her and placed his hand on her forehead like he were taking her temperature. He could easily have been mistaken for a real doctor. He leaned close to her and listened to her chest. Then he turned to look at me. His eyes told me he had bad news.
“Your daughter’s spirit has gone to the land of the dead. Her spirit is now there, but her body is still here, still functioning. This is most unusual.” He touched her forehead again, then her arms, humming a soft chant this time. He shivered visibly and then went silent for a few moments before asking, “You say your husband also died four months ago?”
“Yes sir.” I responded.
“Hmm. She loved him very much. And he loved her very much too. He does not want to let go. It is not normal. This is my preliminary diagnosis: the spirit of your dead husband has called unto her own spirit in grief and is holding on to her too tightly. I will have to go and bring her out by force. Or else…”
My lips quivered as tears formed at the corners of my eyes and began to fall, wetting the front of my shirt.
He looked at me dispassionately and shook his head.
“This is not the time to cry woman! Your daughter needs you as much as you need me.”
I wiped my tears with the sleeves of my shirt, embarrassed and confused but hoping against hope that he could save my Bimpe.
He hummed again.
“How much money do you have?”
I fell to my knees as I told him, “Baba, please, anything you want, I will pay, please save my daughter, please.”
“Get up!” he commanded, apparently irritated by my dramatic demonstration. You will pay two hundred and fifty thousand naira to this account number once we are done, understand?”
I nodded and rose to my feet.
“Good. Now, you need to believe. Think about her alive and well. Picture her healthy and well in your mind. Don’t stop. No matter what!”
I nodded even more vigorously. “Yes.”
He cocked his head to one side and said, “I will lock this door so that no one can disturb us and then I will begin. I need you to hold on to me with your right hand and keep your left hand on your daughter’s. We will anchor her back to this world. The spirits will resist. You will hear a lot of noise. Do not open your eyes. Do not break contact with either of us or your daughter could be lost forever!”
He touched my daughter’s forehead.
“Now,” he whispered like he were telling me the password to some ancient secret.
I held on to his wrist, eyes squeezed tight in concentration, picturing the face of my daughter as I felt her slow, even pulse.
I felt sudden cold draft on my skin and I shivered, feeling my fingers go numb.
I got the sudden urge to warm them briskly. Trance-like, I felt my fingers begin to lift from his wrist one by one.
“Don’t let go!” I heard his voice and, startled, I strengthened my grip on them.
I heard shrieks, screams as if from a great distance and my heart quivered. They did not sound human. The room was cold. So cold.
“Bimpe! Bimpe!” I chanted, rocking on the balls of my feet and picturing my Bimpe as she had been a few months ago, swinging on the playground at her school and smiling at me. Smiling at me so beautifully. I focused on her smile, trying not to listen to the groans and screams that seemed to fill the hospital room.
The hairs at the back of my neck were raised. His skin suddenly became very hot. Too hot.
“Don’t let go!” I heard him scream, pain layered in his voice. Someone began to knock on the door, calling out what sounded like my name but I couldn’t hear anything beyond the inhuman screams that filled the room.
Bimpe’s pulse stopped and I bit my lip, feeling blood well up with a sting.
My daughter is dead, I thought. Oh God my daughter is dead.
My chanting rose to a loud shouting, sweat dripping in rivulets down my forehead as I tried to focus on the image in my mind where my daughter still had a pulse and smiled at me.
“Leave her!” the Baba commanded in a voice that sounded like it was made of explosions and suddenly, the room was quiet. The temperature of his hand was back to normal. Bimpe’s pulse returned. The knocks on the door seemed to have stopped. It was almost as though nothing had happened.
“She’s back,” he said softly and I let go, opening my eyes and reaching for my daughter’s sweating face. He stopped me with a gesture.
“No. She’s still asleep. Let her recover.”
I slowly backed away from the bed, staring at her. I saw her take a deep breath, open her mouth and let out a yawn. I smiled, tears of joy welling in my eyes.
I could not believe it.
“Thank you! Thank you!” I kept repeating as he led me to the chair in the corner of the room.
“Let her sleep tonight. Tomorrow morning, she’ll be awake.”
“Hungry.” Bimpe said again, drawing out the word like she were dragging it through her mouth with her tongue.
It had been two weeks since she was discharged from the hospital and she hadn’t stopped eating ravenously, as though she were making up for the four months she’d spent being fed intravenously.
I looked at her, confused. “But you just finished eating, dear. Two loaves of bread and six eggs already. Isn’t that enough?”
She stared straight at me with an empty look in her eyes and shrugged before repeating herself. “Hungry.”
I sighed. She’d barely put together a real sentence since she’d woken up. “Alright. Hold on. I’ll make lunch now.”
She nodded and I smiled at her, just happy to have my daughter back.
After a few weeks, I began to wonder if it was really my daughter’s spirit Baba had brought back.
And then it happened.
I begged him to come back and see her then.
“Tell me again what exactly happened,” he murmured, sitting on my sofa.
I shivered as I narrated the incident that forced me to call him back.
I had gone to the market, leaving her home. When I came back, I could not find her. I searched inside the house, calling out her name but got no answer.
I’d ventured to the back of the bungalow we shared and there she was, in the gutter, covered in mud, blood, filth and feathers, the head of a fowl between her teeth like some wild animal. The small bird’s skull had been crushed between her teeth.
I screamed, dragging her out of the gutter. Her hands were covered in chicken guts and blood.
All she said to me was, “Mummy. Hungry.”
At this point of my narration, a loud thud came from the far wall beside us. I jumped at the noise. He cocked his head to the source of the noise, his brown eyes silently asking what that had been.
“That… that’s her.” I told him. “I confined her to the guest room. I didn’t know what else to do. But… she doesn’t like it. She throws herself at the wall and groans maddeningly.”
The thud came again and I looked at him, eyes begging him to do something.
He stood to his feet and approached the guest room door. I followed him and unlocked it when he gestured to the door handle.
“Stay in the living room,” he said, going in.
I stood nervously beside the door, fingers trembling.
There was no sound, there were no voices.
He came out soon after, face sombre.
“She’s asleep now. It seems something happened to her spirit on her way back and did not allow all of her to return. If the spirit is not complete, the body will regress to its most basic, animal state. But there is no need to worry. It’s been fixed now.” He said as he shut the door.
But of course, it hadn’t.
She was very silent and seemed mostly alright for all of a week before the look returned to her eyes.
“Mummy. Hungry.” she’d growl and sometimes, I was sure I was listening to something other than my daughter speak.
Then, one day, her skin began to rot.
“You have to fix her!” I shouted hysterically at him, in his apartment, a modern two bedroom in One Thousand And Four estate that showed no signs of being a witch doctors shrine. “You have to give me back my daughter o!”
“Let go of me you this woman!” he shouted, his hands shaking.
For the first time, I saw him lose his composure and that scared me even more.
I suddenly knew the truth.
He had no idea what to do.
“All you did was collect my money! What you brought back wasn’t my daughter! She is not complete!” I held him by the collar of his shirt, angry, terrified, and desperate.
“I have already lost my husband, I will not lose my daughter, you hear? No matter what! Where’s my Bimpe? Where’s she?!”
I screamed abuses at him, getting angrier at his sweaty, shaky attempts to calm me down.
He agreed to see her again reluctantly, his shifty eyes telling me he was more afraid of my instability than of the thing my daughter had become.
“I want my Bimpe o!”
For the third time, he came to see us. For the second time, he was in our house. For the first time, he was visibly afraid. He approached the room warily. As if sensing his presence, the constant thudding that had persisted for two days finally stopped.
“Listen to me,” he said carefully, “I don’t know what happened to your daughter’s spirit when it went to the land of the dead but it is not all here. I need to see if I can go and get the rest of her before she becomes more animal than human, you understand?”
I nodded my head as though I understood what he meant even though I didn’t. I just wanted him to bring my daughter back.
He removed his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves, muttering incantations to himself as he did. The air became hazy, hot, as though it was a sauna. The maddening thuds from the guest room resumed.
He entered the room.
Again, just like the last time, I stood outside, waiting.
But this time was not like the last time.
I heard screams.
Horrible, guttural screams.
I could not tell if they were coming from my daughter or the witch doctor.
The air seemed so hot I could hardly breathe.
And then the screams ceased abruptly.
Trembling, I ran to the room and swung the door open.
My daughter looked up at me from the place on the floor where she was kneeling and smiled. It was the same as her old familiar smile but… wrong somehow. Twisted. Like her face had been removed from her skull and then reattached by someone who wasn’t exactly sure how. I frowned, uncomfortable at the sight. My frown quickly turned to a wild scream when I saw what she was cradling in her lap.
It was his head, lolling on her thigh, his neck twisted to an impossible angle and trailing the rest of him on the floor.
Dead. Dead. He is dead.
I gagged, sagging to the floor.
She pulled his head over her laps and I watched her smash his head on the concrete floor, over and over again. The wet crack of concrete against skull was sickening but I was frozen with shock, unable to do anything but tense in disgust and watch the horror unfold before me.
After what must have been a dozen cracks, she shoved her hand into the bloody mess.
“Sorry. Mummy. Hungry.” she whispered. Her voice was almost apologetic.
She scooped his brains out of the fissure in his skull and shoved her pale hand into her mouth, eating with obvious glee.
She paused, looking at me.
Then she reached out to offer me a part of her grizzly feast.
That was when fear let go of my limbs and I ran out of my house, my hair wild and my feet bare.
I was at the gate to our estate before I realized that I hadn’t locked the door.
I spun on my heel and ran back home, heart in my mouth.
But she was not inside. She had escaped.
She came back.
I knew because I woke up with my head on her bare, scabby laps. I had fallen asleep, exhausted. The smell of her putrefying flesh overwhelmed my nostrils and I screamed in terror, pushing myself away from her.
I saw her eyes brim with tears. The edges of her bloody mouth curled, twisting her face with a dejected look.
“Mummy. Don’t. Love. Me. Anymore.” she said, her voice so slow and heartbroken, I did not realize when I instinctively took her into my arms and hugged her tight.
Holding her, fear seized my heart.
Surely now was the end.
But I did not regret the maternal instinct that drove me to comfort her. She was still my daughter and I could not bear to see her sad, to see her suffer. Perhaps it was better for me to die at her hands, to end the nightmare there and then.
I held on to her tightly, waiting for the bite, the vicious tear into my skin or smash to my skull that would end my life and my suffering.
I held on to her for what seemed like an eternity.
When nothing happened, I pulled away from our embrace and looked into her eyes. She seemed happy, in an animal sort of way. Like a dog whose belly had just been rubbed.
I thought, I am losing my mind.
“Mummy. Love. Me.” She groaned, the sound almost hopeful.
“I love you, Bimpe mi. I do,” I murmured, reaching up to stroke the skin on her clammy, flaky cheek.
She smiled up at me and for a moment I forgot I was stroking a monster.
No. Not a monster. My daughter.
“Bimpe. Love. Mummy.”
I wanted to believe her.
I had to believe her.
“Neighbour! Have you… seen… Dipo… crawling here?” My neighbour shouted in between heavy pants, her eyes wild and frantic with worry as she wrung a blue scarf in her hands.
“Ah! No o! What happened?”
“Was… outside… crawled away… can’t find him. Egba mi! Dipo!” she ran off, without even giving me a chance to reply, her hands flailing as she screamed her six month old son’s name.
“Finished. Braaains.” Bimpe said a few minutes later.
I walked into the room, steeling myself to stomach the mess.
“Good. Braaains. Thank. Mummy.” She groaned at me from the corner of the room, the chain around her ankle rattling with her motion. Her fingernails had fallen off.
“You’re welcome my dear.”
I cleaned up after my darling daughter, carefully putting the bloodied baby clothes in a special bag, along with all the other clothes I was going to burn. Then I mopped the tiled floor around her with antiseptic solution.
When I was done, I bent over and wiped her bloody mouth with a wet napkin.
She put a rotting arm around my thigh and drew close to hug my leg and groaned. “Hungry. Brains.”
“Mummy loves you,” I said as I allowed the tears fall.
Mummy loves you.
Chioma Odukwe is a reader first, and a writer second. She is currently based in Scotland where she fights monsters from the lochs to stay alive. Her stories have appeared in the These Words Expose Us anthology and several other literary platforms. She runs a literary blog: phantompages.wordpress.com and she is currently the series creator for TheNakedConvos’ Halloween series Lights Out. She is still working on her collection of short stories and novellas and hopes to one day go on a vacation so she can finish them soon, in solitude.