© 2012 by Damilare Falowo. Originally published in Lights Out: Nightmare Theatre. Reprinted by permission of the author.
“Move your feet, prostitute!”
Akweke stood still, tears running down her cheeks. The child in her arms shuddered and cooed in his sleep and the forest before her stood black and still as the bottom of a burnt clay pot. The men behind her were aflame with anger and deep disgust. They screamed and spat at her to walk into the dead blackness. She stood still.
Dry papery palms grab her breasts in the dark.
“Papa, what are you doing?!”
Thick snakes of fear writhed in her stomach and denied her access to her limbs. Tales flashed through her mind; of people who had run mad just from standing too close to Obioji, of the screams that soared across the skies at midnight, of loose women driven into the darkness by the wet flower between their thighs.
She shuddered along with her three day old baby who was wrapped in most of her own clothing; she had left herself a tiny wrapper to preserve what was left of her dignity. Pale, unwashed skin the color of ripe egusi gleamed in the dusky evening light. She could feel two of the three men behind her back lick their lips lasciviously at the sight of her firm breasts.
She could also feel the cold stare of the dibia, Anyabali; the one whose words could make her to go into the dark. She turned around and gazed into his soulless black eyes, holding on tighter to her child.
His face remained expressionless beneath the slashes of white war paint and palm oil, the bull skull atop his head seemed to mock her with its protruding dentition. Wrinkled and bent like the proverbial crayfish at ninety-nine years of age, Anyabali’s glare was as potent as a snake bite. His eyes roved from the top of her head, crowned with four large knots of hair, down to her scratched and bleeding feet.
“Throw the child.”
One of the large men flanking the dibia sprang into motion before Akweke could put context into his words.
Her child was grabbed from her arms and flung into the forest.
Her scream shredded the air with its pain.
Her shocked mind tried to choose between crumbling to the floor in sobs and running into the dark towards her son, but the decision was made for her already. She felt rough hands lift her and push her through the veil, into the forest.
He thrusts into her forcefully.
Pain blossoms between her thighs.
The darkness was blinding and deafening.
There were no crickets in Obioji, nothing dared to live here in the stale, dead air. Akweke lay in the soft earth of the forest, fear and panic attempting to drive her brain to madness.
Through the deafening silence came the soft cry of a baby; rising and falling gently, interrupted by the occasional hitch of breath. She rose to her feet, bruised breasts tingling in the cold forest air. Walking with unsteady feet and blind eyes, she staggered forward. The baby was still crying softly, when another cry began behind her.
Four months later, her belly is distended with an abomination.
The Elders ask questions she can’t answer.
“Tell us who the father of your child is or we will throw you into The Darkness”
She clutches her belly and stares into nothing.
Her calm shattered and she stood still, the cries of both babies ringing through the unnaturally still air, her heart beat pulsed through her head making her eyes water. As both wails rose in volume, her skin began to crawl. She took a deep breath and stepped forward.
A third cry began.
This one was hysterical, not soft and lazy like the other two, she knew that cry.
All her defenses crumbled.
She ran towards the crying child, feet sticking repeatedly in the soggy earth. She fell three steps into her run and tumbled, brushing her side hard against a tree in her blindness and falling into the ground.
The head of the midwife is between her thighs as she pushes.
Sweat rolls off her body in small rivers.
The child is coming.
The dibia stands right in front of her, illuminated by flickering palm oil flames, waiting to take her away.
Akweke lay still in the pit, defeated.
The cries had stopped.
She stared up, where the sky was meant be and tears flowed down her cheeks, her cries caught in her throat. When she felt something furry brush against her leg, she shot up into a sitting position and the smell hit her.
The stench of rotten flesh.
It crawled up her nose and filled her belly.
Akweke retched, her empty belly convulsing with agonizing fury.
She was sitting in what seemed to be large pieces of raw meat, wet and clammy against her back. She shot to her feet with a yelp. Her eyes had finally adjusted to the light and she saw the babies.
Eyes chewed out by the rats that slinked through the holes in their chests and entered mouths.
The stench moved again.
All thought fled from her mind and she let out a series of lung-bursting screams. She was shut up when her feet slipped out from beneath her and she fell deeper into the pit. Bones poked at her bare back and an unknown fluid shot into her left eye. Maggots crawled against the back of her legs, and across her stomach and she could feel them in her scalp and between her thighs. She made one last attempt to rise out of the shallow grave when they all started crying.
She hears her child cry and then he is brought to her.
Tears escape her eyes.
He is beautiful and he is hers.
The perfect taboo.
The sound made her chest clench and more tears fell from her eyes. Their cry rose through the darkness.
The red sound of fear.
As she struggled to find her footing within the bones and flesh and earth, a bulb of light rose from the mouth of an eyeless child beneath her feet. It hovered in front of her eyes, bouncing silkily, softly and then it suddenly flung itself into Akweke’s chest.
The cold prevented her from screaming.
She gasped one hand on the edge of the pit and the other above her heart. She could feel it wriggle its way up her chest.
“Please.” She whispered for the second time that day. And for the second time, no one listened.
The ninety nine ghost babies rose out of their decaying bodies; shimmering balls of cold light. They all hovered around Akweke lighting her yellow skin with the brightness of the vengeful dead.
Her wrapper was gone and she stood naked as the day she was born, covered in scars and dry blood. She was still retching as the first light made its way up to her head, when it got there she let out a silent scream as the icy hand of Death gripped her soul.
The other ghosts surged forward, sinking beneath her skin, taking her body as their home and chasing her consciousness to exile.
Anyabali sat in the total darkness of his round hut. Tendrils of smoke from the freshly-blown out lamp still hung in the air. He could smell them.
Ani was also around; the metallic stink of blood that always accompanied her hung thick in the air. He was as tense as the air that surrounded him, but he waited patiently. He had done everything he was asked after all; sent out all the masked men to rape all those unsuspecting young women, blaming the neighboring villages for the crime. He had spoken for Ani that the women should be sent into Obioji, had the babies thrown specifically into a pit filled with Ani’s essence, all one hundred of them.
He had even performed the final taboo.
He sat, ready to become immortal as Ani had promised.
A hundred children for an eternity amongst men.
He waited. And waited… until Ani finally slammed into him, filling his senses. Lightning crackled across his skin as hot blood surged into him from beyond the realms of men.
Hair sprouted on his head in thick clumps. His back cracked audibly and he straightened. His milky vision opened up and he saw her as he crested and found permanent youth. He stood to his feet, full of youth and power.
Akweke was glowing like she had been lit from within by moonlight, her eyes were dark caverns.
“You are not Ani,” he muttered, confused.
Akweke stared at him with tangible malice. He trembled, despite his new power. He had never felt anything like this before.
She opened her mouth and the air shuddered with the weight of them. “Spineless murderer.”
Ani fled the dibia’s body faster than the Orimili river.
Akweke lifted her hand and all of his youth came flying out of his body and into her palm in wispy red streams.
His back bent and his skin turned dryer than ash. He fell to his knees as pure fear shot through his being. He looked up to plead with this new creature that had stolen immortality from him and chased away a spirit older than the village but she opened her mouth wide before he could utter a word.
The wail of a hundred newborns filled the hut and flowed into his brain like a million fire ants, gnawing at his mind and stinging his consciousness and cutting open his very soul with red hot teeth.
He screamed, and screamed, and screamed as spittle and blood poured from his mouth and nostrils. The crying suddenly stopped and he felt himself levitate into the air. His red cloth toga fell off and he was as naked as his day of birth.
He looked at her through cloudy eyes and pounding head. She kept glowing. A pulsing light that chilled his bones. Then all of a sudden, the ghost babies came out of her and began to tear him apart.
They ran across his skin like fluorescent mice, ripping it apart with dead teeth. They broke his arms and ate his eyes, they entered his mouth and burst forth from his belly, spraying the still Akweke with blood.
And through it all he screamed as he felt every bit of flesh rip and tear. When he died they let his remains fall to the ground with a wet thunk.
Swimming through the air, they returned into their vessel.
All but one.
She grabbed him from the air, cradled him to her breasts and named him.
A child born of a dibia’s seed.
The dibia, her father.
Then she walked back into the Darkness where she still roams.
A vessel for lost souls.
Dare Segun Falowo is a writer of the Nigerian Weird and an alumnus of the Farafina Creative Writing Workshop. His stories have featured in Saraba, BrittlePaper, and previous editions of the Lights Out series – Lights Out: First Blood, Lights Out: Nightmare Theatre, Lights Out: Monsters and Lights Out: Twisted Fairytales. He has some old tales at dragonsinlagos.wordpress.com. He tweets @owlinrelief.