It was a Man
The woman held his hands and dragged him along as she trudged on into the market. He hopped on beside her, doubling his steps to keep up with her long strides. The day was just beginning to break and the first light of dawn was emerging. The market was still and quiet and all but two or three stalls in the foggy distance were empty.
She came to a stop by one of the empty stalls and edged him under its shade. A strong gush of harmattan wind blew past them. He shivered as the cold seeped into his skin through his unbuttoned shirt. They had left in such a hurry, he hadn’t had the time to dress up properly.
She glanced around nervously, making sure there was no one in sight to see what she was about to do. A pang of guilt ran through her heart but it lasted only a moment. Then she turned to him and placed her hands strongly on his shoulders.
‘Wait for me here’ she said. ‘You hear me?’
He stared at her and said nothing.
‘Answer me!’ she barked, shaking him strongly ‘Can’t you talk?’ She shook him some more. ‘That’s how someone would be killing you and you won’t say anything!’
His head wobbled back and forth as she did. He wanted to ask her to stop because of the pain now brewing in his head but he kept quiet instead.
Eventually, she stopped and sighed as she looked at the little boy who stood before her. Yellow jaundiced eyes were fixed on hers, dazed, fearful and in search for answers he would never get. She studied his features, it was the first time she’d really looked at him in a long time.
He looked very much like his father, an unfortunate reminder of a past she’d tried so hard to forget. His lips were chapped, bruised and lined with wounds. His skin was dry and flaky and contorted with several lines like on a map.
He didn’t seem so strange now. He was just a simple six year old, whose mother was about to dump in a market. He would never understand why she had to do this. He couldn’t understand even if she explained it to him, so she didn’t bother trying to.
‘Stay here and wait for me’ she said again, then turned and walked away.
His eyes followed her until she came to a stop after she had walked a few steps. She turned around and walked back to meet him. His feet were still planted in the very same spot. He hadn’t dared to move.
She dug her hands through the top of her blouse into her bra and brought out a small parcel, wrapped in a black nylon bag. She looked around nervously as she opened it. She brought out a crumpled fifty Naira note and stuck it into his hands, then she turned away and never looked back, leaving him to his fate
Chidi awoke, tired and drenched in his own sweat. He’d just had a nightmare, it was the same nightmare he’d had every night for the past twenty years. At twenty-six, he was an unemployed graduate of a state polytechnic and still lived with the missionary orphanage that had picked him up from the market that cold harmattan morning, twenty years back.
The Father had been kind to him. He had brought him up and trained him the best he could, up until tertiary level at the poly. Unable to keep any work he got, he’d returned to the orphanage and worked there running errands for the Father in return for a roof over his head, food and a monthly stipend.
He didn’t mind it really. Over the years, he had come to take the market as his solace. The noise, the smell, it all distracted him from the voices in his head. It seemed strange but he’d always been just a little strange.
The air in the room was stuffy, he felt he would suffocate if he stayed any longer. He got out of bed, slipped into a pair of dark blue jean trousers and a red shirt and headed to the market.
It was a Wednesday evening and instead of attending the midweek service at the orphanage’s chapel, there he was at the new market, bargaining for the price of onions from the woman selling them.
‘Three hundred Naira for the bunch’ she said as she dug into the ball of buns in her hands.
‘Is it not a hundred?’
She shook her head, wiped her hands on her wrapper and then adjusted it around her waist ‘Fuel scarcity, everything don go up’
He made a move to the next stall beside the woman’s, hoping she would call him back and offer him a more decent price but she didn’t. The price was higher at the other stall, so he came back.
‘I have two hundred’ he said, holding up the note to her ‘Aunty, sell for me, don’t you want to make me your customer?’
‘It’s not like that’ she frowned ‘Okay, add fifty to it, let me just dash you’
He dug his hands in the back pocket of his trousers, hoping that by a miracle of some sort, he would find some money in there. He wasn’t disappointed when he found nothing.
He stared at the woman, he should have pushed her harder for another bargain but he wasn’t the one to talk much.
‘Another time, Oga’ she said ‘this your sme sme is even irritating me’
He turned away from her stall and took a turn to a corner into the meat section of the market. Just as he entered, a woman emerged from the other end of the road. She appeared to have been running and was now out of breath.
She held the hem of her dress in one hand and staggered forward, leaning on one of the messy beef tables in a bid to break her fall.
‘My handbag!’ she cried ‘That man has snatched my bag! Ole! Thief!’
She was pointing now, in his direction. ‘Stop that man!’ she panted
‘Red shirt! Thief!’
Everything happened so fast after that.
The man in front of him made to grab his shirt. Repulsed by his bloodstained clothes and black hands, Chidi jerked back instinctively.
‘Come back here, thief!’ the man shouted. He struggled out of his shack, running into the wooden table in front of him. He clutched his thigh and groaned in pain, but that did not deter him. It only seemed to aggravate him the more. He yelled louder, ‘Thief!’
Chidi stood still, willing his mind to slow down and process what was going on. A sudden realization dawned on him and the colors in the market began to fade. Everything turned grey, everything except him. He was the man in the red shirt. He panicked.
If he ever had a chance to reconsider his next move, he would have taken his chances and remained still. But he panicked and he ran.
‘Catch him! Thief! Thief! Ole!’ The chants were getting louder. He ran faster. He didn’t have the time to think about why he was running. It was too late to stop now. The crowd had evolved into a big and furious mob.
They chased him. His place of solace was becoming his place of doom.
A hand from behind yanked him back forcefully by the neck of his shirt. The shirt bore into his neck, choking him and sending him to the ground.
The moments after came by so swiftly. He was all too familiar with this. First came the slaps and the blows, then the rocks and the stones.
The voices around him were like a flood, drowning him. He tried to speak. Really, he did but his words got lost in the sea of voices and faces, crying for his blood. He tried to stand but hands shoved him back to the ground.
‘Burn him!’ someone shouted ‘You will die here today!’
‘Where’s the bag?!’ Slap
‘Aw, you don’t know? He has already thrown it to his partner!’ someone shouted
‘Where’s your partner?’ Another slap
He searched the crowds for the woman. The images were moving very fast and they were blurry but somehow he noticed her. He tried to get her attention, pleading with his eyes. He thought he noticed some concern written all over her face as if she had realized that he was the wrong person.
The lump in his throat had dissolved into tears.
She would put a stop to this, he prayed silently. ‘Please,’ he mouthed the words. But she turned away and never looked back, leaving him to his fate. Fate had already been kind to him once but today, it showed no mercy.
A huge stick came down on his head with a heavy thud. The pain was excruciating and he collapsed. His eyes rolled to the back of his head. He prayed for death. What was left of his face was pulp with a mixture of tears and mucor and blood.
‘Help me!’ He cried out to no one in particular. ‘Please, I…I didn’t steal anything’ it came out as a whisper. It wouldn’t have mattered if he shouted it anyway. The mob had the louder voice.
‘Bring the tyre!’
His heart skipped several beats. The heavy rubber tire landed on his head and bounced off. Someone picked it up, threw it again like in a ring toss game but instead of a bottle or a peg, this time, it was a man.
The tyre landed on the target, bounding him within it. He tried to struggle but it was of no use. There was a scarcity but the fuel appeared too easily. The smell of gasoline filled his nostrils as someone doused him in it.
His breaths were shorter and strained.
Someone lit a match and threw it. He saw the brightest orange flash and then everything went pitch black and quiet.
Away from the crowd, in the shadows, a man watched the scene unfold. The crowd was beginning to disperse and the ashes of the man who had just been torched were being blown away by the winds, it was time for him to leave.
He emptied the contents of the bag he was carrying. A hair comb, a wallet with four two hundred Naira notes and a lip gloss. He yanked the money out and threw the bag and the rest of its contents to the bin beside him.
He shoved the money into the pocket of his dark blue jeans, pulled his red tee-shirt over them and walked away.