I sprang from the bed like a startled amphibian, crashed into the bathroom and locked the door behind me. I could barely distinguish the racket in my room from the deafening drumming of my heartbeat. I collapsed on the cold hard tile as the import of this event hit me. On all fours, I crawled to the toilet bowl and threw up everything I had ever digested since I was born. From breast milk to plantain they all poured forth till my gullet knotted and my rectum bled. The excruciating pain I felt on all of my six senses squeezed the last photon of light out of me.
Consciousness returned at about noon the next day. Rays of sunlight from the tiny bathroom window filtered in and caressed my sunken cheeks. Completely disoriented, I could not make out my surroundings. The sharp smell of dried vomit made my nostrils flare and my eyes water, increasing my confusion. I closed my eyes again and gradually, reluctantly recalled what I decided was an unusually vivid nightmare. That assumption reassured me as I cleaned the bathroom and scrubbed the filth from my body. Filled with a mixture of hope and mild trepidation, I toweled myself dry and opened the bathroom door.
Apart from the unmade bed, everything in my bedroom was in its usual place. The shirt I wore the previous day was draped casually on the chair, the ‘Complete Sports’ I bought since last week was folded just the way I left it. My phone was plugged in to the bedside socket, it should be fully charged by now.
Sixteen missed calls were registered on my Samsung dual SIM phone. Half of them were from Cynthia, a member of the NYSC in Bayelsa State. Three missed calls from Bode my colleague at Union High School, the rest were from unknown numbers. I thought about calling them all back, probably one of them may provide a clue to what I had experienced last night. I thought about praying. I thought about my late grandfather and his antecedents. I was hungry.
“When I see u I run out of words… to say ay ay!
I wouldn’t leave U… ‘cause you’re that type of girl… that makes… u stay”
Beautiful by Akon was the ringtone I had chosen for Cynthia. I stared at the phone like someone would stare at a positive HIV/AIDS test result.
“Hello CC” I answered rather than throw the phone out of the window.
“Mike! Where have U been? I’ve been calling U since morning” Mr. Asuquo to my students, I was Mike to Cynthia.
“Sorry, I left it at home to charge when I went to Bode’s place this morning”
I did not intend to lie but my tongue seemed to have a mind of its own.
“Your voice sounds funny, do you have catarrh?
“Yes I have catarrh, how are you?”
I tried to change the direction of the conversation but couldn’t help noticing the beginnings of an itch in my throat.
“eh yaah! Sorry, am sure you’ll start chewing that your bitter kola and alligator pepper now”
“No it doesn’t, please go to the pharmacy and buy yourself some real medicine, I don’t want to catch it when I come around” she joked.
“Ok, when are you coming”
“Am coming on Friday”
“Don’t forget to go to the pharmacy!”
“Ok, I love you babe”
“I love you too”
She ended the call and I immediately dialed Bode’s number. Vacations were usually boring and devoid of activity. We made plans to hang out at our usual spot, a quiet often deserted stream deep in the Eliowhani ravine. Bode George was my best friend, we were both teachers at Union High School, Eliowhani. He taught physics while I taught biology. Our friendship was formed during idle hours in the staff room. Gin drinking and weed smoking trips to the streams of the Eliowhani ravine solidified our friendship.
I boiled some rice and ate it with the stew Cynthia had prepared during her last visit. I gave one last glance at my sitting room and bedroom before locking up and going downstairs. Ignoring everyone I saw, I marched out of the gate.
At One Life Pharmacy down the road, cartons inscribed with ‘TAMIFLU’ were descending from a truck and entering the pharmacy at a hasty pace. Mute like the crows I saw in my vision, the activities of the labourers stopped me dead in my tracks. I shook off my paranoia, approached the counter and made a request for ‘Dequadin’. As I was paying for the lozenges, a voice said
“You better buy yourself a pack of Tamiflu and some Paracetamol Mike.”
I turned and stared at a fat man, his rimless eye-glasses gave him a sinister look, his bald head looked like my late grandfather’s doorknob.
“Why?” I sneered at him, refusing to acknowledge his familiarity.
“There’s a report of swine flu outbreak in this area” he smiled. His mention of swine flu was disconcerting. I felt like I was being cornered by forces greater than I.
“Swine flu rarely affects humans” I tried to sound dismissive.
“You just woke up from sleep my friend” he said knowingly and smiled. I stared at him one last time and hastily left the pharmacy and the presence of that barrel shaped man.
Alligator pepper and bitter kola are not hard to come by once you could locate a garlic seller. The familiar bitterness of bitter kola and the awesome hotness of alligator pepper soon made me forget my recent troubles. Chewing that combination brought tears of joy to my eyes. ‘Dequadin’ will have to wait till Friday.
As It turned out, Bode only intended to warn me about the swine flu. His strategy was to stay indoors to avoid contact with infected individuals. With heavy eyelids and weed smoke coming out of my lips and nostrils, I told him it was all bullshit.
Six people died that day in Eliowhani due to diabetes and old age, but they also had H1N1 in their system.
With the force of a category 5 storm, H1N1 commonly known as swine flu created panic in the town the next day. One Life Pharmacy was besieged by scared folk who wanted to safeguard their existence with Tamiflu. The pharmacist neglected to mention that the drug, like other flu medications, provided only minor relieve but no cure. Nevertheless townsfolk queued up like it was election day and bought Tamiflu and nosemasks. The next everyone went about with nosemasks like doctors performing surgery.
Meanwhile evil had crept quietly into town. A Coca-Cola truck ran off the road and crashed into a residential building, killing the driver and three members of the same family. A woman stabbed her husband to death after enduring abuse for sixteen years. A multiple car accident caused twenty two people to be cremated.
Beyond the doors of the Men’s Ward of the General Hospital, arms out stretched like a Catholic bishop during benediction, a figure seemed to float. Gray mist swirled around the figure. It glowed brighter than the fluorescent tubes overhead. Strangely, neither the patients nor the hospital staff seemed to acknowledge its presence. I stepped into the ward and felt a cold blast on my face. Despite my trepidation, I approached the strange figure, reached out with my right hand to touch it, It swung around.
His eyes were like the pits of hell, bottomless and dark. I stumbled back in fright.
“WHAT DO YOU WANT?” he growled.
I could only stare, petrified in my spot as he grabbed my hand and released it immediately as if shocked. The mist cleared, his glow dimmed, warmth returned, sure enough it was the same portly fellow I met at the pharmacy the previous day.
“What do you want?” he smiled.
“I just came to see how my friend was doing?” I croaked.
“Let’s talk outside” he said and grabbed my hand. This time he did not let go as if he was burnt.
He offered me a chance to partner with him in what he referred to as ‘The Harvest of Souls’. He informed me that he was the major host that facilitated the rare human to human transmission of the H1N1 virus. He informed me that I was a major catalyst of the swine flu outbreak. He spoke of the town as a farmland, he spoke of the townsfolk as crops. He reminded me of the box my grandfather left me.
Archibong my grandfather, was a reknowned headmaster and diviner. Losing both parents before I reached the age of eight, I was raised by him. My father was killed during a communal clash involving my clan and a rival clan, my mother died giving birth to me. GrandPa Archibong’s entire legacy and property was mine after he died. With no intention of carrying on the family tradition, I had sentimentally decided to keep a wooden chest he had given me before he died.
I told ‘Fatman’ that such a box did not exist, that I was just an ordinary school teacher.
“Please stop your harvest and go back now to wherever you came from” I pleaded. “The people of Eliowhani do not deserve such a cruel fate”
“WRONG SIR, WRONG!” He screamed.
“DESERVE HAS GOT NOTHING TO DO WITH IT, I HAVE PLANTED AND I SHALL REAP”
“How will the death of innocent people be of benefit to you” I querried.
“IT’S NOT YET TIME, BUT SOON IT SHALL BE, YOU CANNOT STOP MY IMPENDING GLORY, WHEN I LEAVE TOWN, ALL THE SOULS SHALL LEAVE WITH ME”
Not that I was cowed by his threats, but his malevolence triggered an usual dread in me, it also left a germ of an idea in my head. I declined to say another word and just walked away.
Back at the hospital ward, I was informed that Bode was dead along with seventeen others. On wooden legs, I returned to my apartment. I called Cynthia and told her to cancel her proposed visit to Eliowhani. In a frenzy now, I ripped the sole from one of my old shoes, something metallic peeked out, it was the key I had kept hidden there.
There were numerous streams in the dense vegetation of the Eliowhani ravine. My favourite was the one least frequenced by the townsfolk. Bode and I had spent many lazy hours in its serene atmosphere. A small stream, rich in flora and fauna, it was my usual solace, it was also my secret fortress.
The stream was peaceful and deserted just like I hoped. I divested myself of all clothing and waded in. In waist deep water, I spoke to my ancestors.
“Let me dissolve like salt,
Let me be washed away like sand,
Let me disappear like mist before the morning sun, I came into this world empty handed, empty handed I shall leave, but before I come to you, be my guide”
Then I submerged myself and swam underwater towards the mangrove and water lilies. Small fishes scattered in alarm as I disturbed the serenity of their aquatic habitat. I’ve swam with the eels, carps, perches and tilapia, this time I was completely oblivious to their beauty.
Under the roots of the mangrove I probed till my hands found the stone, I pushed the large stone away and dug furiously with my hands. The water became muddy and full of debris, I kept digging till just over a foot deep, my hand touched my buried treasure, my grandfather’s box. I pulled it gently from its watery grave, slippery with slime and kicked backwards like a frogman, box clutched tightly in the crook of my right hand. With the key I had ripped from my shoe, I opened the box. The contents were few but significant, 2 short sticks, a brass ring and a knife with an ebony wood handle. I took the knife and destroyed a oilpalm shoot by the water side. After cutting out the pith, I chewed and swallowed it. I grabbed a handful of selaginella and went back to the stream. After dunking it seven times in the water, I rubbed the selaginella vigorously in both palms till green juices dripped between my fingers down both arms. I squeezed the juice into both eyes and felt my eyes enlarge. I caught a reflection in the stream and saw that my eyes were now inky green.
My body went slack, my knees buckled and I toppled into the stream. Water filled my lungs and I started to drown, then everything went white.
I arrived at a green field, acres of grassland as far as the eyes could see, no trees in sight. The voices of my ancestors washed over me like rainfall as I bowed my head and imbibed their wisdom.
Darkness had enveloped the ravine by the time I emerged, it was close to midnight. My eyes gleaming like a feline, I hurriedly put my clothes on, inserted the ring in my index finger and picked up the two short sticks. Massive vibrations coursed through my body as I fought to handle the sticks which seemed to have come alive. Writhing in my hands like serpents, they forced me back to the stream. I came back out dripping wet as the wind blew great clouds of vapour towards the town. Stumbling like a drunkard, the sticks led me to the deserted highway. There I found fatman ‘harvesting’ the souls of the departed.
The night sky exploded in blue light as I tackled his glowing form. This time he did not even flinch. Without even pausing in his gyration, I received a huge blow that sent me sprawling on the gravels of the road side.
“I shall cut U to ribbons and harvest your spirit!” he whispered approaching me menacingly arms out stretched, machetes miraculously appearing in each hand. I scrambled to my feet and ran into the bush, the foliage whipped at me but I ignored the pain, intent only on reaching the ravine. Without hesitation, he pursued me, sensing imminent victory. Perhaps I had misunderstood the wisdom of my ancestors.
Finally I reached the stream and turned around to face him. The broad blade of a machete hit my left arm as I raised it in defence, sparks flew. I jabbed at his throat with the sticks and the serpents struck, causing him to drop his weapons. He suddenly seized me in a massive embrace and we fell into the stream. The water hissed and bubbled, sending up vapour, several fishes floated belly up in the stream stunned by the electrical charges. I dropped the sticks into the water and he screamed in pain. He tried to leap away but I now held on to him tightly despite my pain. I dragged him deeper into the stream and held fast. In the depths, he became just like any creature that dwells on land. Gasping for scarce oxygen, he trashed and transformed into the winged pig, beating at my face with the wings.
“let me go and I’ll leave town immediately!” the voice seemed to emanate from right inside my head.
I held on breathlessly.
We remained in that embrace ready to drown till we descended to the bottom. The pig got larger in size and I could not hold on anymore so I let go. It shattered into tiny fragments of glass scattering brilliant sparkles in all directions. Weakened and disgusted by my ordeal, I closed my eyes and relaxed and everything became white.