BLACK by Nurain Oladeji

I had started to sweat. I nudged my pace. In the fading dusk, I made out Alhaja’s hunched outline sweeping the frontage of her house. Word was that her children had insisted on hiring live-in help but she had refused. She lived alone with her dog: a black local breed. I greeted her and jogged past.

Somewhere ahead, I spotted my neighbour’s Range Rover Sport returning from wherever the night had taken it. I called it Black Beauty. The bulging glow of its headlamps made me wish daylight away. I jogged against its traffic. The air hitting my face was clean with sprinkles of mist. I closed my eyes and filled up my lungs.

A screech pricked my eyes open to see that Black Beauty had veered off its side of the road and was charging toward me. I froze when Black Beauty transformed into a familiar dog that had grown to the size of a giant beast. Its eyes were furious embers. Its claws were long and sinister. Its open mouth could make light work of my head, with long canines to clip it in, and heavy drool to grease the process. Air that was abundant only a moment before vanished.

I found myself in a ditch. The dog was Black Beauty again. The black rubber of a front wheel breathed into my face. I heard voices and felt hands pull and carry me; and then my back felt the hardness of asphalt.

‘Should we take him to a hospital?’

‘I think he’s just in shock. Let’s take him to his house.’ Their voices were distant. The sky was alive with daylight now. Hands pulled me on my feet and two bodies flanked me. As I was half-dragged home and the many voices and footsteps faded, I felt my ears return to me. I began to doubt that I was in my body. Is this death? Am I beyond redemption? Has the world sent me away? I did not recognize my mind’s voice anymore.

I saw Mustapha’s puzzled face after he had opened the gate, his body out of sync with his worn black and grey watchman uniform.

‘There was an accident. Only God saved him, but he’s in shock.’ A voice from my right explained. It is just an exaggeration. I am fine. I think I can manage from here. No one heard me.

Mustapha scuffled out of the way and tried to join the men holding me as we all headed for the house, but there was nowhere else on my body for him to hold. He just held my back. I felt his unsureness in his twitching fingers; and then he removed his hands. He raced to knock the door and call out for my mother. He knocked until my mother’s stony face pushed him back after she had opened the door, snarling:

‘Are you deaf? I said I was coming!”

Her fury dissolved when she saw me. She rushed forward and held my head.

‘There was an accident ma. You should thank God o, the car could have hit him hard, but God saved him. He’s just in shock now.’ The voice from my right explained again before my mum asked what happened.

I was laid in my bed, and for the rest of that day and the next, I said nothing. I barely ate. A doctor came to examine me. I heard him tell my parents that I would snap out of the shock soon. My mother had relocated to my room. She gave off a smell of dread. Different faces took turns to circle over me. Prayer groups came at intervals. A particular group prayed hard as though they would summon God to come before them and answer for His cruelty. Most of the other groups only thanked God for keeping me alive. They appealed to Him to ‘heal’ me and ‘shame the enemies.’ My friends came too; they glared with fascination and terrible theatrical sympathy. I drifted in and out of sleep, my spirit shuffling between worlds.

On the third day, I heard voices from the living room discussing Alhaja’s death. She had died that morning inside a Mosque at the end of our street during the Subhi Prayer. Something eased out of me, and I rose like an activated robot. I stepped out into the living room and the many eyes there turned to me. The silence was deafening. The air was still for an eternity disguised as seconds.

‘I’m alive.’ I recognized the tremble in my mumble. They erupted. My mum launched herself at me. My father hugged a neighbour. Soon I was lost in a sea of bodies, hugging and pulling me, touching my face. God was praised. The enemies had been shamed.

Grief and guilt clashed and broke inside me. It leaked through my eyes, and strolled down my face. Mum began to cry too. They rejoiced. I grieved. I’m alive.

The chaos scared off my thoughts. Now, no one would know how, two weeks before, Alhaja’s dog had died. I would never see Alhaja again and there was no use for guilt anymore. I would forget how the dog’s eyes gleamed in the dark, how it barked and chased me on the first day I jogged. I would forget the next day, when I left home with a knife. I would forget how I watched life flee those gleaming eyes. Death is peace. I thanked God for the deaths that gave me peace. That evening, my father ordered a chicken slaughtered. My mother pounded yams.

The next weekend, I stepped into the fading embrace of dusk. I jogged past Alhaja’s house. I knew Black Beauty so well that I could make it out from a thousand miles. Its headlights made me itch for daybreak. I turned around; and I ran.

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