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Short Story: Voices, Fiction by Ola W. Halim

Voices

I.

Bode lay in his room and stared at the bed lamp. His hit single Bedraggled, was playing on the stereo: a dance-hall song about finding love in unusual places. In the claws of loneliness which sinks into your heart, your soul, leaving no mark on your skin. In the awfully open eyes of a kid bobbing out of the water, bloated, dead. In silhouetted statues and crouching shadows and the congealed blood of a strangled black cat. And, in the crescendo of strangulating emotions knitted into a groovy refrain, finding love in the bedraggled wings of a dead bat squashed by a car, and left to an orange sun to suck dry. It was a successful single, and that was what mattered. It mattered that it made people dance, made girls in skimpy dresses stick out their tongues and wiggle their waist against the crotches of their men. The lyrics didn't matter. Bode's interview on the song—It expresses the depth of my hopelessness—didn't matter. He was looking for money, after all, or he would have done one of those slow tempo songs Nigerian men played only when their girlfriends were tucked in their arms. Now it was his birthday eve and he should be hanging out with Clara and hugging fans who were raising their glasses in felicitation. But he wasn't. He was lying in his room, staring at his bed lamp. Noticing, for the first time, how it never illuminated this room enough for him to stop groping for who he truly was.

He couldn't place it, but he knew. Something had always been wrong with him. He felt it. But feelings weren't acne or a wound or a hunchback people could see. Feelings were soft wind, zephyrs, so light they couldn't lift a chick's feather. Feelings were too abstract to be seen, let alone talked about, so nobody saw him. He felt it as an inter-mesh of shackles that held his breath. Which left him dry, empty and weightless. Sometimes, when these shackles bound him too tightly, wound around his nostrils, he heard voices in his head.

You are better off dead, man. You can't continue to live like this. Your family will surely miss you, but they'd soon forget. Your girlfriend, you know what it is. Haven't you forgotten your father?

One night, the voices came out too loud, rumbling like thunder underneath his feet. His manager was in the sitting room discussing music with Ladymar, one of the potential feature artistes on his album. Bode tiptoed to the corridor, laid his head against the door and imagined them silent, touching, kissing. He thought how quickly his manager got on with Ladymar, while he, as usual, found staring at her laborious. He wanted to barge in, but restrained himself. He actually heard them moaning. And, betrayed, he strolled into the bathroom and bolted the door. He couldn't even understand what he was betrayed about. Didn't he have Clara? But of what use is she? Man, she just sticks because she pities you. And you know how hollow pity is, right, especially when it's a facade.

The walls were cold and white, like death. Bode never considered death black. It had to be white, the dazzling white of silver, the startling white of the mountain kissing the azure clouds on the cover of his future album. Death had to be white to lure man, because man never heeded black calling his name. Black could never roll man's name into an orb, knead each syllable with soft palms, and pronounce it in sporadic purrs. Since adolescence, Bode had been seeing death. Death was waking up everyday by the same chime of the alarm clock. Death was his therapist, the one he felt he could talk to and would listen. Death was a large, transparent iceberg in the shape of an athletic man. It was always in his dreams, exhaling mass of ice, whispering words wrapped in icy speech bubbles. When death had sucked enough human blood, a blinding whiteness crept into his limbs and spread all over his body. And it became as white and cold as the walls of Bode's bathroom.

He was holding a pocket knife and running it down the walls now. The hollowness of Bedraggled chimed in his head. He held the knife to his stomach and whispered, 'Help me, Bode. I don't want to die. Can't you see I don't want to?'

Hey, this isn't death; it's freedom. Freedom from suffering. Do you know people are doing you a favour by playing your songs? Man, you sing awfully bad. Die and you won't be missed! And Clara, she thinks you have the hoarsest voice ever and—

Clara. High-cheeked Clara. She'd been his strongest fan. They'd met at a UNILAG show organised by Coca-Cola and had fallen in love while sharing a bottle of Goldberg. She'd promised to give him a million reasons to live, and he believed her, even if sometimes, she was too busy to leave an I-love-you voice message, too busy to reply his chats in days. Can't you see? She's tired of you too. When will you face the truth, Man? He ran into his bedroom and rang her.

'Please come over, Clara. I'm dying.'

'What's it? I'm at my babes' parole, since you don't want a birthday party.'

'Clara, it's that thing I have. It's come again. It's so intense and—'

'You'll be fine abeg. It happens and you just get fine.' There was a swallowing sound, like she gulped wine. 'I told you to come with me but you were telling me stories.'

'Come on Clara, you know I was trying to write a new song. You should—'

'Then get to the studio and stop disturbing babes who know the importance of chilling.' She blew a kiss. 'I love you.'

'Please—'

'You're selfish, Bode. It's only about you, you, you! Why can't I have a breathing space for myself? Is it a crime to be managing you and your stupid demonic spirit?'

Bode rehearsed the words to tell Clara when she returned the next day. He was done with this pretense called love. He wanted to be left alone. They were not right for each other. But who are you right for and right for you, Man? Face the truth— But he knew he could never tell Clara to her face. This wasn't the first time he'd rehearsed a breakup speech. He sat up, staring at the knife and forming euphemisms to explain himself and listening as the cackles in the sitting room died out. He would still hug her, part her hair like a curtain to kiss her, when she returned the next morning. If she left him, the voices would succeed...



II.

He left Lagos early next morning, after skimming a couple of birthday wishes. He was fed up with Clara, but didn't know how to tell her without hurting her. Yet a part of him burned to hurt her, to take its revenge, to cause her temples to freeze. The voice in his head guided him. Lagos isn't where you should be, Man, or can't you see? You try everything to be happy yet you're still as sad as an orphan. Or is it the music? Maybe that's not your calling. I suggest you go somewhere nobody would find you and put your life together. But remember, you can always quit if nothing works.. But admit it—nothing is actually working.

Bode stopped his car in the middle of a lonely road. The murmurs of the wind soothed him. He felt he could live here, listening to the murmurs, the chirps of birds and insects, until the day he'd succumb to the voices in his head. No one would find him here. Not even Clara. She'd no longer find him to torment and soothe and torment again.

And he'd no longer find Lagos. Lagos, with its tall buildings and blue waters and seas of colourful people and bursting of angry voices, and yet, its achromatic silence. The acclaimed city which held dreams and either made or shattered them. The city which seemed to rip to shreds every dream he dared to have. The city of those sweet, convincing voices which offered him the golden alternative of suicide if nothing else worked. And nothing else does work.

He alighted his car and walked into the plantation. He leant against one of the trees, trying to understand why he was here, where he should go from here. Then he heard a rustling. And the wind descended before him, formed a brown cloud and gave the voices in his head some force.

Do it here, Man. Nobody would find out. It's easy. You won't feel any pain—

'Please, leave me alone!'

—The pills. They're in your car. Just the ten tablets and you're gone. Slowly. Can't you see nothing is working? Aren't you just making a fool of yourself while Clara is having fun?

'You should shut up, really!'

Listen, Man, I think—

'I'm not Man! My name is Bode! Stop calling me that!'

Man, I'm you. I'm neither your friend nor your enemy. I. Am. YOU. I never knew your name. You never had an identity. A name is that which you're identified with, not on the lips, but deep inside. You never had an identity, Man. You never belonged here.

He reached for his phone to call Clara. But he called his mother instead. Mama was a strong woman, almost masculine. She mightn't understand, might jokingly call him the woman wrapper she used to call him, back then in the village whenever he cried as Papa slaughtered the Christmas chicken. She used to beat Papa up when he was alive, especially when he was drunk and shuffled home like a beast whose skeleton had been slid out. She'd tell the villagers afterward that he kicked her foetus out of her belly because she advised him to eschew alcohol. Papa would be fined a cock and seven kolanuts. But he wouldn't utter a word about it and life would continue as if nothing happened, as if Mama would greet him the days that followed and wouldn't hiss whenever he asked for food. As if Mama wouldn't tell Bode in Papa's presence that she feared watching him grow to become a drunk like him.

But no matter what happened, Mana would empathise far more than Clara. She would understand that her only son, whom she was always proud to introduce as a very big musician you must have heard of, heard — or thought he heard — voices in his head that convinced him to kill himself because he wasn't genuinely loved.

But is it only the voice you hear? What about how you feel?

Yes. He'd tell Mama that too. That, sometimes, he felt like shutting everyone out of his life and sliding a blade down his own throat. But he always ended up cutting the photographs of him and Clara into uneven cubes because Clara went clubbing without him. Then he cut himself on each palm. Thread-thin lines from which dotted blood peeked out. And when Clara returned, he'd tell her, 'I did it because I missed you.'

'But I asked you to come along na. Sebi you said no?'

He would take her hands, caress her fingernails. 'I want to be wherever you are. I'm not a public person. I make sacrifices for you, pretend to like parties and all. Why can't you do same for me too?'

'Abeg, abeg it's okay. You're not a public person and you think you can do music? You better stop deceiving yourself o. I have told you my own.'

See? The girl you love even knows music is not your calling—

'Then what is my calling? What? Why won't you leave me alone?'

Answer number one: Nothing.

Same for number two.

Answer number three: Because I want to make you happy.

'By persuading me to kill myself?'

Believe me, that's the only way you can be perpetually happy.

Bode ignored the voice and called Mama. 'I'm coming to the village now. I'm sick.'

"Sick bawo? Is it not in Lagos they have doctors? Wo, don't come o. I don't want all these solo makinde to start thinking the recession has pursued you from Lagos and you have come to join us farm in the village.'

'I'm not staying for long. I just need to--'

'How many days are you staying?'

"Let me come first, Mama. There's something I want to tell you too.'

'You should have asked me to come.'

'Mama, please!'



III.

'That your Edo girlfriend has cast a spell on you. Awon obirin Edo o da. They can use medicine to tie your happiness because your eyes have now open and you say you're not doing again.' Mama stirred the amala once more. 'But don't worry, maa s' omo yen lese. I'll take you to Pastor Adediran, the Fire of God.'

'But I've not told her yet—'

'Gb'enu e soun! What do you know about Edo people? She already knows. You don't need to tell her.'

'Mama, this thing isn't new. It's just getting intense. I'm confused and—'

'We'll invite Pastor Adediran tomorrow.'

Bode floated through the night. He lay staring at the ceiling and things meandered through his mind. The things turned images, moving stiffly over his eyes, like slithering shadows. He saw himself taking the bed stool under the ceiling fan and tying his necktie around it. He climbed the stool and reached for the tie. Then he turned away. The stool was still by the bed and his tie was still hanging from the nail in the wall. The fan was still far above him, casting whirring shadows on his body.

'Maybe I can save myself again this time. I've always saved myself. It's always been me and me alone.'

You and you alone, Man. You and you alone. You see?

'Please—'

But Man, do you know there's no moment this perfect? Your mother is fast asleep.

'No!'

You see Clara doesn't care about you, Man. You've been out of Lagos for twenty-one hours and she hasn't called. Is it not why your phone is still on, in case she'd call? Alas, she hasn't! And she'd never.

'No!'

Then the knock came. 'Bode! You're having a bad dream. Open the door let's pray.'

'I'm fine, Mama.'

'Fire of God will be here first thing tomorrow. God is in control.'

But Pastor Adediran wasn't there first thing the next morning. Some of Bode's secondary school friends rather came. They were all thin and scaly-dry, and had brown dots sprinkled on their yellowed teeth. They drank too much gin and belched too loudly and talked with food in their mouths. They talked about how they used to scribble letters and push them into the desks of junior girls. About them not believing they would end up farming here in the village.

Bode found them irritating. He contemplating standing up and going to stay in the bathroom forever. The feeling of disinterest choked him; the same feeling he had amid his friends in Lagos, same feeling he had doing things which hitherto interested him.

Man, these people aren't interested in you either. They're only interested in your food and drink.

Bode excused himself and sat on the toilet tub where the thoughts and voices grew louder. He rang Clara and was about to abort it when she picked.

'Where have you been? Or you went on your birthday outing alone? Vengeance, abi?'

'Baby, where are you? Free to Skype?'

'You haven't answered my question!'

'I'm in the village. The thing came on me so strong last night. I couldn't take it.'

'And so Mama is now the closest person you can rely on, abi? The same Mama you said doesn't like me because I'm from Edo?' She burst into tears. 'Baby, I'm hurt, walahi!'

'I'm sorry Baby. Please forgive me. I was just confused—'

'Abeg save your tears. I'm not in the mood to clean somebody's eyes now.'

And she hung up.

Well, Man, you can see for yourself. Clara would poison you if she had her way. She knows you're suffering and she wants to help—

'Bode, are you having a baby in there?' Mama was knocking now. 'Your friends are waiting. And Fire of God is here.'

Pastor Adediran forced Bode to his knees in the sitting room, in the glare of his friends. He murmured for over an hour, grabbing and pushing his head in the process, and then he declared that he was possessed by seven river goddesses.

'Jesus!' Mama said, her body bobbing. 'It's that Edo girl o.'

Pastor Ademiran spent the next thirty minutes howling and wriggling and asking God in an authoritative tone to come down and fight Bode's battle. At the end, he was a loosely knotted bag of cotton. He sprawled on the sofa and read Bible passages about how Jesus and his disciples delivered people of being possessed, and how their faiths set them free.

'Bode has a similar case and he'll be free if only if he believes.' He turned to Bode. 'Do you believe?'

'Yes.'

'We're going to have a seven-day prayer session. At the end of this session, I cease being the Fire of God if he isn't delivered.'

Everyone in the room chorused 'Amen!'

Bode drifted like a piece of cellophane in the wind for seven days. Seven days of intense prayers and tears and vibrating pillars. Seven days of battle-themed praise songs. Seven days of Bode kneeling and sobbing and hoping not to hear the voices afterwards but smiling, like an expectant host, when they descended in his head in the middle of the night. Seven days with which the voices grew stronger, more luring, frequented his mind, leafing through memories and lingering on the black pages because of the distorted images of reality they produced.

The seventh day session lasted overnight. There was olive oil everywhere — on the photo frames on the wall, dropping down the edges of the dining table, along the arc of the fan — and it glistened in the fluorescent lights. The gruff voice of Pastor Adediran reverberated over the silence, accompanied by Mama's dirge-like songs. The wind blew in circles. The curtains moved in spiraling whirls. Bode knew something unusual was happening — perhaps a banter between the pastor and the voices — but he was not sure he could shut the voices forever.

What about the way you feel, Man? The sadness and rejection? The anger?

'Not now, please,' Bode muttered. 'Be quiet.'

The session ended by three. Bode tiptoed into his room and sent a long SMS to Clara. He hated her and wanted her to go. But he hated that he didn't know how to live without her more. He knew she hadn't really done anything to him. But somehow, he'd realised they weren't meant for each other.

He waited thirty minutes for her reply. To pass time, he found himself writing a newspaper report about an up and coming singer killing himself after trying in vain to be happy. He scribbled it in an exercise book he'd brought from Lagos, in case he had lyrics to write. His hands were trembling and droplets of tears fell sporadically on the pages. He had written the last sentence — The musician would never be missed because he was never confident enough to leave footprints the younger generation would trail — minutes after Clara's reply came.

Bode u r a bastard. Ur mama no born u well.

The voices guffawed. They were indeed part of him, because they sounded like him that moment, like him jeering at himself, mocking his vain attempts at life, life seeping through his loose grip. Bode froze. He suddenly felt ashamed, as though he'd lost a game he'd confidently bragged to win in front of everyone. He sank on his bed, grabbed the pillow and began to wet it with kisses and tears. When it was soaked enough, he rose, reached for the envelope. Removed all the tablets. Ten. Ten pink tablets which smelled like scented urine.

He swallowed them all. And he stretched into sleep, a painless death filled with crouching images and floating memories and screeching rickety taxicabs. He had a broken smile on his face, the same smile Mama would point out four hours later, after Bode's door had been broken and Pastor Adediran had pronounced him dead.






About the Author

Ola W. Halim writes fiction and reflection somewhere in Edo State, Nigeria. He is the author of "Homecoming", a genre-bending work on albinism, as well as other work published online and in print. Halim lives mostly in his head.