by Bolaji Odofin
The first time Hauwa heard the ticking of the clock she was darning Baba Bako’s shirt. One of his cows had torn it, had caught it in its horn and left an ugly rend in the fabric. Baba Bako liked everything in its proper place. He had a keen sense of gaps and the things that fitted perfectly in them, of heavy wheels that bore much but turned precisely when they should. The tear in his shirt bothered him, as all dislodgments did. On getting home he’d wordlessly thrust the shirt at her, trusting her to mend the rip and restore the balance of things.
And so she ran a thread through it the next day, singing to herself in the quiet of the morning. Baba Bako had gone to the fields and the children had gone to play. When she stopped singing, the tip of her tongue coming out as she concentrated on twisting the thread just so, she heard a sound: tick, tock, tick, tock. It was very loud. And that was odd because there were no clocks in the house.
Still she looked through each room, seeking its source, but did not find it. The ticking did not diminish with distance to show she was moving away, or get louder to show she was getting close.
“Buy tuwo,” she called as she went through the streets, her wares in a tray on her head. Before leaving the house she had sewn a shirt, cleaned the compound and cooked afternoon meals, which she’d left on the table for Baba Bako and the children to find. “Buy tuwo,” she called as she sold her cheese, bantering and laughing with buyers. The ticking followed her everywhere she went: loud, steady, relentless.
It was dusk when she came up the hilly lane that heralded home. Home was three huts squatting in dusty red earth, a spindly tree and a fence to keep the cows in.
She washed her family’s dirty clothes and cooked supper, occasionally stopping to listen, head cocked to one side, frowning.
Deep in the night, when her children lay about her, disordered with sleep, Baba Bako came and knocked on her hut. She rose and followed him to his, and in the darkness he found and loosened her wrapper.
Hauwa had a dream that night. Grim it was, and grey. She dreamed she was stuck in town traffic, everyone in cars while she stood in line as if she were a car, with tyres for feet and a horn to honk with. There had been a clock on her dashboard, a small round thing that grinned at her as it slyly ticked away. Hauwa did not like this dream and was relieved when she woke. But as she looked around the hut, a dizzying blankness suddenly covered her mind like a scarf made of bare white walls. As she sat there and stared with her mouth half open, anything could have been true.
The thing — whatever it was — vanished as suddenly as it had come. Hauwa shut her mouth with a snap.
She cleaned the house and cooked their meals and made cheese and went to town. Everything was clear and everything was a blur. She seemed to be floating away from herself, so that she could see herself as if from a carefully negotiated distance. She watched herself walk the streets and adjust the tray on her head when it shifted and joke with some of her favourite customers. The part of her that watched it all actually wandered away to watch other things for a spell. When she returned to herself she was a little disconcerted to find no one had noticed she’d been gone.
Hauwa joined a stream of people as they flowed everywhere and nowhere.
As cold, prison-grey humanity bore her along she randomly picked out faces and wondered who they were and what their lives were like. Unreality wound itself about her tightly and with it, something she could not define, having never felt it before. It was a thing like rolling naked in a bed of dead leaves, sobbing laughter, all of life in front of her, and all of life gone. Her eyes stung. Tears, she thought. Her hand went to an eye and came away dry.
The kerosene lamp cast their shadows on the wall as they ate their supper that night, she and Baba Bako and their children. She listened to their noises and watched each wide, wet mouth as the food went in. Sometimes her eyes would meet Baba Bako’s and she would see herself see him before his gaze would slide meaninglessly away. Baba Bako told a story in the too-cheery tone he often used to tell them when they were happy. He finished and the children laughed. Hauwa forgot to laugh. She did not laugh because the clock was talking, tick, tock, tick, and she was listening hard.
Everything wound down and everyone did as the night suggested and went to bed. I’ll sleep and wake up, and it’ll be all right again, Hauwa thought. She clearly remembered who she had been just a few days before. But this person who heard things, who stood apart and watched the world, who gave off a strange elusive smell that was somehow also maddeningly familiar — this person was new, and it was not her. They had made a mistake, that was all.
The mysterious forces that directed the world had substituted someone else’s spirit for hers. No doubt her own spirit was abroad, driving some other person mad. It was a mistake and they would fix it, they would fix it painlessly, during the anaesthesia of slumber, they would fix her and she would be all right again.
She closed her eyes and fell asleep and dreamed of endless lines of motionless traffic, of standing still while a grinning clock ticked away her life.
* * *
The new day dawned with the promise of rain.
Hauwa lay in her hut and let her thoughts slowly fill her up. The children needed new second-hand clothes. The ones they wore were tired and torn and had been mended too many times. Her family needed more food; there was beans and corn and millet but no yam or rice or cassava flour. The stove was leaking kerosene. She must remember to take it to the market and get it repaired.
“Are you all right?” Baba Bako was standing in the doorway. She could hear the cows moving and the shouts and laughter of the men that herded cattle with him. “What’s the matter with you?”
She shook her head mutely.
“Aren’t you going to cook? It’s getting late.”
She shook her head again as if to ward him off, and looked away.
He frowned his concern. “You’re not ill, are you?”
“I’m not ill.”
“Then get up and cook,” he said irritably. “It’s not proper, just lying there when nothing is wrong with you. I can’t wait anymore. Bring my food to me in the fields.”
Stay, she wanted to say. She wanted to rise and grip him by the leg and beg that she not be left alone. “All right,” she said without turning her head, and Baba Bako left.
But Hauwa did not rise to make cheese or cook or clean or do any of the dozen things each new day had demanded for years. Hauwa rose and did something she had never done before: she went into town and took a bus and closed her eyes and let it take her wherever it would.
She got out at its final stop and began to walk, plunging into whatever new turning offered itself.
Dusty buses and rusted cars and bicycles whizzed past, slicing through puddles of rainwater. Women balanced trays of goods on their heads, melodiously calling out their wares. Men pushed bulging wheelbarrows of items for sale or tried to lure passersby into tiny wooden shops. She watched a lorry rattle past, swaying from side to side, its open back filled with cows and men. They would kill the cows, she thought. They would eat the cows. They would shit the cows, which would help grow the grass that would feed the cows they would kill. The cows would lie there, as men had lain there, and die with all their questions unanswered.
Three old beggars lined the end of one street like decrepit exclamation points. Hauwa felt in her weather-beaten purse and handed them the first thing she found. She mutely indicated it was to be shared and hurried ahead of their gratitude. A passing motorcycle dashed through a puddle and splashed her with its grimy contents. She did not acknowledge the event. In fact, she barely registered it.
She walked the streets as the sun watched the world, immersing herself, unreality and all, in the feast her senses provided. The smells and sounds and taste and touch of things alive and things long dead, and the thin metallic quality of everything in between. How long, she wondered as the sun went away and the moon took its place. How long, how long? The road of her life stretched ahead of her, and she caught a glimpse of humdrum good and uninspired evil. How long? she wondered, and sighed.
“Where have you been?” her husband shouted when she got home, her face lined with dirt, his face lined with worry. “We looked everywhere for you. Where did you go?”
She brushed past him without a word. Baba Bako got angry at this and took out his horsewhip and beat her. He was gratified by her cries of pain. Everything that was wrong, everything that had slid away from him that day seemed to return to their proper places with loud, deeply satisfying sounds. The sounds he heard were these: whip, whip, whack, whack!
If he could have put it in words Hauwa would have sympathised.
* * *
When she opened her eyes the following day she was still this person, and the mad ticking in her ears had not gone away. In fact, it seemed to be getting louder. Life’s mysterious forces were certainly taking their time rectifying their blunder. Hauwa had no doubt that the error lay in that quarter. But she had dreamed pleasantly in the night. She had been in a place with wildly wheeling stars, lush meadows and brightly-coloured birds that flittered from tree to tree. It was familiar, but at first she couldn’t recall where she’d seen just such a scene before. And then she remembered: it was an amalgam of pictures in a book that a teacher had brought to her class in primary school, ten, fifty, a hundred, a thousand years ago.
She did not feel like getting up from the mat, and so she did not. Her vision was full of fog and shadows. Sometimes the shadows would shift, would move, just so, and reveal a thing, bright as a spit-polished coin, lying there in the darkness.
Faces came and went in the fog. Sometimes those faces spoke and sometimes hands tugged at her. But she did not answer. Everything was overhung by the tint of the dream she had had, a kind of haze filled with the scent of years gone by. As she stared at the ceiling it seemed to retreat into a sky filled with fat cumulus clouds. The clouds parted and it began to rain.
She’d seen them once as a child.
But these marbles were as large as balloons and just as light, floating down from the heavens and covering the world within the hut like many-coloured dew.
It was almost as good as the dream.
* * *
Days went by. Baba Bako summoned the elders in her family; her father, her mother, her greying older brother. They asked questions and pressed upon her a quiet demand for satisfaction. They gently reminded her of her duties as a wife and mother. It was not good, they let her know, for a married woman to walk in the night, for a healthy woman to lay in bed all day as if she were an invalid. She was not to fight her husband for summoning them, or take umbrage at being chastised. He was doing what was best for her, and so were they.
She looked at each in turn, staring in fascination at each mouth as it miraculously formed and issued words. Her father had a mole on the underside of his jaw. How small and frail he looks, she thought, and felt a sudden rush of affection for him.
But the restless spirit would not let her be, and the restless spirit would not let them be, and the restless spirit stood apart and observed them with icy eyes.
“I was ten years old,” the spirit said, “what did I know about being a wife? I was ten years old,” it repeated again, “tell me what I knew?” Hauwa waited, because the spirit sounded so angry, it sounded like it had a lot to say. But no other words came. And so she closed her mouth and closed her eyes and leaned against the wall. She was suddenly very tired.
“What are you talking?”
“Are you mad?”
“What is she talking?”
“Just ignore her,” the people who had come advised the man. “Be patient. She’ll come back to her senses soon.”
Hauwa left them and went into her hut and watched the children as they slept. One of them had his thumb in his mouth. She bent and gently removed it.
“What’s the matter with you?” asked the man in the doorway. He had followed her and she had not even noticed. “What is it?” he asked. “What is wrong with you?”
She tried to tell him, because he looked so bewildered, because he looked almost as lost as she felt. Her mouth opened but instead of the words her mind had formed, harsh, cawing laughter began to pour out. She stood there and laughed till she cried, holding her sides.
Baba Bako stared.
* * *
Hauwa rose on the third day.
A scent wafted up to her; red candy and the dust of old playgrounds, the perfume of time and the things it’s borne off, slipping through the cracks. She breathed gently so as not to disturb it, but it seemed to sense her presence and quietly drifted away.
Bathing the children, she felt herself flitting back and forth, her distant gaze on their ears and the delicate curve of their little skulls. They played with the soap suds. She gave one of them a hard little shake to keep him still. Turning his head, he laughed into her eyes. Hauwa stiffened, alert as a leopard, and waited for the sudden storm of feeling to pass. When it did, she cleaned the house and washed their clothes and cooked the food they ate.
The man told stories in the night, and his children laughed. She laughed because they laughed, lowering her eyes to hide her love and the intensity of her hate.
Soon it was morning again. The man left his hut and the children left their hut and she roamed the compound as if she were haunting it. Over there was the corner where she mended their clothes. There were faint cobwebs where two walls merged with the ceiling. A discarded yellow plastic bowl lay on its side on the floor. Metal buckets glinted dully in the morning light. Earthen pots, leftover food, dirty water in open drains. She retreated but these things followed her, clinging to her skin.
She made some cheese and put them in a tray and left the house. But she did not call out “Buy tuwo!” Instead she walked from place to place, scarcely minding where.
One bus took her one place and another deposited her elsewhere, so that she saw the smoke loud machines exhaled, tended lawns, broken spirits, broken glass, and fences around big houses to keep the ugly out. Music came faintly to her, and she turned and blindly sought till she found. There it was in drums and eager ankles, in enchanted mats and the murmurs of a crowd, in prancing horses and the riders that sat on them. The music briefly stilled her feet and brought a lump to her throat.
One bus took her one place and another deposited her elsewhere, so that weary women raked her with empty glances and a cacophony of need beat her about the head. Half-naked children ran and laughed and cried, then stopped and looked at her with curious eyes in the middle of being well brought-up.
The ticking clock took her quietly between the cracks, where things slip through unnoticed, and when she raised her eyes again she found herself by the river. Placing her tray on the ground she walked to the edge of a stone outcrop. The river was big and deep and gray, and kept hissing its strange and hateful secrets.
Images began to flicker in her mind’s eye, things hazily glimpsed, moving tantalisingly close as if to converge on some shattering revelation, then drifting meaninglessly apart, just as she knew they would.
It was a child’s cruel game, all of it.
They were insects in a crude enclosure beneath the pale moon of a spoilt, round face, its fat hand held aloft. Down comes the hand, again and again, so that their tiny bodies burst and out comes the soft iridescent mess of their love and their plans, already decaying.
No, she thought. There was no mistake. This is who I’ve always been.
She stared at the beckoning water and briefly considered answering its summons. A few quick steps and it would all be over. She would sink fast, go down, down, down, and thrash before the quick cruel eyes hung over the world like dirty cosmic curtains. And then she would be still and the light would fade and fish and darkness would claim her.
But she did not enter the river. Instead she sat on the outcrop, dangling her legs over it. The sky’s vanishing splendour caught her eye, and thoughts came to her: defiant thoughts, thoughts she’d never had before, thoughts as cool as rain water. She watched the setting sun, listening only to herself, and with no warning whatsoever, the slow dreadful ticking stopped.
Copyright © 2012 by Bolaji Odofin