“Won’t you come play with me?” Hauwa called out to me. She had a look on her face that said she planned to be troublesome. Like she had been many times before. I was washing the dishes inside the house and she knew I could not come out to play but she called out to me still. Outside, the wind whistled a tune I did not know and dust settled on everything that was not covered with tarpaulin. The harmattan wind did not carry dust alone, there was a calm that suddenly descended on the city at this time of the year. Schools were closed for the holidays and those who worked, worked still, expectant of Christmas bonuses. The compound would usually be quiet at this time, but for the sound of a generator’s engine rattling a few houses away and Hauwa’s family dog’s barks which filled the air and made for an annoying accompaniment to my chores. Hauwa sat and stared, her eyes pleading for my company.
She was seated on one of the branches of the orange tree that had its roots in her father’s compound. The huge tree, had its branches stretching in all directions with a greater number of them leaning firmly over the fence and into our compound. Hauwa’s father had agreed to let us take as many oranges as we wanted, in a bid to placate us for the occasional fallen leaves and to prevent legal action. My father did not care much about the tree and its encroachment. The tree had big roots that had started causing cracks in the white concrete fence about a year ago. None of the cracks had a single starting point. Each of them started and ended at various places. Spirogyra rested in these cracks and at first glance, the dirty white fence with green lines looked like a painting. I could see her through the mesh that covered the window above the sink where my hands were soaked in soapy water. I held a plate in one of my hands and a lathered sponge in the other, the tangy smell of Mama Lemon liquid soap heavy in the air around me and without looking at her, I could feel Hauwa’s eyes on me, waiting for me to be done.
“The fruits are almost ripe, come and see.” Hauwa’s voice told of her excitement. She sounded the same way she had on the first day we met. Under similar circumstances. She had peeped from over the fence that day two years ago and had called out to me, not knowing my name, with a loud ‘Hey’. I had been doing the dishes the same way that day. I had walked over to her and introduced myself.
“Will you be my friend?” She spoke and her mouth was set in what seemed like a perpetual smile. She was sitting on the fence now with an orange in her hand. She threw it to me and I caught it as I nodded. I wanted to be her friend. After the first day, I saw her regularly and we would laugh and talk about school and things that children talked about over piles of oranges that were, without doubt, the sweetest I had ever tasted. She would always expertly climb from a branch of the tree that was on her side of the fence to another on my side and would gracefully get down from the branch and dust herself off before joining me on the plastic table and chair set that was in the space between the tree and the house. While we sucked on the oranges we talked about the tree and how peculiar it was. It had not produced fruit since my family had moved into this neighbourhood seven years ago, and Hauwa who had lived there all her life did not remember a time before then when the tree gave fruit. While we spoke of peculiar things, we also talked about how we had never spoken to or seen each other before that first day when Hauwa announced the presence of fruits that I had not noticed, in my own backyard. We blamed it on strict parents who did not let us go anywhere. We blamed it on attending different schools. We blamed it on anything we could. I only saw Hauwa during the holidays or weekends. In fact, I only ever saw her when I was home alone. My father always travelled for business and would always return smelling like a woman and my mother tended to her shop more than she did me, so I saw a lot of Hauwa.
“Okay, I’ve finished,” I yelled back at her through the window and wiped my hands over the front of my skirt, creating wet patches on the red pleats. I ran out of the door and past the clothes line to my right where the hand towels hung. Our backyard looked like a patio. An opening overhead displayed the blue sky adorned with still white clouds that were characteristic of the season. The fence faced a side of the house and the other two sides were walls that resembled the fence as they too had their own spirogyra paintings. There were things littered about the space; a rusting red bicycle that I had gotten too big for, pots of withered Aloe Vera plants lined the walls to my right and pieces of paper being blown about in the wind that told me I was not done with my chores. I sat on the blue plastic chair that I had sat on when we met and placed my hand on the table that was a few shades lighter than the chairs. I looked over at Hauwa and, using my eyes, gestured to the chair opposite me.
“Come up here. Why don’t you ever come up, you can see a lot of things here.” She sat on a branch as she said this. The breeze passed and blew her long hair so that it covered her big brown eyes momentarily before returning to where it used to be. I shook my head and stifled a laugh at her suggestion. Her jawline, prominent as it was, became more evident, telling of her clenched teeth within her mouth.
“But I don’t know how to climb,” I said, turning to face her, my hands still resting on the table.
“Don’t worry, it’s easy.” She said it with a certainty.
“Just try first ehn? You will see.” She stood on a branch and held another with her right hand. Her eyes widened as she stared at something in the distance behind me. I turned back to see if I would see what it was. Only the wall of my house, the one that held the mesh window, stared back at me. I sensed there was nothing to see and that this was all a ploy but I was soon standing and taking steps gingerly towards her. There were a few low branches and she warned me to avoid them because they were weak.
“Since it’s your first time, bring the chair, climb on the fence, and come and stay on one of the branches.” She said when I had been staring up at her for what seemed like forever. I carried my blue chair and rested it against the fence. I was sure to avoid the spirogyra infested cracks although they were everywhere. I bent down with both my hands on the chair, resting my body weight to test the chair’s integrity. When I was satisfied, I climbed and with my scrawny arms on the top of the fence, I pulled myself up. In a few moments I could briefly see into Hauwa’s house. In all the time we had been talking I had never seen her house. It looked just like mine, by way of structure. It had the same patio-like backyard and theirs was cleaner and a lot less was littered about. The dog lay asleep at a corner, I had, until then, paid no mind to the sudden tranquillity. My eyes caught something glinting under the mild rays of the sun and I looked down to see it. I stared at and dwelt on the marble headstone, making a mental note to ask Hauwa at a later time for whom it was. It looked like the kind of grave dug for children; short, small, like the ones in my grandfather’s house in the village. Those ones were used to bury a huge number of his grandchildren, it is said that a curse had killed them and for some reason I had been spared. Some said it was only till a later time. I remember my mother retorting and telling them that God would not allow it.
“Leave that alone, come and see!” Hauwa’s cheery voice entered my ears and interrupted my reverie. She had her hand out to me and I took it after I had stood firmly on the wide fence. I took careful steps as she guided me, she too on the fence now. I looked in the direction she had been looking and I could see nothing but the top floor of a duplex just beside my house. We were soon close enough to the tree and then she, ever graceful, held unto and sat on the branch she had been on before. She gestured with her eyes to a branch just beside hers. I put my foot out to step on it, to test its integrity. The springiness was not assuring.
“It’s fine jor, see my own, it’s the same thing.” She stared at me and my worried eyes, her cherubim face calming me. I tested hers with my leg and was surprised at how much lighter it was than mine. My hands grew white at the knuckles as I held on to two other branches and I put my legs, one after the other, on the branch.
“Okay, you see now. Was that so hard?”
“Mm mm” I shook my head and pursed my lips, smiling a nervous smile that rendered my response to her question moot.
“Look up.” She snickered before she said this. I raised my head and was staring at the beautiful sky. The clouds that had seemed still when I had been on the ground, were moving. Each of them shaped differently. One of them looked like a goblet, another like a bunch of grapes. It looked like a parade, each tuft passed by looking like an everyday object. It was breath-taking and I marvelled at it with my jaws unhinged and a gasp that I had not permitted, escaped from my open mouth.
It was a brief moment that passed between ogling at the wonders of the heavens and watching the ground get closer to my face. I had only enough time to hear the snapping of the branch before I felt nothing beneath my feet. I fell sideways and hit my legs on the top of the fence before I landed, butt first, on the concrete floor of my backyard.
I winced as I tried to move my leg. I heard the thud of feet on the ground not far from me and in a moment, Hauwa was beside me and I saw fear, like I had never seen it before, in her eyes. She looked at my legs and looked back at my face with a quickness. I knew there was something to be seen but not something I would want to see. I struggled to sit up on my own and she helped me up. I stared at my legs but they did not look like I remembered them being. One of them was a scarlet red from blood pouring out of a cut. The other was bent. The bend was not at a joint like God intended. It was at my shin. Hauwa was crying beside me as I stared at my mangled legs. She was apologizing. She didn’t know the branch would not hold me. I wanted to respond, tell her it was okay. The words I wanted to say did not come out and so I lay there with my mouth open as everything went dark.
My mother’s wailing woke me up. I opened my eyes to find a nurse dressed in immaculate white trying to calm my mother who already had one of her two wrappers, which were meant for her waist, on the floor.
“See she’s awake.” At that moment when the nurse pointed in my direction with her index finger with nail the colour of burnt wood, I wished I had not opened my eyes.
“So you want to kill me. Is that it? Because your father is not around, you want to kill me.” My mother screamed as she gathered her fallen wrapper and started to arrange herself. One look at her and you would not have guessed I was the one she was just crying over. I made to say something to her; ‘Sorry’, ‘No ma’, anything to make her eyeballs stop pushing out like that. It was unnatural. The door opened and the sound of the creaky hinge interrupted my response and Aunty Funke, my father’s sister, walked in with her outstretched hand holding a phone to my mother.
“Brother wants to talk to you.”
“What happened Tejiri? Why were you climbing?” she whispered as my mother stepped out of the ward yelling into the phone.
“It was Hauwa, aunty. She said I should climb and see something and when I did, I just don’t know how I fell.” I winced as I finished. I had only just noticed the cast on one of my legs and the bandage on the other.
“Hauwa? Who is Hauwa? Your friend from school?”
“No. She doesn’t go to my school. She is our neighbour; her house is the one with the tree.”
“Okay. Don’t say anything again. Rest, let me talk to your mummy.” Aunty Funke touched my cheeks before standing from the bed. A worried look had caused her eyebrows to run towards each other when I mentioned the tree. She had quickly smiled but as she turned to walk towards the door, I caught the look as it returned to dwell on her face.
My mother entered the ward before Aunty Funke got to the door. They both started whispering.
“Ehn? Which tree? Which neighbour?” My mother yelled and turned to me. My aunt held her back because although she knew she would not hurt me, it was necessary, for good measure. My aunt whispered words in my mother’s ear and soon they were both headed towards the door. I was not supposed to hear some of the things my mother wished to say.
My mother underestimated how far her voice could carry and so, even outside my door, as she tried to whisper to Aunty Funke, I could hear every word.
“Funke, there is no Hauwa. There isn’t supposed to be a Hauwa. That family lost their only child two years ago. She is buried in that their compound. I don’t think Tejiri ever met the girl. The parents always locked her up.” My mother sniffed and continued “Funke, who have I offended? Please tell me.” Tears choked her words now and the last sentence was barely audible.
“But Tejiri is convinced aunty.” Aunty Funke’s voice was lower. I stretched slightly on my bed to hear her talk.
“Ah!” The sound of realization. My mother screamed and called on God to come and help her save her child. I started to fear the worst. Maybe it was not just broken bones. Maybe I was going to die.
“Aunty calm down now… what is it?”
“It’s that useless curse. They have come to take my child. Jesus why?”
“Aunty calm down, that curse is not real. Besides, those children were sick, they were not seeing things.”
“Ah, Funke. You are young that’s why. They didn’t tell you. This is how it started for all of them. Seeing things that were not there. Please just help me go and pack Tejiri’s things, we are going to Pastor Francis now now!” My mother’s sobs started to get faint as she walked further down the hall and my aunt was soon beside me packing my clothes and saying nothing to me.
We left the hospital with a trail of nurses screaming “Doctor has not discharged her!” behind us. We were soon in the pastor’s house. It was behind the church building and it looked like it cost more. We were offered seats and after my mother made a case for what she believed to be my paternal family’s misfortune. We were asked to join him in prayer. The only things that were spoken in English were at the beginning.
“In Jesus name!” he screamed. Spit left his mouth as he said the first ‘s’ in Jesus.
“In Jesus mighty name!” Spit again.
“Let’s begin to pray!” And that was it. The end of intelligible speech. The sounds that followed were unrecognizable. These ramblings were what he had always called the language of the Spirit. ‘ra, ka, sa’ and the occasional ‘bo’ was all I heard. This went on for a while, during which I fell sound asleep. It was a rude awakening when my mother tapped my arm repeatedly. The pastor gave me instructions on what to do when next I saw Hauwa. They made no sense to me, but my mother’s hand that close to me was enough to make me say yes to anything. As we stood up to leave, with Aunty Funke on my right and my mother on my left, she thanked him and placed an envelope in his hand. He proclaimed God’s blessing on my mother, collecting it, with a smile that exposed crooked teeth.
“Have you seen her since?” This was what my mother asked at every chance she got in the days that followed. I always drawled ‘no’. I hated that I was saying the truth. I wanted to see Hauwa. I was angry that she had not stopped by to see me at the hospital, that she had not even come now that I was home, that because of her, my mother thought me mad.
It was a few days later, as my mother slept in her room, that Hauwa surfaced and this time she was in the backyard, her feet on the ground, her face apologetic and her eyes red.
I made sure I was not facing her when I said what I said next. I readied my crutches, I would use them as soon as I was done reciting what the pastor had said to say.
“I am a child of the living God. I have no business with you. Go back to where you came from.”
“Tejiri, what are you saying? We are friends.”
“Which kain friend? You tried to kill me. That was your plan.” I turned to her as I said this. I was going off script. I was supposed to stop after the first time I spoke.
“No Tejiri, I didn’t know. Seriously. Please now.”
“Are you dead?” I asked it quickly, I wanted to know. I asked before the sobs that were brewing at the back of my throat made their way to my mouth.
“I- I think so. But there is nowhere for me to go.”
“Aren’t you supposed to be in heaven? Or hell?” I said hell with venom in my mouth.
“I didn’t find them, I’m not sure where they are. No one will talk to me, you are the only one who talks to me. Nobody else can see me. You are my only friend.”
“I can’t be your friend again. The pastor said you are an evil spirit from my daddy’s village trying to kill me.”
“Tejiri, I’m not. I’m your friend. I’m-”
I repeated the pastor’s words and limped back into the house, each of my crutches on either side of me.
Hauwa returned two more times before she finally left. I said the same words each time and walked away. On the day she agreed to leave and said goodbye, my eyes betrayed me and I wept like a baby. I waited till she left before I started to cry, I watched her as she climbed back up the tree, ever graceful, like she had done many times before and when she jumped down into her compound and I could not see her hair anymore, I cried tears that travelled down my face and stained the metal of my crutches.
I sometimes return to the backyard to stare at the sky and remember her. I try a few of the oranges. They’ve all been sour since she left.
Bio: Edwin Madu is a Nigerian writer born and based in Lagos. He writes short fiction, non-fiction, poetry, reviews, features, and articles. His short stories and poetry have been featured in the following: Naijastories, African Writer, Brittle Paper, The Kalahari Review, Jalada Languages Anthology, Afreada, The Jeli and Per Contra. His short story “Only By Immersion” was longlisted for the 2015 Awele Creative Trust Award. In 2015, he was one of the selected participants at the Farafina Trust Creative Writing Workshop. He blogs at edwinmadu.com and is on Twitter (@DwinTheStoic)