The sky was black, just like a coven of witches’ cauldron; there was no trace of any white or blue cloud in the firmament. He was in the middle of an ancient cemetery; most of the graves around him were open. There were different shapes and sizes of skeletons in each hole; termites, cockroaches, worms and millipedes seeking solace in brainless skulls and eyeless sockets. He shouted with all his might but he could not hear himself, neither could the vultures perched on mahogany branches ready to devour the little rotten pieces of fleshes and sinews remaining on some corpses. It was as if he had entered a weird conduit between the land of the living and that of the dead. The yard was as silent as every grave should be. One tomb appeared before him. It came from nowhere; he knew it was not there before. Fear took hold of his heart when he read the name carved on it––Abigail! It was also uncovered. It can’t be, no. it can’t. He moved closer towards the grave, expecting to see rats eating up her bowels and worms wriggling from the staring eyes of her corpse. Ten steps left, six, four, and one. He looked into the grave–– a sudden loud sound began all over the grave yard, it was so loud that he had to cover his ears with his hands.
Richard woke up cold skinned, sweating and gasping. His first impulse was to scream like a little girl but he repressed the urge in time. He felt his body and looked at his surroundings to be sure it was only a nightmare and nothing more. The alarm clock by his bedside had evidently rescued him from the bad dream because it was still shrilling. It was 6.35am. Just like every other people who had had a senseless dream like his, Richard began at once to forget about it. Half of it was gone by the time he stood up from the bed; three-quarters of it by the time he finished taking his bath and began to towel off; all of it by the time he finished his breakfast of a loaf of bread that tasted like a roll of tissue paper.
Richard dressed up and went to the garage. He was to drive his boss to the airport; Cain would be catching the early flight to Abuja where he would spend three days. Richard resumed his daily protocols of checking the car for any fault; he checked the fuel gauge, the filter, the gear, brake––everything was perfect. He sat in the car to wait for Cain to come out. At exactly half an hour later, Cain came out of the building with a briefcase dangling under his left arm. Cain got in the car and ordered Richard to drive.
On the way to the airport, Richard noticed his boss was unusually quiet. He had known his boss a choleric, prissy-mouthed, mannerless old cow who always complained about anything and anybody. Richard’s mind became restless; Cain’s silence meant something very bad was coming.
“Richard.” Cain called from behind.
Richard hesitated a moment before answering. “Yes-sir?”
“Do you read Shakespeare?” asked Cain plainly.
Richard was taken aback. The last question he expected Cain to ask was the one concerning the Bard of Avon.
“I’ve read some of his books, sir.”
Richard paused again before replying. “Merchant of Venice, Hamlet, Romeo––”
Cain cut him short, “Wasn’t he a phenomenal writer?”
Richard could not reply, the strangest thing was happening and Richard was particularly lost. The traffic control system flashed red and Richard stepped on the brake. Cain waited for Richard to drive before resuming his speech.
“Have you read Othello, Richard?”
He could not answer.
“Answer me, Richard. Have you read Othello?”
“Yes, sir. I read it a long time ago.”
“Do you remember its casts?”
“Some of them.”
“Give me the names you can recall.”
“Iago, Desdemona, Roderigo, Emilia.”
“Othello was written between 1602 and 1604 and was first published eighteen years later––1622.” He paused and asked, “You remember Desdemona, don’t you?”
“The Moor’s wife.”
“Let me refresh your memory about Othello. The plot of the story revolved around four distinct characters; Othello, Desdemona, Iago and Cassio. In summary, Othello killed his wife, Desdemona, because he was made to believe by Iago that she was unfaithful to him. He believed Cassio was bedding his wife.” He paused, and then went on, “Cassio himself was also injured, Desdemona was murdered and Othello committed suicide––all because of a handkerchief. See the disaster a handkerchief can cause. Othello found his wife’s handkerchief with Cassio and murdered Desdemona because he suspected her of infidelity.
Richard was feeling uncomfortable. This man is trying to drive at something. Murphy’s Law is in action: Whatever can possibly go wrong will go wrong, and at the worst possible degree.
The next question almost paralyzed Richard.
“Richard, how did your handkerchief get to my wife?”
He felt as if his world had just come to an end. The handkerchief, oh my God!
Richard had given his handkerchief to Abigail when she was crying and he had not remembered to collect it back from her. How could I have been so careless? Richard was the only person in the house who used a brown handkerchief, and Cain recognized it.
Richard opened his mouth to speak but no word could emerge.
What am I going to say now? He thought, Will I tell him that his wife only spent about two hours in my room discussing all his atrocities and I offered her my handkerchief because she was crying?
The idea sounded silly and insane to even Richard himself. He remembered all what Abigail had told him about this man, that he’s a devil; a wolf that can kill without blinking an eye. Sweat broke out of Richard’s forehead.
“I told you that you will get into trouble with me one day, did I not?” Cain’s voice was cold, “I know that Dam came into your room at about eleven yesterday evening and left some minutes past twelve.”
“She came to–to–” he could not find the right word to say.
“To satisfy your S#xual urge?” Cain asked sharply. “You’ve got a zipper and something’s behind it, isn’t it?”
“Stop that, sir!” Richard roared. He stamped his foot on the brake viciously; the car slumped forward suddenly before stopping. His eyes were glistening with sweat and his eyes were becoming red from anger and fear.
“Now, what are you going to do now? Kill me?” he laughed, “It’s not as easy as that, young man.” He paused for a moment before asking, “Do you like games, Richard? I like playing games. I challenge you to a game of survival, let’s see who wins.”
Cain grinned wickedly, showing a mouthful of yellowed teeth, it seemed like there were a thousand teeth in that mouth. “I have a plane to catch; I don’t want to be late, okay?”
As though he was under a spell, Richard started the car and continued driving. He could feel it within him. The game had started.
* * * * *
It had been exactly four weeks and three days since Richard had left his mother to live with the Martins. After dropping Cain at the Murtala Muhammed International Airport, Richard decided to check on his mother. Having reached the destination, he parked the jeep and got out, he looked around; the environment had not changed a bit. By his left, Richard looked with horror filled eyes at a rooster mating a duck. Sacrilege! He picked up a stone and hurled it at them. Jesus! He thought, what type of eggs will the duck lay? His mother lived in the same street she had lived in for the past twenty years––a street of drab houses devoid of any kind of beauty or interest.
As he walked on, there was a group of spindly-legged little girls in front of an almost dilapidated building holding hands and dancing to the repeated chant:
Who’s in the garden?
A little fine girl,
Can I come and see her?
No, no, no, no…
As Richard continued walking, he spotted a big and dirty looking black dog sleeping in the shade of the veranda of the building opposite his mother’s. As much as Richard liked animals, he had always feared dogs who grew way taller than the height of his knees from the ground, and he had never tried to move close to any. He crossed to the other side of the road, part of him was waiting for another large retriever to lumber around the corner of the structure adjacent to his mother’s, with teeth bared, just looking for a plump leg to bite. However, no animal or person came forward to greet or attack him. A hen and half dozen chicks scratched in the dirt nearby. Before he reached his mother’s abode, a very bent old woman limped out from a very bent old building from which some children had ran out from moments earlier. She used a walking stick to support her gait and stomped after the little devils giving unsolicited advice to passers-by, most of it very wise. She was chasing the troublesome kids from her house and trying to wave her stick and threatening beatings even the children knew would never be administered.
Richard found the door of his mother’s house unlocked and feared gripped him for an instant; he opened and got into the house quietly. He sighed in relief as he found his mother sitting in a couch doing needlework with her glasses on the very end of her nose, and a glass of water on the stool next to her. She was busily engaged in her stitching so much that she was unaware of Richard’s presence. He stood at one corner of the room studying his mother. As always, Richard had been startled and disarmed by his mother’s beauty. As a young woman, he knew his mother must have been remarkably beautiful. And now, at forty-six, she could pass for twenty-two; when she was thirty-five she had had the power to rivet the attention of every man, a power that she may no doubt still have at sixty. At her age, the hair of most women had begun to go grey but Richard’s mother was not one to yield to nature. She possessed the deeper beauty of the beatified: the sweet humility and the tenderness that came with her gorgeousness, the appealing glow of care and character that, in their last years of this earth, no doubt marked the faces of those who were later canonized as saints.
Richard had meant beauty as a thing apart from S#xual desire alone, beauty as an ideal, beauty striking that it spoke to the soul––women and men, babies and centenarians alike, were drawn to Rosemary, wanted to be near her, and deep in their eyes when they gazed at her was something like pure hope and something like rapture, but different and mysterious. The love so many brought to her was love she also gave to them in return. But she refused to get married again. When Richard was a child, he had confused his mother with the Virgin Mary, and now that he was older he saw no reason for changing his opinion.
Why can’t she just find herself a nice, decent man who will take care of her in lieu of just sitting here all alone? Richard thought, I should talk her into that one day.
The rooms had changed since the past month he had left his mother; the whole of the house had been repainted, there were picture of what Richard knew to be his ancestors’ on the walls of the small sitting room. Most of them were pretty bad, he thought, though they might have looked better if they had been cleaned. He didn’t know what prompted his mother to put the pictures there when he was now no more living with her, and he was more concerned about why she refused to get them cleaned when the walls were already painted. He wanted to ask his mother but he thought better of it.
“Mum.” Richard called.
Mrs. Philip looked up and found her son standing at a corner by the door. She got up immediately and a beatific smile spread across her face.
“Oh, my son,” she was happy, “Is this really my Richard? Come and sit down. Oh, Richard. Why are you here this morning Richard, are you ill?” Mrs. Philip had always been paranoid about her son’s health and safety. She knew it, admitted it, but could do nothing about her frequent paranoia. Every time Richard got a cold was little, she was sure it would become pneumonia. When he cut himself with a sharp object, no matter how small the wound, she feared the bleeding, as if the loss of a mere drop of his blood would be the death of him. When at play in primary school, Richard had fallen out of his merry-go-round and broken his leg, she had nearly fainted at the sight of his twisted limb.
“I’m fine, mother,” he replied, “I’ve been standing here for quite some time and you did not even notice me come in. Why did you not lock the door? Don’t you know it’s dangerous?”
“Oh, forgive me. I thought I did lock it.”
“What are you doing with those, mama?” asked Richard, pointing at the needle and thread on the stool.
“No, nothing really––I was only trying to make a shawl.”
“Yes, a shawl, babies’ shawl.”
“What do you need that for?”
She spread her hands, “Nothing. I was only trying to keep myself busy. You know, having nothing to do can be quite boring sometimes. Besides, the shawl can come in handy one day––my grandchild can use it.” She smiled and winked playfully at her son.
Richard did not find it funny at all.
“Did you get the money I sent you?”
“Oh, yes I did. Thank you.”
“I drove my boss to the airport so I thought I should check how you are fairing before returning. I hope there is nothing wrong?”
His mother thought before replying.
“I think there is.” I had a dream tonight and it really disturbed me. The dream was about you.”
“A dream about me?” he remembered about his own dream too; though he had forgotten about that dream in the morning, it still littered the floor of his mind like something broken and not yet swept up, and his mother also having a dream about him made him uneasy. Is there a link?
“In that dream I saw a shepherd with a dog and about two dozens sheep on a green field. A few minutes later, the shepherd went away leaving the dog and sheep. Immediately, the dog transformed into a wolf and killed a sheep. The wolf cleaned the blood which stained its mouth on the shepherd’s garment which he left behind, and the wolf changed back into the dog it was initially. Incidentally, another sheep’s body was stained with the dead one’s blood. The shepherd returned, saw the dead sheep and found the one stained with the blood among the other flock. The shepherd thought it was the stained sheep which killed the other, so he picked up his gun and aimed it at the sheep, intending to kill it. He was about to pull the trigger when I woke up.”
Richard raised his face to the roof, “God, how much awful news it does take a man to endure for a lifetime?” he faced his mother, “What has that got to do with me, mama?”
“It has a lot. Just immediately that wolf turned to the dog your face appeared in the process.”
Richard was baffled, “My face? What does that mean?”
“I don’t know, the dream was an enigma to even me. But you must be very careful––be careful.”
“It was only a dream; you don’t have to take it seriously. Forget about it, mama. It’s mere bagatelle.”
“Richard, the dream is not meaningless––it’s not.”
They were both looking in each other’s eyes for a long time. They didn’t need to talk; they had exchanged ten thousand words in just the brief stare they shared.
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