Life slapped and kicked her like she stole the mandate to live. Her father died six years earlier. Then she was just starting in the secondary school. Her mother was an invalid, a sufferer of sickle cell anaemia so she couldn’t do much to help on the family’s little farmland where she planted varieties of grain like; maize, guinea-corn, oat, pepper, tomatoes and vegetable. They lived from hand to mouth. Every other necessity outside feeding was luxury they could ill afford.
Her mother eventually died while she was writing her secondary school certificate examinations, graduating her into a full time orphan. It was a Saturday as ordinary as any other day. She had no examination to write, and she had no premonition of the black fate lurking at the corner to pounce on her like cats pounce on mice. While her mother went to farm, she stayed behind at home to read in preparation for Monday when she would write Economics papers. Towards noon, she stopped her reading to prepare lunch before the mother returned.
When the mother came, it was in the heat of afternoon. Her eyes were yellowish and half closed with fever and fatigue. She seemed to have shrunk in height and size like some demons on the farm she went had conspired to suck her blood and fluid. Her face looked patched up and prematurely wrinkled, but she was just thirty-five. She married when she was only seventeen. She was in her prime a passably beautiful woman and she could have been very beautiful if not for her constant sickle cell crisis that often left her ravaged and traumatised and left her face shorn of colour and light and her gait forever impaired.
That afternoon, Talatu had served Kauna – her mother food, despite her feverish condition. She had asked her to eat before she could take her herbal tea, and the mother had accepted. After the first two morsel show ever, she began to cough and vomit blood in between unrelenting gasps. Talatu ran out to seek help. But when help eventually came, Kauna was sprawled on the floor, writhing in agony, her blood flooding the little room. She died just five minutes after.
Talatu cried herself to comatose. The weak gamut that was her life seemed to have collapsed. It had never crossed her mind that her mother could die, like her father did six years earlier. Death was being sheer wicked; her mother didn’t deserve to die now.
She had long dreamed of going to university and be able to secure good employment to give her mother the type of life she called “good life”. Not the subsisting type the people of Gumale endured where everybody tilled the hostile desert that yielded so little for their most consummate efforts. Now that her mother was dead, life lost its meaning and the future its allure. The type of life she had long envisaged seemed to have put on wings, taken flight and disappeared beyond the horizon. Who else would be there for her to give those little but necessary assistance she would need when in university? And if she couldn’t make it to the university after all, how could she rise like she had often dreamed to rise? How would the Prince – Charming she had always hoped to marry come?
She detested the entire men folk of her town; they were, small time farmers who depended more on the labour of their wives to do the dirtiest jobs on their farms. They spent the greatest part of their days gulping draughts after draughts of guinea corn wine all over the place as if it was the only way to God’s heaven. They were mostly skinny people with bloodshot eyes and tangled marsh of hair. She often felt that these people were not supposed to be her people; that it was a mistake for her to be born amongst them.
Right from when she was in J.S.S. three, she had made up her mind to marry somebody like Master Tale, her English and Literature-in-English teacher. It was he who made her realize that there were lot of opportunities in the larger world through books and magazines he gave and encouraged her and other students to read.
She thought well of Master Tale. Cosmopolitan, refined and highly educated. He seemed to know everything. Other teachers in the school called him – a mobile encyclopaedia, a walking thesaurus and a dictionary with flesh and blood. It was he who made Talatu a bookworm, a hater of this non-progressive country people. He introduced her to Victorian England of lords and ladies with their retinue of servants and footmen. He introduced her to the social fabrics possible in big cities like Lagos and Kano, where people lived in beautiful mansions with electricity and pipe-borne water. He also made her to know that life in Lagos and other cities could be very hard for those who were not educated and hardworking. He also told her women could become great achievers too. He related to her stories of great women like Funmilayo Ransome Kuti, Madam Tinubu, Queen Amina, Queen Elizabeth of England, Indira Ghandi of India, Benazir Bhutto of Pakistan and Hajiya Gambo Sawaba. She gave her biographies of great female writers, actresses, doctors, educationists and business moguls. He made her know she could achieve any goal she set before herself. She wanted so much to be like these great women, but the only route to those glorious heights was through the acquisition of education which seemed shut away from her now that her mother was dead. Her sorrow was beyond consolation. And who was there even to console her? She had no one.
After her examination, she lived like a parasite, like she didn’t belong at Gumale. She kept her distance from the people; she didn’t want her ideas and ideals contaminated. They too began to keep away from her; they looked on to see what would become of her and her pride. She worked in her mother’s farm every morning, always taking the little she harvested to the market to sell. She wanted to raise some money to travel out of Gumale, but the money was not forthcoming as she had anticipated. She ate sparingly; she became pessimistic and fatalistic and waited for the worst. But something told her the worst could only come to her if she continued to stay in Gumale. So, when the results of her examinations were released, and she saw that she had passed brilliantly, she became optimistic. She then began to hope she could win a scholarship to go to university. But all the same, the first step was to leave Gumale and go over to the city – that haven of all possibilities.
One day, her prayer to move to the city was answered. A political party campaign train arrived at Gumale to sell the ideals of their party to the people. They had set up their big rectangular stage in the market place and all the people of Gumale had gone there to listen to them. They spoke to the people through big loud speakers which they erected in strategic places all over the market. Their million promises and daring speeches barged into people’s ears loud and clear; taunting and persuading at the same time. One could have thought they had the antidote to every problem of the people.
Talatu had gone to the marketplace like other villagers. It would do her no good to remain behind like gecko by the wall when everybody was in the market square listening to the city men’s loud verbosity. Moreover, these people were from city and city was where she wanted most to go.
She stayed alone; faraway, under an empty shed. She didn’t want to mix with the intellectual plebeians she regarded her people to be. She wanted to hear whatever the city people had to say and filter these by herself without an outsider’s influence. What she might deem beneficial might not be so to any other person’s. She had long understood that the influence of books and magazines Master Tale had given her to read often made her to see things in different perspectives to other people in Gumale. The people of Gumale are short sighted; their world began and ended here. Talatu was not like them; she knew the fabrics of eighteen century England and ever vivid imaginations of Lagos and Kano with their variegated modern things swarmed her head.
Suddenly, a tall dark handsome young man wearing a big gown, elaborately embroidered emerged before her. Talatu’s heart fluttered at the sight of this man who was so confident of his ways. When he wanted to come inside the shed made of tender tree stems and thatch to meet her, he had to bend double because of his height. And after he had come in, he had to sit himself on the only available bench to give himself some comfort. She didn’t know whether to tag him a Hyperion or an Adonis. Which one of the two was said to be more handsome by Mallam Tale?
“Wow! What are you doing here all alone?”
“Listening to city people…”
“You should have moved closer to hear them better . . .”
“But their speech is everywhere. One does not even need to come to the market to hear them. I can hear them as well from here too.”
“You still could have moved closer to see them.”
“I prefer staying here. I can’t stand these pushing and tugging going on there.”
“God! What do I call this? You really have got a class. I can see that distinction in you.”
“Oh city men, flattering people and talking big is in your blood. You seem not to be able to do without it. That is exactly what your people have been doing since they came here. We only have to vote for them, and everything good will begin to happen to us . . .” She laughed.
“So you don’t believe me?”
“How can I believe you? I’m just an ordinary girl, and an unhappy one too.”
“You call yourself an ordinary girl? Ordinary girl indeed! With all these assets. ”The man laughed while revetting his eyes on her bulging chest.
“What do you mean?”
“To God, if you were to be in the city where honour is being given to merit, you would know your value. You are very beautiful. I wish you could follow me to the city.”
Talatu had looked up at him; a smile now blossomed at the sides of her mouth.
“I? Following you to the city? To do what?”
“To be my queen, my goddess and I your eternal worshipper. I’ll spoil you with everything good.”
“Oh city man, you must have read a lot of literature from Victorian age. You are too sugar mouthed. How can you say that? Worship me? That’s blasphemous; you want me to burn in hell fire?”
“God won’t burn a beautiful girl like you. Burning you in hell would be a great wastage, and God doesn’t subscribe to wastage. He won’t burn your type for all the sins of this world. What’s your name?”
“Oh my goodness! You were born on Tuesday! Girls born on Tuesday are beautiful and kind, just like men born on Wednesday. My name is Balarabe. Born on Wednesday. We will make a wonderful match. Please, follow me to the city, you won’t regret it.”
Her first night in the city was spent in a room occupied by a girl called Batile, Balarabe said she was a friend of his younger sister. Batile told Talatu to be wary of Balarabe, but Talatu was too much in love then to heed what she said. The following day, he took her to a tenement house in the centre of the city. He opened the door of a room and asked her to come inside. The room contained few furniture items: a bed, two upholstery chairs and a table. As soon as they entered, Balarabe gave the key of the room to her.
“This’s going to be your place before I conclude arrangement for our marriage.”
Talatu smiled up at him. There were stars of love twinkling in her eyes. He could see it, and he was happy. A second later she had tiptoed and thrown her arms around his figure and kissed him on the cheeks. She thought she had found her grail now. He was everything she had ever wanted in a man. She could hug the sun now and felt no heat.
He had told him he had a higher diploma in accountancy and that he was an up and coming politician. He actually called himself a president awaiting his turn, and she believed him, as she believed everything he said now. He seemed to have the qualities he needed to become anything he wanted to become. That day, Balarabe bought her many rounds of delicacy from the nearby Majindadi restaurant. He treated her like he had never had a woman to himself. For the first time in her life, Talatu herself believed she had fallen in love.
The first six months spent in the city was the happiest of her life. It was a long ride of honeymoon. The constant thought of Balarabe was a near heaven. She prayed and hoped things would continue in that order forever, but life alternates between good and evil.
Soon, Balarabe was derailing. The consummate attention and care he lavished on Talatu was fast dwindling. All along, he hadn’t been living with her. He had told her that his father was a strict disciplinarian and an aristocrat who couldn’t bear having him outside his house. He came to her in the early evening and stayed till almost eleven p.m., when the going was good, before going home. But when he began to derail, he won’t come for days. And when he came, it was to start questioning her various affairs during his absence. Woe betide her if she couldn’t give an accurate account of every minute and hour Balarabe wished to know. All the same, due to the love she thought she had for him, she would go on her knees to beg him and to plead for leniency and trust. He looked more than human to her. To annoy him seemed sacrilegious.
Rose Maikasuwa occupied the room beside the one Talatu lived in. She was twenty one and a student of the City Polytechnics. She lived alone and she said she paid for her education by herself. She had many men friends. She had great dominant trait and always called the shots with her men. When she got to know that Talatu had good results in her senior school certificate examinations, she advised her to secure an admission to the Polytechnics and get a diploma.
“But how do I finance myself in the Polytechnics?” Talatu had asked her.
“And how do you think I finance myself? You should learn how to use what you have to get what you want. Go and buy the admission form, sponsoring yourself in the school will pose no problem. I promise you – with your beauty and brilliance. I will walk the rope with you, and I promise you you won’t slip.”
“Rose, do you have it in mind that I would be able to go out with different men like you do. Wallahi, Balarabe would kill me if he gets to know I do such.”
“He won’t know.”
“He would know.”
“Okay. if he knows what would he do to you? He’s nothing to you, isn’t he?”
“He’s the man I love.”
Rose laughed derisively now and said, “But he doesn’t love you. If he does, he won’t be treating you the way he does . . .”
Talatu began to protest. “He loves me. How does he treat me?”
“I don’t know exactly, you know better. But from all I see, he treats you shabbily, like he owns you. I won’t have any man treat me that way.”
“You know he was the one who brought me to the city. He also pays the rent for this room. At least he has some rights in this place,” Talatu replied.
Rose opened her mouth like she wanted to shut her down, but she thought better of it and said instead, “That’s alright. But all the same buy the form. You are brilliant; though you may not be a very wise girl. But education will make you wiser, and richer, and more beautiful in the future . . .”
Talatu took her advice. She bought the admission form to the City Polytechnics. All along, Rose had introduced her to a manager of a nearby filling station. The man was in his forties – like Talatu’s father could have been were he to be alive. He grew to be fond of Talatu; he bought her expensive gifts and vowed to sponsor her education in the Polytechnics whenever she was given admission.
Talatu didn’t like the man as much as she did Balarabe. He was not as handsome and as graceful as Balarabe. He was short and stocky and carried himself with discernible efforts while Balarabe had been tall and graceful and walked with enviable fluidity. But she continued to tolerate him because of the gifts and attention he lavished on her. However, whenever she knew that Balarabe would visit, she always sent the man away so that Balarabe would not meet him. Balarabe was her hero. She saw the other man as a mere imposition by Rose and circumstances. The man himself was contented to play the second fiddle. He was fond of Talatu to that extent.
One day the manager came. Balarabe had not come for six days and Talatu wasn’t expecting him on the day. While they were inside talking, however, Balarabe bumped in, anger sharpening his features.
“Who are you?” He accosted the man with blazing eyeballs.
“Me? What’s the matter?” the manager asked with a jitter, picking himself up as fast as his heavy torso could allow him.
“What’s the matter?” Balarabe mimicked him. Look if I punch your eyes, you will just go blind one time. A mere fornicator like you!”
“I, a fornicator? What are you? A fumigator?”
Talatu was eager to avert any problem between the two men.“Look, Manager, I don’t want any trouble. Get out of here now.” She told him.
“You heard what she said? Get out of here now before I lose my temper. Out of here! One! Two!”
The manager moved towards the door. He paused to cast a look at Talatu who kept pleading to him to make haste and go away with her worried countenance.
“Get out! Get out! What are you waiting for again? Aren’t you satisfied with all you’ve done with her so far?” Balarabe screamed and pushed him out of the room.
“You are simply crazy!? The manager shouted at him before he went away. He obviously didn’t want any trouble for Talatu.
Balarabe turned to Talatu now.
“Now, let me deal with you. Ashawo! Public dog!” he howled at her.
“Please, Balarabe.” she went on her knees.
“Shut up!” he slapped her face twice.
“Haba, Balarabe, he’s not my boyfriend.”
“Liar! You are a bloody liar. Okay, what did he want here?”
“He’s Rose’s brother. He came to ask for her. That’s it.”
“You think I’m mud – headed? Heh Talatu? You think my brain is dead? Tell me, how could a Yoruba man be a brother to a Tangale girl?”
His fury climaxed, he started pummelling her with his fists.
“I’m not mud – brained. He’s not any brother of Rose and I know what transpires between a man and a woman in the privacy of a room. My brain is not dead.”
“Balarabe, what are you insinuating?”
The bold face didn’t mitigate things for her. To the contrary, the blows came harder and faster, and the kicks followed prodigiously after. She couldn’t give any face saving explanation again; instead she started to howl in pain. Balarabe was behind himself in fury, he kept on pounding her until she could no longer stand on her two feet. She went sprawled on the floor. It was only then that Balarabe’s anger was half spent. He stopped beating her but he transferred the energy he used in battering her into ranting now.
“A bastard and a useless bitch of a shameless harlot! Let me see you with a man again. That day I will so much spoil you with beating you would no longer be able to walk on your feet. Wallahi, I have known what villagers like you are capable of doing once you taste the sweetness of the city, but I will tell you that I, Balarabe is nobody’s fool. I will squeeze just enough to fit into my purse!”
Talatu kept moaning and grunting and howling on the floor like a pigand Balarabe sauntered out of the room and fastened the door after him. He put the padlock in place and locked it up. Talatu didn’t make any effort to stand up. She continued to lie there and crying while hot tears surged out of her eyes like spring water. She felt she deserved to be beaten. An hour after, she was asleep amidst the flood of her tears and splash of her mucus. She was woken up late in the night by Rose pounding her fists on the door and shouting.
“Talatu! Talatu! I thought you weren’t inside until that woman in the last room told me what happened between you and Balarabe. So he dared beat you and lock you up inside after the beating? What a sellout you are to women!”
Talatu stood up and rushed to the door. It was only then she realised that Balarabe had locked her in.
“Wait; let me look for a spare key to try to undo the padlock.” Rose offered.
Fear struck at Talatu’s heart. Fear of what Balarabe could do to her if he came and found out somebody had unlocked the door and let her out.
“Rose! Stop! Don’t! Please, don’t try any key to unlock that padlock. If Balarabe comes and meets the padlock loose, what do you think he would say? He would think the manager had returned to undo it. Let me be . . .” Talatu pleaded.
Rose felt like darting in to wring her neck and cut out her tongue, for anger. “Look, Talatu, whatever he says doesn’t matter. Let him say anything. You aren’t his slave, are you? You are also neither his wife. He hasn’t married you, has he? He has no right over you. Even if he had married you, you were supposed to have some rights. How can you submit yourself to this type of maltreatment?”
Talatu was not comfortable with all that Rose said. She continued pleading to be left alone.
“Please Rose, stop that and go to your room. When he comes back he would undo the padlock. . .”
“He won’t come back today. It’s already late. Very late.”
“But he will come tomorrow.”
Rose was astounded. “So you will stay there locked up till tomorrow.”
“Yes, let me stay till he comes. Let me stay here till all eternities! It’s already late. I have nowhere to go again.”
“You will remain locked up like a prisoner before that stupid pimp you call a lover comes back?” Rose was amazed.
“Please don’t call him a pimp. He’s not a pimp. Don’t hurt me.”
Rose shouted in blind anger. “Hurt to hell! Hurt to a bloody hell! You are a disgrace to womenfolks … Wallahi! Rotten imbecile! Stupid!”
She ran to her room as waves and waves of anger assailed her. She couldn’t understand why Talatu could submit herself to such humiliation by a man who was neither a relation nor a husband. If that was love, it was the blindest of all loves, and the most undesirable. Not for her. None of her men dared thinking of doing such to her. They couldn’t even come near to dream it. What!
The following day, Balarabe didn’t come. Talatu ate just a half loaf of bread she had inside the room. She slept and woke and feigned sleeping until her eyes were swollen and smarting.
In the afternoon, despite her annoyance, Rose came to her door.
“Talatu, how are you?”
She didn’t answer her. Rose lived dangerously; Talatu didn’t wantto live like her. She would even stop being her friend. If not, she would push her into a boiling cauldron.
“Talatu, are you there?”
“I’m not there. Go away!”
“Talatu, what’s wrong? Don’t you want to come out even now? Since yesterday. Even God your maker would not have punished you this callously.”
“Please, Rose, go away. I don’t want to have anything to do with you again. Forever. You are the cause of all the problems I have now. If you hadn’t introduced me to anybody, I won’t be in this mess.”
“You are foolish. It’s your foolishness that has brought you into this mess.”
“Then leave me with my foolishness. I have been surviving well with my foolishness before you lent me your dangerous wisdom. Before you me taught your waywardness. Just leave me alone. Do you hear that?”
“Okay, just as you want it. But let me tell you, if by five p.m. today, this pimp has not come to let you out, I will call the police. Do you hear that?”
And Balarabe didn’t show up even the following day. Rose came to her door at exactly 1 p.m. Talatu had been locked in for two days then.
“Hear this, your precious tin – god has been sent to jail for six months this morning for inciting violence at a rival political party’s rally.”
“Who are you talking about?”
“Who else but the devil you call a lover?”
“It’s a lie, Rose. You are a liar,” she accused.”What has this man done to you? I know you don’t like him because he is not weak like those spineless things you like to date. Nobody can put Balarabe in prison.”
Rose sniggered. “Okay, Talatu. I have done the best I could. If you like get rot inside there. Balarabe may remember to come and remove your skeleton after completed his six months term in the prison.”
It was only then that it dawned on her that Rose might be telling her the truth.
“Rose, don’t go yet.” She called her back.”Is it really true that he has been sent to jail?”
Rose merely hissed and proceeded on her way.
“Alright. Let me out! Please let me out!”Talatu pleaded now.
Rose went to her room, she brought out a big bunch of keys and went back to undo the padlock, but none of the keys fitted the lock. She went back to her room and soon returned with a hammer, and with five decisive strokes, she had the padlock broken and let Talatu out. Talatu rushed out, eager to savour the taste of freedom since the past two days. The sun beams stung her eyes and she shielded them with her palms and rushed inside again. She had to wait until she gradually got accustomed to the rays of the light.
Then one chilly and windy night, at the height of harmattan, three months after Balarabe had been sent to jail, Talatu was in her room when she heard some rough knockings at her door. The knockings came as offensive as they could. Irregular. Jabbing. Persistent. She asked the visitor to come in in exasperated voice. When the door opened, she saw a woman who covered her head with a bright coloured shawl slipping into the room. Behind her was a man – a younger version of Balarabe – equally tall, equally well – built, equally dark and handsome. The two of them came in, their belligerenteyes betraying a complexity of emotions.
“So, you are Balarabe’s whore?” the woman quietly intoned. “Well-done!” she added with contempt like Talatu was a goat just given a temporary lease of humanity by her.
Talatu felt as if a long sharp knife had been plunged into her heart through an open wound.The pain thronged her head.
“You are crazy. How dare you come here to insult me?” She stood up, all poised for a fight.
The woman looked amused. She merely stood there with her arms akimbo and let her eyes wandering all over the room, nodding her head and smiling bemusedly at the items of furniture and electronic gadgets –most of which Talatu had bought within the last three months since Balarabe went to prison.
“Hei! Tabdijan! Balarabe really knows how to make a whore ever willing and ready. With all these! You must be a special treat to him. Lallai ne.” She continued to shake her head and clapped her palms together in wonderment.
“What are you insinuating – this woman? Are you saying Balarabe bought all these?”
The woman ignored her question and eyed her like one would eye something insignificant. “Talatu or what’s yourwhoring name.” She looked straight into her eyes now. “Well, I hope you know every game has an end. Today is the end of your own . . .”
Her indifference and superior airs unnerved Talatu and at the same time infuriated her. “Get out! Get out of my room! Now!” She shouted.
The woman was startled. “Have you no manner? See how you are talking to me?” she said that as if she was speaking to a housemaid. “Look, I’m from a good home with a noble background, and not a nonentity like you from nowhere. You don’t talk to me like that, bush girl!”
“Who are you? You are nothing of nothing.” Talatu returned flames for embers.
“So you can still talk. You are never ashamed. I think a good woman should be ashamed of being a whore and a mere second fiddle.”She beckoned Aminuto allow them do what they had gone there to do.”Come on Aminu, let’s do what we’ve come here to do.This idiot doesn’t deserve any kindness.”
Aminu – the Balarabe’s younger look alike who stood there with a head almost touching the ceiling wore a face that was shut tight. But despite his frown, he still looked graceful, and Talatu felt the old heat she always had for Balarabe rocking her heart again. But this man before her was not a lover, he was a determined enemy. The old heat be damned.
“Look Talatu or whatever evil thing they named you. We haven’t come to fight with you – that is however if you are ready to cooperate. We know you are Balarabe’s whore. . .”
“I’m nobody’s whore. Do you hear that?”
“Yes, no thief ever admits being a thief, but we know.”
“You don’t know anything. You are both ignorant.”
“Would you listen to me?”
“Listen to you for what? Just go out. Go out now. Your Balarabe is nothing to me again. “She tried to push him towards the door.
“Look, don’t come near me again. I don’t tolerate women of loose morals like you. To me your type stinks to hell. My brother might find your types attractive, not me. If you touch me again, I’ll slap the life juice out of you!”
“You are a loud-mouthed braggart. You can’t do anything.”
“Look, Ashawo, just pack your clothes and leave this room. We want to lock it up. We don’t come here to banter words with you.”
“Lock which room? Do you know I pay the rent for this room?”
“Now that you have sent him to prison . . .” the woman insinuated.
“You are mad!”
“You are mad too!” the woman retorted.
“Alright, we want to take his things. We know he bought you all these . . .” the man said indicating the furniture items and the electronic gadgets.
“He didn’t. Look, the only things he bought are this bed and those two chairs. You can take them if you want. But for other things, I bought them myself, and I have the receipts for them here.”
“It’s a lie!” the other woman shouted and slapped her. But in a reflexive action, Talatu slapped her back two times. They plunged on one another and began to fight. Very soon, Talatu was having the upper hand. She was pummeling the other woman hard. Aminu could not stand seeing her been mauled by Talatu, he descended on Talatu from behind and started punching her. The punches came hard and fast, propelled by fury and hatred, and the need to protect him. Talatu cried like a tortured animal. She cried for the pain and the blatant injustice of it all. The hammer blows continued to rain. She edged her way to the table near the wall, as she continued to shield the unrelenting showers of clobbers with her upraised arms. She pulled out her drawer, and snatched her new table knife. She sent its gleaming white blade into Aminu’s stomach. A look of surprise and regret jumped into his eyes. It was unexpected. The sharp pain, the sudden reddening of his white gown from the point of his navel downward and the hot stream of what he realized to be blood brought the picture of death to his mind.
Kamarudeen Mustapha is a Nigerian poet and short story writer.His poems and short stories have been published in various online and offline platforms like; Africanwriter.com, Setuonline magazine, praxis online magazine, Our poetry archives and host of others.