As the only human figure in the void corridor, Inem Ikang paused and wondered at her shadow, cast on the corridor walls – the corridor her only possible passage, its walls made of plywood. She had never imagined this: someone casting shadows in the absence of light. And so she started to dance, her body moving slowly, side to side, until the shadows made clearer semblances of her and she was sure they were not spirits. By the time her heart started to bang inside of her, she stopped dancing and craned her neck around the corridor, searching for light. But then she realised that there’s usually no light when there’s darkness.
She moved closer to the wall and caressed the shadows with both hands. The feelings awed her – the wall feeling doughy like half-baked bread. She caressed and caressed, and they remained her own shadows. And now, she knew, it’s not the shadows anymore or the corridor or the walls or anything else. She was the bizarre thing. How can she misconstrue her own shadows?
She retrieved her hands and smelled them: shadows don’t smell, after all. Or could shadows made in the absence of light smell? Or could the wall smell? No, the wall didn’t. She wished there was light so she could see her hands; perhaps the walls may have smeared on her fingers like mud.
She rubbed her hands on her dress, which was not the kind of thing to clean hands with. And for the first time and just that once, she had the time to check on her looks: the milky-white gown on her made of the silkiest Georgette stuff she’d ever seen; the sort of gown she could never have picked at the market, even at the cheapest bend-down-select; the sort of gown that one feels naked inside, that easily swells apart with the lightest breezes. The thing around her head not the velvet rope she normally used when she went out in gowns. Her head became too heavy, legs too light and too insensitive, so that she wondered whether they actually walked her there.
Now, then, she was certain she was in a strange place; how did she get here?
She plodded her way toward that darkest region ahead of her, where her fingers touched on the walls; her shadows, tall and slant, cast across the wall from her left. She stopped and wondered briefly, her hands still on the wall, shadows still. Then she continued hustling till she ended up where she’d started, where her shadows were now fuller and bolder, on both sides of the walls. She paused again, untangling her hands slowly and fearfully from the wall. She then stood in the middle of the corridor and panned her head sideways, to see her new shadows. Again and again she panned her head while the shadows kept mimicking her. She steadied her head and stared furiously into the darkness in front, her heart binging tremblingly, head burdensome, legs the more insensitive, eyes useless. Her mind went out briefly and she didn’t know whether or when it would ever return.
By the time it did return, she felt sweat soaking down from the heavy thing on her head, across her brassiere, to her pants, running down on her legs. But what she felt most was a resentment. A resentment that was pumping in her heart and ballooning her bowels. A resentment that she knew must’ve reddened her eyes, those eyes that were now pinching her intensely as though they would ooze off into their sockets. She hoped that before she closed and opened her eyes again, that resentment would have metamorphosed into an unalloyed strength that would swell her muscles and gain for her some . . . sort of . . . courage that was beyond that of a woman. The strength and courage she needed to revolutionize this strange world. With this strength, she hoped to pull down the walls and migrate into a world in which she could put her eyes to use, where her body could function . . . or simply transform into a gas and leak out through any available space.
But it wasn’t. She was the same helpless, frustrated middle-ager, chucked up in a world that was too dark for a habitat.
She strode back toward the wall, forcefully now, hoping to pull it down with the same strength that had failed to be hers, so where was the strength?
She pushed the wall once, twice, then she fell on the floor, the same floor her legs had been insensitive to; the floor not worth the fall; a floor without floorness; a floor that was a mass of water but didn’t drench her clothes.
With the same failed strength, she slapped the (mass-of-water, kind of) floor with her two hands and didn’t feel the coldness of water on her palms. Instead, the slapping echoed loudly and scarily in and out of the tunnel, sounding very brassy like two pieces of zinc clapped together. She looked up from the floor and, later, rose to the shock and, at the same time, hope of seeing, possibly touching, that zinc roof that made that brassy sound, perhaps that could make for her a way out. She jumped and jumped, falling and getting up, falling back. Then she realised that there wasn’t any roof, or perhaps the roof was just hanging too far beyond her reach. Then she straightened up and placed her ear on the wall, curiously calm, till she heard a steady sound that didn’t radiate sift through into her ears from the other side of the wall, then she realized there was a world, perhaps a real world, and there was light in that world, and there was life–maybe far away from the tunnel. Or above it. Or close, just around it.
As she listened on, an iota of strength beeped into her through her left ear, searing down through her gastrointestinal tract and further down her bladder and then down her legs. She felt a little sensitivity in those legs and ran her hands down on them, to be sure that what she felt wasn’t another downpour of sweat. And as she felt the warmness of her palms on her legs, she realized that in her was her greatest asset and weapon—strength—the only phenomenon with which she could manipulate her freedom. She stood up, staring devilishly at the wall opposite her, her face twisted into an ugly mask. She closed her right hand, pulled it back, beyond her trunk, and closed her eyes tightly. Then she punched the wall, an excavating punch that shook the entire tunnel like an earthquake.
Her hand broke through the wooden wall across to the other world. A light seared in—white, sparkling and forceful, like lightning, blinding her—a chucking, indefinite blinding that almost sucked out her eyeballs. With her right hand hanging through the wall into the other world, she pressed on her eyes with her left, blips of brightness swaying across her face, needling into her brain, whooping out of her ears and stiffening her entire body so that she felt the dampness right into her bone marrow. Yet nothing seemed important to her except what was her new fate: what had become of her now that her body was apart, her hand in a new world, her body here with her, deafened in the same place that she had been struggling to flee.
What had become of a place ever so invisible, now that this strange light had crossed it? There was nothing like this world, not even the green blood that was now running randomly in the veins of her eyelids, like a beep of chlorophyll transported to and fro in a plant; not even her whole body, now, starting to dry up gradually yet not radiating. Perhaps because of the light the corridor had collapsed, fallen apart, leaving her body hanging and swinging on the broken wall; perhaps even her body was burnt into ashes by the light and swept off.
Time passed. Moments elapsed. Her hand was still smashed through the plywood, like an arrow piercing through an object but couldn’t fall off. Now, she heard the wall, perhaps the entire world, really collapsing, a sudden falling that had just happened, yet was like something that had started gradually long ago. She knew the wall had collapsed, meaning her hand had been freed from it, so she strained the same deadened hand to grasp, but nothing was there.
The voice reached her, sharp and brassy, like when she had slapped the floor in the corridor. It entered her through every opening in her body. She felt the voice pushing into her like a block of ice that would never dissolve. She felt the voice in her mouth freezing her tongue as though something was melting in it. She felt it in her nose, crawling out, dull and irritating, like a catarrh. Then she felt it tearing her eyelids, her eyes widening to the glowing of this new world.
The new world was like nothing else. Her eyes just couldn’t stand it. A world even more invisible. The evenness of its incandescence was perfection. A world pure and sparkling. It must be a heaven. Something of a beautiful residence but of no walls, no boundaries. Its smell no doubt a nice fragrance.
“Hey!” She shouted back, her voice thin but arrow-headed, echoing loudly but dissolving rather too quickly, because the world itself was too cool and too soft.
“Who’re you?” The voice was calm now, nearer and human. She felt more nervous and yet more vulnerable.
Later, she felt a tap on her back, turned, saw a hand, then a man, tall and banana-skinned, his face chiseled, nose a pair of funnels, his head bald, forehead wrinkled – two big, W-shaped wrinkles that guttered across his forehead, his eyes a leopard’s. He stood out in front of her, shedding her significantly of the glaring light.
She looked up at him with utmost apology. But it wasn’t done. The question was clear: who was she? No apology. Nothing more. Just who she was.
“Inem Ikang,” she said and looked down at the man’s pair of yellow unblemished velvet boots, his toes swelling up from inside, then at her own skin covered with goosebumps the size of uncooked rice.
“Just that?” He asked.
She stared away briefly, the man still looking directly into her eyes. Then she looked up back at him, as if to confirm that he really asked her why.
“Nothing,” she said. “That’s my name.”
He looked up, as if to pluck down another question, his nose the more funneled. But what scared her was his tummy, so bulging it must have contained something other than what an ordinary tummy did: perhaps superstition with which to put a spell on her. Then he looked down, tilting a bit backwards and sitting on a ramshackle seat that, before now, was but an icicle. Then the question came across, clear but punchy as usual: “Where’s your home?”
“Home?” She asked, her ears roused.
“I’m homed in a beautiful apartment by Hotel Street downtown.”
Her voice was steadier now, her heart gentler, and were it not for the strangeness that engulfed her, she would have felt even more calm.
He laughed, a beeping laugh that rather fueled the obsolescence of everything, revealing gold teeth glittering frantically. It shocked her: a man with a stature so out-of-order.
“Then you don’t have a home,” he said and completed the laugh.
“I do, Sir. A good home.”
“How long have you been homeless?”
“I’ve never been homeless: I was born into my parents’ home, then I rented an apartment thereafter, and now I have my own home.”
He laughed some more, and sarcastically.
“Who makes your home?” he asked.
“The bricklayers, the carpenters, the plumber.”
An uncertainty grew in her eyes. She jacked up her head gradually, her eyes not wishing to see him anymore. But then she fixed those eyes back on him.” Is that what you mean?”
“No. I mean your home, not house.”
“You don’t know? You don’t know a home? A true home?”
She looked a bit sober, and then sour.
Home. Home? True home?
“Which? What home?” she asked.
“Accept the truth. You don’t have a home.”
She racked her brain until her head started to ache, then assumed that he meant a home here, in this place. She nodded quickly.
“You see? You’re homeless.”
Now her tears were there, glazing her eyes, dropping on her hands hot and acidic.
“I need a home, Sir,” she said. “A good home, to lay my head.”
“You can’t get a home because you don’t know what it is. Or didn’t you say so?”
She panted her face, her eyes still glazed with tears. She wished she could walk up to him, to learn what a home was, but she couldn’t, because the man’s gold teeth, his yeye laughs, those funnels of a nose, still made her doubt he was human.
“You don’t make a home alone,” he said. “Someone makes a home with you. Someone who’s ready, your true homemaker, your home-mate.”
He paused briefly. There was something still about how his voice sounded; perhaps his lips were tired of pestering and pestering and pestering.
“So who’s your home-mate?” He asked, a little pedantically.
His laugh was more toothy, more mocking.
“You see? And how long have you been homeless?”
“43 years down the line.”
“No one has agreed to make my home.”
The world suddenly began to deem her, to regard her as if waiting to hear her out. She wondered how this deeming all happened. And where was all the glowing?
By the time he stood up, fear had engulfed her, hunching her into someone who was evidently homeless, desperate and in search of a true home. Perhaps he’d just swallow her up like a python; after all, she was homeless. She felt the warmth of his hands as he touched her, and really sensed a home in his hands. By the time he stood her up, everything about him was just normal, a home, a true home. Nothing like those awkwardnesses and unrealnesses anymore. After all, the light itself had faded away, making everything just . . . a home.
“I’m homeless, too,” he whispered to her, sounding too nasal. “I own this whole place, yet I’m homeless.”
The silence was cool and tense. He folded her into his arms, truly like a python wrapping on its prey. And until she felt the pulse of his heartbeat, pounding in steady rhythms, she never believed he was human.
“Let’s make a home,” he said, his voice already a home, pressing her to himself. She dropped her head gently on his bosom, feeling the silkiness of the hairiness of that bosom, feeling a true home.
Samuel Felix Ekanem is a Nigerian historical and modern fiction writer. His works, A Bottle of Cognac and Our Father’s House have been published in Down in the Dirt Magazine in America, and have also been selected for the 2020 edition of the CCD&S Literary Anthology in the United States. He has many Literary pieces carried in some National Dailies in Nigeria, especially The Sun Newspaper. He graduated from the University of Uyo, Nigeria, where he studied Communication Arts. He currently lives in Lagos, Nigeria, where he researches and writes. He dreams of doing an MFA someday in America. This is his first appearance in The Fictional Café.