Listen to this story, narrated by Suyi Davies Okungbowa:
This story alludes to rape and murder.
You’d think I would be a wastrel. You’d think my roof would have rusting zinc that flaps, iron dust floating in the night wind, rotting wood barely supporting its eaves, worms in its holes, playing hide-and-seek in the sun and taking shelter from the harmattan cold. You’d think the wind bangs against me at night, whooshes through the gaps in my belly and blows soft foghorns that echo, ghostly bassoons.
You’d think I’d have floorboards that creak (though that makes no sense — Lagos floors are mostly tiled). You’d think there’s a local legend that lures people to some rusted gate of mine, up chipped steps and into a darkness that clings to your skin.
Most of you are estate agents. You bring in about-to-weds shopping for something with the promise of family, choosing your words carefully, skirting the question of why the last tenant left. Some of you try the opposite tactic: latch on to their bubbling couple energy, their shining pupils and obvious penchant for adventure, and lure them in with the same tales the people of Olúwo Street whisper, of how no bulb fixed in the pantry ever comes on, no matter how many times the lampholders are replaced; of what the people of Olúwo Street say about hollow screams coming from there; of Mọ́rìnsádé Awẹ́lẹ́wà reliving her last moments on earth every single night. Some of you namedrop the Nollywood director who tried to film a documentary here once, even though the street agberos drove him away by asking for absurd bribes. Try to rope them in by explaining they’re getting an astute piece of estate with potential to commercialise its history.
But you, the people of Olúwo Street, you too can be a real pain. Someone always opens their dirty mouth and lets slip to the couple that this nincompoop is actually agent number 200+ and they are prospective tenants number uncountable; and that the reason no agent ever pushes for two-year rent — as is Lagos culture — is because no one can stand Mọ́rìnsádé Awẹ́lẹ́wà’s mournful wails for 365 days, let alone double that.
Not a single one of these couples ever returns to claim me as their own.
Nothing moves in my yard for months after my latest rejection. Everyone hustles along when they go past my gate. I never lock the gate, thinking someone might somehow find their way in, but no. Not even the boys who smoke weed in the uncompleted building around the corner. December comes, and the dry, unforgiving harmattan sends spikes of wind down my side, causes the dry rot in my throat to be exposed. On the 25th, every house on Olúwo Street is bathed in flashes of red and green, but my most recent coat of paint is not enough to lure the carolers from St. Jude’s Anglican. Not even that pastor with the weird haircut from down the road, the one who always comes to spray salty water down my insides and holler incomprehensibles — a seesaw dance he and I are both used to by now, where I open up the door to the pantry and let Mọ́rìnsádé do the work of chasing him and his assembly away. I could do with some sparring with him.
But you don’t really know anything about being haunted, do you?
You’re thinking about this all wrong. You think that if you grabbed the doorknob to my pantry, you’d feel a warm, thick ichor, and if you held it up to the light, you’d see the ichor runs the spectrum anywhere from crimson to black, and drips slowly, never quickly. Or you think you’d hear quick drips, deep in the hollows of my insides, a tap turned off somewhere inside, but not quite, and not by your own hand, not by a hand at all.
But you know all of this is in your own head, don’t you? When did you last see running water on Olúwo Street? Ask yourself: when?
Mọ́rìnsádé leaves the pantry for the first time on New Year’s Eve. She comes to the window facing the street and stands there. I see her watch the world, sense her wonder. I know it from the way she touches me, a gentle feathery brush of her fingers on the sill, that she too is lonely. I wish I could talk to her, ask her what kind of family she’d like, ask her what she thinks will appeal to them, what will make them forget what we are and maybe consider bringing the smell of egusi into the kitchen, or the sound of cable news into the living room. But someone maybe sees her through the window — a child, I think — and points, and the parents hoist their child on their shoulders and run, leaving their shoes behind, their bags in the dry harmattan sand. And Mọ́rìnsádé’s mood darkens, and she stomps back to the pantry and howls, and the whole of Olúwo Street does not see another footprint in the dust near my gate through New Year’s.
So, when the gloom of harmattan fades, and in February, I hear the neighbourhood folks discussing that another documentary director is coming — this one from America, with enough money to appease the street boys — I think, like a child up for adoption: maybe. Maybe this is our chance.
The man is burnt pink by the sun the first time I see him. He comes with you, his guide, young, smiling. I remember you, from Operation Demolition. I remember how you galvanized the street agberos to fight off those tone-deaf government contractors when they came with their Caterpillars and tried to mark a big X on my side because they were too lazy to dig for ownership documents. I remember your voice, how you screamed: Is nothing sacred? Is nothing sacred? I remember your gaze upon me: gentle.
You tell the American man how long I’ve been here, and the myths and stories that people tell about me. Just hearing them now makes me bristle, and my breath is hot wind on the back of your necks, and I see how the man chuckles nervously and says, It breathes even, huh? and the people of Olúwo Street who have gathered to watch shiver in response.
The American asks about recorded deaths, and I hear Mọ́rìnsádé emerge from the pantry then, spy on the group outside through a peephole in the roof. The man is asking you meaningless questions, like, is it like The Shining’s Overlook, or like Hill House, or like 124 in Beloved?, and everyone is saying, Ki leleyi sọ? What is this one saying? And you tell the people: He means something like Ayamatanga, or Iṣawuru, and they’re like, Aaaah, mo ti wo. I see what you mean. And the man is saying, If this is going to make good TV, we need to make it give chills, you know what I mean? We need to tell the story like everyone who has ever lived here has been in grave peril. How can we get in there, see if we can catch a glimpse of something that looks like a ghost?
Your voice again, saying: Eh sir, no. We have to show some respect here. This is not like those your books and films. Some histories are best not tampered with. But the American man is like, Meh, something terrible happens in every haunted house, my man.
Haunted? Who said it’s haunted?
So why are you afraid of it?
Who said we’re afraid, sir? you ask. I mean, I’m not. What you’re calling fear is respect, see. We know some things are simply what they are, and are better left alone.
You should totally chill out, my man. We only need some footage we can lay over a good narration. Just get someone to take us in so we’re not breaking any laws.
You look back at me, compassion leaking from your eyes, as if you sense my increasing irritation, as if you sense Mọ́rìnsádé’s continuing confusion and her attempts to ask questions of the air that come out as if she is speaking underwater.
You turn to the man and say: No. Find another guide.
The nincompoop agent finally lands you, a new tenant, in March. You move in after dusk, slick like a thief. By daylight, I get a good look at you: gaunt, drooping shoulders, tired eyes, smiling with everyone, a little too much. They like you, the people of Olúwo Street. You never get in their way, very polite, call back hearty greetings when hailed. They bring you gifts, stand by the gate, take one sad look at me, shake their heads, shrug. They leave the gifts on the ground.
You work at something like a bank. You come home late in loosened ties, dead-eyed, and sit in the only armchair in the living room, staring at the black screen of a TV you’ve never plugged in. You drink, but not to stupor. You never clean and, when you’re away, I use my breath to do the work of chasing dust from the kitchen top you never use, chasing spiders and their webs from nooks, chasing geckos that have suddenly sensed a human presence and have arrived seeking warmth. But they will find no warmth here. They will find only a silence that draws blood.
You cry at night. Stifled, into the pillows, beating the bed. Mọ́rìnsádé is undecided about this competition, and she comes by, standing in the doorway. I’m unsure if she wants to comfort you or ask you to stop drowning out her pain with the flood of your tears. She stands behind you in the mirror while you prepare for work, but your eyes hold too much agony and you cannot see. She sits in front of the not-TV, speaking in bubbles that are not sharp enough to pierce the film of despondency that has settled over you. The two of you have a staring match without eyes, a shared disquiet that goes on into the night — a disquiet so loud that even the geckos know not to move lest they get swallowed by its hollowness.
Mọ́rìnsádé no longer wails at night, her cries smothered by your silence, so that even when you’re not physically present, the weight of your shadow presses down on us, chokes us, so that we cannot breathe.
Everything feels wrong. We no longer feel safe, no longer feel comfortable.
Here is what I will show you. Come closer. Here, open the pantry door. Here, let me turn on the light.
Look at her. See what she used to be before, that hazy time before my knowledge of her, and myself, began.
Look properly. Her thin frame floating underneath a cotton nightshirt, large as a reverend’s robe. Watch her puffy eyes, notice a couple of braids escape the mesh of her sleep cap, dangle in front of her face. Watch her wipe them out of the way, her fingers slim and delicate, the nail polish chipped from anxious picking.
You are him. The one whose face I will never remember, not only because I don’t know anything from before, but also because you all are the same to me. The one who did it, who started it all: you are him, now.
She made herself clear: she would not give you what you want. But you took it, didn’t you? You asked her nicely, then fiercely; with your voice, loud; then with your hands, then with the knife that clung to the nearby utensil magnet. You asked her body. She resisted, she screamed, she wailed, she fought; she made sure you never got what you wanted. So you continued to ask questions of her body with that knife, until it no longer had answers to give.
This is where it all began. Can you see? Can you feel?
Look at your hand. Do you see? Do you feel? The warm, runny blood. Hold your palm up to the light. Watch it wax iridescent, moving between sparkling crimson and black as you angle your hand this and that-a-way. Watch it drip slower, slower, until it is so thick it is one with your palm.
Look at her now, as I see her, standing there, her eyes vacant and unseeing. Look at her asking you (him), Why? Why did you do it?
You didn’t do it, you say? But you are all the same! You all want the same things, and you take them by force, don’t you? There is no gentility in you, no care. You just take.
You will not take this one from us, I assure you. Look at her: confused, alone. Look at us: seeking warmth, seeking love. You will not get in the way of this. You will not smother us.
Close the door. Go to your room. Pack up. Leave.
Never forget what you’ve seen here. Never.
You people always come back.
I don’t know if I hate it more that this time you street people come with cameras, or that the American is among you. I hate it that there are too many of you at once, clogging up the place, making it difficult to breathe. This is not the kind of warmth I seek.
You’re chattering all sorts of nonsenses, saying, He said he saw it so it must be there. Some of you say, But ghosts aren’t real, and others respond, Shut up and open the door.
You come straight for the pantry. You try the chisel first, then the axe, then the crowbar, but you only make me angrier, more fortified. Your attempts leave marks that will never be erased. When they don’t work, you settle for luring her out, for your own entertainment and satisfaction. You try to scare her by banging on the door, then try to rile her up by calling her things she doesn’t deserve: selfish, whore, ragged bitch. All you want is one glimpse, one shot, one recording, a tale to worm your way into the centre of attention at parties or on your stupid phones, so that when they say, Pics or it didn’t happen, you’ll reply: Look at this. Told you there was something in that house.
Have you ever lived an endless loop of fear and pain? How dare you?
I give everything I have to ensure your attempts fail, of course. I believe that’s why you settle for tales about whom I’ve never been.
The American man gets his video, as do you. Mundane sounds, amplified; flashes of light, magnified. Anything can be magic given the right circumstance. Put it in your phones, make a film, make a documentary. Spread it like wildfire. Make sure everyone knows my name.
Hill House. The Overlook Hotel. 124 Bluestone Road.
Anything but safe and worthy of warmth.
They say truth does not exist but is made, and I guess that makes sense to me in December, when harmattan’s gloom returns and even the rodents of the rainy season have abandoned my yard and holed up to survive the dust. The cold hits hardest towards the tail end of the festivities, pangs of loneliness so brutal and monotonous that I fear I’m in labour to birth something dark, something with a stench that is hard to wipe off, something deader than death.
I no longer bother with my appearance: droopy hair, rotting rafters, rusted aluminum sheets, dead eyes, shutters half-open from abandon. There are more holes than worms can fill. The night winds whistle through me, playing flute-like tunes down Olúwo Street. The drip drip of my leaking roof echoes everywhere. My gate creaks from rust, steps chipped from disuse. A darkness hangs like a halo around my head, day and night; a darkness that clings to skin.
But on New Year’s Day, the truth is made again, when you arrive at my creaky gate.
I feel you first, your touch on my railings as you walk in. Soft, placating, apologising for wrongs past: for Operation Demolition, for being the American’s guide in the first place; even for things you didn’t do, like the invasion by the street people.
You walk up the steps, feel the baluster of the verandah, feel the doorway. You walk into the darkness without fear, without curiosity, with only understanding in your even breath. You run your fingers on the wall, wipe some dust off the kitchen counter.
Something pricks me. You know this place.
At the door to the pantry, you stop and look at the grooves in the wood, the chipped cement wall around the frame. Your eyes shine with compassion, and slowly, you run your fingers, a soothing caress, over the wounds. You whisper to yourself, so low that even I can’t hear it.
Suddenly, like a sluice released, I remember you, a memory I don’t remember having. From before, from the time I wasn’t. You used to show up at my door with gifts for her: bowls of fresh catfish in January, eggs at Easter, snails in the summer, poultry in December. Sometimes, she cooked, and you came over and ate together. I remember her singing while she cooked. I remember music. I remember laughter.
You loved her, cared for her. Just like I do.
You are not them: not like him, the one who started it all for Mọ́rìnsádé and I; not like the agents; not like the ones with the cameras. You do not want what they want. You want something different.
This is new to me, you must understand. I have not known anything else. So, understand I must hesitate to open this door.
But you do it yourself, anyway. I’m not sure why I do not resist. You step in, and I let you. You reach over to turn on the light, and I let you.
Mọ́rìnsádé hovers, wondering why her sanctuary is being invaded, then wondering who this invader is, staring at her without fear, without flinching. She asks all these things in garbled speech that comes out as bubbles, her mouth opening and closing like a fish, her eyes dead and unmoving.
You just stare at her and say nothing. And that is how we know.
Later on, in our fading years, it is not the passion in your voice from Operation Demolition screaming, Is nothing sacred? that will stay most with us, or you telling the American, Find another guide. It is not memories of your gifts of catfish and snails and poultry from before. It is not the day you move in and stay with us until you too are old and worn like the wood in my rafters.
What we will remember with the most clarity is your gaze upon us each time, how gentle it felt, and how it is all the warmth we ever needed to feel whole.