The weight on Mary’s shoulders felt lighter with every passing day. Slowly but steadily, she had kept scribbling ACCOMPLISHED beside the items on her list of things to do before the year ran out. She had gone on to register with her home union which usually held meetings on first Sunday of every month. This month’s meeting, being the last one for the year, had been more of a party. She had gotten to eat some native delicacies which she had not tasted since leaving home years ago. She had even joined other members to dance to the folk music played by the cultural troupe. That moment, she had made up her mind that irrespective of where her wedding would be held, she would pay any price to have this music troupe come perform. She was sure she would out-dance Deaconess Caro (Mother of the Day) and Jacqueline (Chief Bridesmaid) and her husband (Mr. Okafor). But what she had liked the most about this month’s meeting was that a team of medical experts had been invited to talk about a number of killer diseases and the ways to prevent them. In the end of the seminar, the medical team had offered free HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis tests for members. Mary had had her blood sample taken even though she was sure that the result would come out negative. She hoped to remember to go over to their office for the result later in the day after going to see Jacqueline, who had taken ill again for the fourth time in three months.

These days, Jacqueline always complained of feeling weak, of nausea and of having joint pains. The first time, she had been treated for malaria. The second time she was treated for the malaria parasite. The third time, she had bought drugs for typhoid fever from the patent medicine store at First Corner. Her lush skin was beginning to crumple like pawpaw that was left out of the refrigerator for too long. Her colleagues had begun to comment on her alarming wanness. The pillars holding up her eyelids were beginning to droop giving her a pair of lazier eyes than she found attractive. It didn’t help that she had cut her alcohol and cigarette consumption. It didn’t also seem to help that she had started consuming large quantities of fruits and vegetable which Mary had recommended. Her pants still sagged, even though she was almost done swallowing a whole sachet of Super Appetite drugs. She preferred to believe this sickness was caused by the change of weather since, after all, she had always suffered a bout of fever whenever the weather was switching between harmattan and the heat season. Sometimes her throat felt so dry she would imagine it as a sun-baked wall. She would drink and drink from the bottle of water she now kept by her bedside and still feel so dry. She grew alarmed whenever she coughed because her chest would ache and make a creaking sound like a car engine that had not been oiled for a long time. It didn’t help that she had taken to swallowing spoonful of palm oil which she expected to course down her throat, lubricating every cog and joints as engine oil did to machines.

Martina was most certain that Jacqueline had caught one of those numerous toilet infections, recalling her own past experience some time ago during which she had lost a great deal of weight and had suffered acute abdominal pains. She referred Jacqueline to the herbal medicine shop at Kakuri Market where she had bought a plastic bottle of dry roots and herbs into which she poured 35cl of gin and left for a day or two until it turned to an oxblood tincture.

“I only drank from it for one week and bounced back to life,” Martina swore the other day as she came to check on the bedridden Jacqueline, who shortly after went to the market for two of such bottles which she had been using for weeks now and had not felt any better.

Mary visited Eva’s House only because Jacqueline was too weak to meet her at First Corner or to even step out of the bed and meet her outside the brothel. On the day Mary moved out of Eva’s House, she had sworn never to set foot inside the place again, nor to even come anywhere close to it. But there was no way she couldn’t come to see her friend who had been instrumental to her coming to Kaduna in the first place. Mary chose to come straight from school because it would be difficult to do so once she got home. Her evenings were always choked with work at her beauty shop, with studies and with church activities. She had expanded her beauty shop to include facial makeup services and was even considering hiring an extra hand to replace the incompetent and unserious hairstylist she had been enduring for some time now. As she walked down the narrow passageway towards the hostel area, she came under fits of claustrophobia and dizziness to the point that she had to keep to the wall for support. She was struggling to stay strong, to not break out in a shriek, to not yield to the weight and just slump to the ground. That night of the rape and robbery came back to her as clear as day and drenched her to the marrows in dread and in pain. The hysterical cries of the ladies and the wicked laughter of the criminals echoed in her head. The thick fog of that night’s terror choked her. But just before she would faint, she reached Jacqueline’s room and slid in.

Now, it felt as if the days she had lived here had been in another lifetime. Besides, Okafor had warned her not to come around here anymore. She just hoped that he didn’t get to hear that she had visited here today.

“Have you even gone for testing?” Mary asked for the eleventh time while Jacqueline just shrugged or sighed. “You have to go for testing,” she added. The sight of the once bubbly Jacqueline just lying on the bed fondling with a Twenty Naira note which she rolled and unrolled, looking so tired and old, shook Mary. She just hoped it would not turn out to be what she was thinking.

“The truth is I’m broke,” Jacqueline finally whistled. “I’ve not been working like before. Clients no longer turn up as before. I think the place is falling apart now that Mr. Okafor is more concerned with his programme at the university. I think he’s even considering closing up this place. Mary, I’m tired. That’s the truth. For the first time since I left home and came to Kaduna, I just feel I want to go home.” She began to blink rapidly in an effort to conceal the tears that had gathered in her eyes, but that only seemed to force out the tears which then trickled down her right cheek. And once the tears started rolling out, she didn’t make any effort to wipe them off.

“You’re right,” Mary nodded wearing a false smile. “We’ll have to go home. Every one of us. Sooner or later.”

Mary couldn’t say if her own growing homesickness was a good omen. She was more disturbed by her recurring dream of being rowed in an ancient canoe down a misty ravine while her friends and family members stood by the bank with teary eyes to wave her goodbye. She didn’t know what to make of these dreams, and was too frightened to share them with anybody, not even with Jacqueline, her closest friend.

Somebody knocked on the door and stepped in. She was a newer arrival whom Mary had not seen before. It happened that she was the present occupant of Mary’s lodge. She had come to help Jacqueline buy call credit for the phone call the latter had in mind to make. When Mary asked her if the JESUS’ BABY graffiti was still on the ceiling, she laughed and said yes.

“How do you cope with it?”

“I try not to look at it when I have a man on top of me,” she chuckled.

“Why not just scrub it off?”

“I like it being there, somehow. I know it’s a weird thing to say, under the circumstances, but I feel protected knowing that it’s there. It’s reassuring to think of myself as a JESUS’ BABY.”

Mary nodded. She understood what that meant. Now she began to suspect it might have been one of the reasons why she couldn’t erase it in her own time.

Somehow, it seemed odd to Mary that young girls still ran to brothels to prostitute themselves. Now it fascinated her to the point of unbelief why a teenage girl would rather not do anything else than go into fulltime harlotry. This new girl’s childish tone and the cackle that interspersed her sentences convinced Mary that she could be fifteen or sixteen years of age, even though she looked older. For a minute, she almost put on society’s judgmental goggles. She almost began to look at this girl as one of those corrupt, accursed souls that defied all parents’ efforts at making them turn out better. But she remembered her own case and thought that this girl had possibly also been pushed to this place by her parents’ or guardians’ actions and inactions. This was all the more reason why she ought to have started the advocacy campaign she had always had in mind but had lacked the will to follow through. She couldn’t imagine how many teenage girls she could have saved from ending up as sex workers if she had started the program, creating a platform where parents and teenage girls could learn how to understand each other and avoid actions capable of getting either party frustrated.

“Jackie,” Mary cleared her throat after the other girl had left. “I wish you would start counting down to leaving this place, to leaving this life. You need to view it from the outside even for just one day. If you did you would not wish to return to it even if a gun was placed to your head. I know, it’s not easy. But it is possible. It is doable. Take me for example. Take Auntie Caro for example. She had been in it long before either of us joined in. Yet she was able to step out and start with a clean slate. Running into her whether in the market or in the street, seeing how respectable she now looks and lives, no one would ever guess that she used to be a prostitute.”

Mary now followed Deaconess Caro to church regularly. She hoped to become a Sunday School teacher someday just like her, whom she had made her surrogate mother. She visited the deaconess during weekends and helped her out with domestic chores. Rumour had it that Deaconess Caro’s son ‘liked’ her but Mary didn’t like to talk about it.

“As soon as you get well”, she said to Jacqueline as she dropped a wad of money on the bed beside her arm, “you must follow me to church. Note that I said ‘must’. This is not one of those polite invitations that you would wave off. This is an order.”

“Okay,” Jacqueline smiled. “I hear. I will. I promise.”

When Jacqueline expressed desire for a bath but complained of being too weak to draw a bucket of water from the well, Mary offered to help her with that.


As the police ambulance crawling down from First Corner made to pull over right in front of Eva’s House, the small crowd that had gathered there made space for it. The veranda was packed with the sex workers and patrons of the brothel. Although the entire area had been on blackout since the previous day, Eva’s House had kept its generator running, lighting up its premises, ensuring that they had chilled drinks and could air the Champions’ League matches all of which attracted people the same way light would draw moths.

The windiness of the night and the blackened sky through which lightning flickered now and then suggested it might rain tonight. The ladies on the veranda were too distraught to even think of working tonight. Some of them were already shivering due to the cold but were too frightened to retire into their rooms or to just go in and put on more protective clothing. Rather, they had all run out here and clung together like a pack of haunted rats.

Once the driver of the ambulance turned off the ignition, Okafor climbed down the veranda to greet the men who were just stepping out of the van.

“Are you Mr. Okafor?” asked the one with a thick moustache on a fat face and a bulgy belly that was threatening to burst the buttons of his shirt.

“Was it you that placed the call?”

“That’s right,” he nodded, offering his right hand. “That’s right, I’m Mr. Okafor. Please, come in.” He led them into the saloon to his favourite corner and signaled the barmaid to come find out what each of them would like to have.

Many people had offered to go into the well and bring out the body for a fee but Okafor had refused because he knew the law and the standard procedure of doing things. Rather, he had phoned the police station.

“This guy here will need a place to change into his diving kit,” the head of the team crowed, pointing a thumb at one of them who was carrying a backpack. “Once he is ready, we should head to the well.”

Okafor led the diver to a spare room and then returned to the saloon to furnish the team with any information they might need since China-White, who was traumatized by the pale face that had stared up at her from the bottom of the well, was too wrecked to even answer a single question.

Okafor was still at home preparing to leave for Zaria as he did every Friday evening when he received the phone call informing him that a body was spotted inside the brothel well. China-White had gone to draw water from the well around noon. She had released the rope until the bucket got down to the water. It had been while she was swerving the bucket in order to get it filled with water that she noticed a black mould that looked like the bottom of a bowl. At first, she had thought that it was a drawing bucket that had slipped from some other drawer’s grip. She lifted her bucket and let it fall on top of the object which sank briefly and re-emerged, repositioned well enough for her to recognize Mary’s face. She had let go of the rope in her hand and had screamed out until everyone in the brothel came out.

The diver returned to the saloon fully dressed but for the flashlight and the pair of fins which he bore in his hands. “Good to go,” he nodded and Okafor led the way through the back of the hall towards the well. While they were tying the one end of the roll of cord to the stem of the dogoyaro tree, one of the police officers returned to the ambulance to get the body bag. Having ensured that the knot was tight, the diver threw in the roll into the well, put on the fins and lowered himself down to the water. The other officers stood close enough to the well, pointing a second flashlight into it and peering down into it. Okafor stood a few feet away from them, his arms folded across his chest. Deaconess Caro, who had just driven down from church service, stood beside Jacqueline and Okafor shedding silent tears and shaking her head.

Nothing happened for three or four minutes and then the diver yelled, “Pull!” The three officers began to pull on the rope. Okafor lent a hand. Jacqueline, who had staggered out of her room and had been sitting on a low stool beside her door all this time, struggled up and lent a hand even though the men kept telling her they got it. They pulled and pulled, and the instant Mary’s head surfaced from the well’s rim, the ladies broke into a wail. Jacqueline didn’t stop pulling until the body had been brought out completely. It was once it had been laid inside the body bag that she fell on it and gave free rein to her agony.

“My sister!” Jacqueline wailed. “My sister! Why! Oh God, why!”

The teary-eyed Okafor turned away but once Jacqueline began to rock the corpse and to bang her fist on its stiff chest, he came over and pulled her up and patted her on the back while she cried on his chest. Jacqueline would try and purge this bitterness and anger for Mary which was welling inside her heart. She would try and understand with her friend. She would try not to hate her for long. She would try and forgive her for dying. If only things happened in real life as they were shown to do in Nollywood, where the spirits of dead people appeared to loved ones in their sleep and revealed the circumstances of their death, Jacqueline was sure that Mary would have visited her and laid everything bare for her.

Jacqueline would have come to know that immediately after Mary handed her some money and said goodbye, she had almost ran out of the brothel through the narrow exit gate that opened to the street. Jacqueline would have known that just before Mary got to the gate, she had missed a step and had dug her left foot into the sewage. Hissing and cursing, she had retraced her steps back to the brothel well to draw water and wash off the stink of urine and semen which she was sure had enveloped her foot. Jacqueline would have come to know that as Mary began to draw water, her hand had jerked and the phone had fallen off from her breast pocket into the well. It had been in a bid to grab the falling phone that she lost balance and fell into the well.

Once the diver had been pulled out, the policemen made to zip up the body bag and move it to the ambulance but Auntie Caro was able to plead with Mr. Okafor who in turn was able to prevail upon the policemen to permit the ladies some seven or ten minutes to hold a brief wake and prayers for their former colleague.

“Wake up!” Jacqueline managed to cry. “Come back to me! I swear, I’ll change! I’ll repent! I’ll move out of Eva’s House this very moment! Please,” she wailed, “wake up!”


[author] [author_image timthumb=’on’][/author_image] [author_info]Ekweremadu Uchenna-Franklin writes from Kaduna, Nigeria. His works have appeared in Transition Magazine, Grub Street, Coe Review, The Write Room, Saraba Magazine, Imitation Fruit Journal, Wilderness House Literary, A&U American AIDS Magazine, Kalahari Review and elsewhere.[/author_info] [/author]