I am on the stone embankment, the warm flow of ebb-tide tickling my feet. The beach teems with men and women and apes: the naked, the half-naked, the trousered, young and old, and so on. I am listless to the doings of the crowd until a Black Maria of creaky body and worn tyres comes to a jerky halt in the distance. I start as a roar rises in the throng. I nudge a fortyish ape asking what the shouting is about but his excited involvement in the shouting is total and he takes no notice of me. I try again with another ape buried inside a double-breasted coat and I still get no reply. I swallow my disgust, deciding no longer to ask anyone. I use my ample shoulders to ford through the crowd, ignoring a curse here, smothering a boo there, and generally standing my ground in the face of the disapprovals of those I shove.
A handful of policemen surround the Black Maria, carrying Mark-IV rifles and shiny truncheons. The truncheons lash out time and again to keep thee surging crowd at bay. Another vehicle, a jeep, appears and a hush falls over the beach when twelve or so gun-wielding soldiers emerge from it.
A hefty policeman yanks open the door of the Black Maria and asks in a vague, matter-of-fact way, ‘Are you there?’
The dim and blurred face that had been peeping through the bars of the Black Maria’s small window disappears and I behold myself trundling down the treacherous steps of the vehicle, my hands manacled in front of me.
Another me? I cry at the terrible sight but it chokes in my throat. I make to take my eyes away but I cannot. I want to disappear into the ground but the earth does not open up. As ever, I can only stare and wonder.
‘Relax, my friend,’ says the burly inspector by my side, nudging me.
Stiffening, I look ahead.
My double nods at the crowd, a mischievous smile on his face.
‘Double Wahala!’ the crowd roars in his salute.
Double raises his chained hands, smiling. His shaved head shines like a vulture’s and his brown prison clothes need a wash. Shifting with a measure of assurance and comfort he looks intently at the open door of the Black Maria. Another fellow in similar prison clothes appears at the door, leisurely takes in details of the scene before him, and then jumps down from the vehicle. He makes the sign of the cross, mouthing some inaudible words.
‘Move!’ a soldier says unnecessarily, shoving Double and his partner with the butt of the gun.
Double and partner are marched by the policemen and soldiers to the two stakes of iroko wood mounted a dozen or so metres from the bank of the ocean.
‘Double Trouble!’ says the burly inspector, nudging me. ‘No bullet can kill him.’
‘He uses his head to collect bullets,’ says an unrecognizable fellow nearby. ‘Ram that goes to war with the head. Immortal Okinze!'
Two police constables are now tying Double and partner to the stakes, making ambidextrous crosses of the palm ropes over their necks, chests, stomachs and knees.
‘Who do you think you are tying up?’ says Double, breaking free from the stake and ropes.
Soldiers and police rush forward, surrounding him and pointing their guns.
‘Move!' a soldier says, trying to push Double back to the stake with the barrel of the gun.
‘I move if I want to,' says Double defiantly.
‘What?’ cries the soldier.
‘And I get tied up if I want to.’
Tension and silence.
‘What did I tell you?’ says the burly inspector, nudging me again. ‘The man will walk right through those bullets.’
Meantime, Double is locked up in a life-and-death struggle with the officers of the law. He dares them to do their worst as they vainly struggle to lift him off his feet and take him back to the stake.
‘You are wasting your time,’ Double says, a mocking smile on his face.
‘We shall see,’ a soldier says, hitting Double with the butt of the gun.
‘Is that all you can do?’ Double sneers at the soldier, unmoved.
‘I’ll shoot you now!’ the soldier threatens, directing the barrel of his gun at Double’s eyes.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Double asks, smiling. ‘Shoot.’
The moment stands still.
Gradually, the soldier lowers his gun.
‘What do you want?’ another soldier says to Double. He appears conciliatory.
‘Some respect, Double says, walking back to the stake.
A constable ties him up and he yields without further ado.
His partner, a very thin fellow, sings a mellow gospel song of what awaits all mortals during the Second Coming.
‘Don’t listen to that coup-plotter!’ shouts a voice near me.
‘He thinks he can deceive soldiers with his church music. That’s why I like soldiers. They dislike stupid jokes.’
‘Sure,’ says another voice.
The thin fellow at the stake sings away with gusto, time and again punctuating his nasal baritone with a high-pitched yelling of the many names of God: Jehovah, Chukwu, Olisa. He quotes Bible passages with a smooth, robot-like easiness that could only have come from learning by rote.
Double is taciturn, seeming to be engrossed with the rolls of fat protruding between the ropes cutting into his flesh. He would look up one minute flashing large, blood-shot eyes at the crowd; then he nods, shaking his head as if he had a sinister plan in store for the world. Another minute he looks at the ropes travelling from his neck to his knees, staring out of eyes that appear to laugh at those who thought he could come to any harm.
‘I am going on transfer, he shouts suddenly, ‘and I will soon come back!’
A ghostly quiet descends on the scene but it soon gives place to subdued hubbub.
‘That man is a devil guerrilla,’ the burly inspector says. It is as if he cannot say a thing without nudging me. ‘My brother, that man is terror. He fought alongside Dedan Kimathi in the Mau-Mau war. He is the white man’s malaria. He has juju and can appear and disappear. He is above human destruction.’
Double and partner are now quite alone, standing like nameless dots against the backdrop of the vast and sprawling ocean.
‘You are all wasting your time,’ Double says, shaking his head in a kind of spirited dare. ‘Nobody can take me away from this earth. I still want to be here! And that’s the way it’s going to be. I shall return!’
‘No bullet made by man can kill that devil,’ says a fellow nearby.
‘A bullet kills anybody that it hits,’ counters another.
‘There is nothing like juju. The man is doomed. He is dying...'
‘My friend, you don’t know what you are saying,’ the first voice retorts. ‘You may know book, my brother, but you don’t know juju. And you do not know Double Wahala. He is bullet-proof. Shooting him with bullets is like shooting the wind'.
‘Your superstition makes me want to vomit.’
‘This is no superstition. This is science.’
‘What abstract science!’
‘African science. Otumokpo! Made in Obosi!’
‘Victory is sure!’ Double shouts, looking fierce. ‘I have known bigger wars. This ritual is nothing. Let’s get it over and done with,’
‘What did I tell you?' the burly inspector says, nudging me as usual. ‘Nothing is happening to him.’
‘I have been chained across this sea and I swam right back!’ Double intones.
‘Double Wahala!’ the crowd cheers.
‘I built America with these hands!’ he shouts, looking down at his chained hands.
Double is now in a frenzy, shouting: ‘I have known hope and I have seen disillusionment but I keep on keeping on. I have seen through the black masks of my inheritor brothers. I have seen their insides and they are as white as tissue paper.’
‘Bloody coup-plotter,’ says a soldier, sneering.
‘I will keep on surviving,’ Double continues. ‘This Barbeach Show will not be the end of me. Never!’
‘We shall see,’ the soldier says.
‘Freedom and justice for the greatest number!’ Double screams. ‘Down with parasites who are making apes of us by asking us to structurally adjust ourselves. We have to make that vital connection with humanity.’
*A bespectacled Roman Catholic priest walks up to perform the last rites for Double and partner, his flowing white soutane billowing in the wind.
The thin one ignores the reverend father, singing his gospel songs with renewed vigour as though the messenger of God in front of him doesn’t exist.
Nodding and making the sign of the cross, the priest moves over to Double.
‘Stay clear,’ Double says, letting go of a generous spit that lands smack on the priest’s cheek.
There is an awkward silence as the priest gently, almost imperceptibly, rubs the spittle with a white handkerchief. Moving back a couple of paces, a safe enough distance, he administers extreme unction and makes the sign of the cross.
‘Mr Father, I am not the one to make a confession,’ Double says. ‘It is you who need to purge yourself of the sin of betraying your ancestors.'
*'I am watching my own executive. Ha-ha-ha!'
‘Shut up!’ an outraged voice rings out of the crowd.
‘White man’s experiment in Africa!’ Double says, sneering at the departing priest.
‘The man is mad,’ says the outraged voice.
A big black fly hovers over the head of the thin one and then perches on his temple. He shakes the fly off with an aggressive jerk of the head. The fly hovers some more but the thin one continues to shake his head furiously, denying target to the fly.
‘Useless man,’ says a voice; ‘afraid of a fly when facing bullets.’
Laughter and patter.
*‘By the left, mark time!’ shouts an army captain, marching in tune to his own orders. ‘Left! Right! Left! Right!’
Some eight soldiers march in single file until they are a couple of metres away from Double and partner. They halt and, in obedience to the captain’s barked orders, genuflect, the mouths of their guns yawning coldly at Double and partner.
Seconds tick away, tolling like thunder.
As though from nowhere, a dozen or so apes move towards the stakes. It is quite apparent they are oblivious of the firing squad. A couple of them are already wading into the ocean.
It would have been impossible to shoot Double and partner without the bullets also hitting them.
‘Stop!’ the captain shouts.
The apes freeze. The soldiers run in jarring strides towards them, the crunching falls of their boots jolting many hearts.
‘What did I tell you?’ the burly inspector says with yet another nudge. ‘Didn’t I tell you they can’t kill that hard-liner today. I am sure he is the cause of this present disturbance. He is blessed with remote control.’
*I am a sandbag staring, in trance, at my double.
The twelve or so apes in the distance are now squatting, holding their ears with their hands and doing the frog-jump. The soldiers loom over them as they do this. It goes on for a while until the captain asks to bring them over.
A rotund ape strides forward to meet the captain. There is a familiarity about this ape that is troubling. Akata is his name.
‘Our own, he drowned,’ he says to the captain, pointing at the bubbling water.
*‘But didn’t you see there is about to be shooting going on?’ the captain queries.
Akata scratches at his brow, stammering: ‘He died. Our own. He drowned and his death wouldn’t let us see.’
The captain grunts, passing a hand over his wispy moustache.
‘Wait till after the shooting. You can then go in. Ok?’
He turns briskly, facing his soldiers. He holds up his left wrist to his eyes, checking the time. He nods in an assured manner, cursorily surveying the crowd.
The lilies of the beach toss their flowery heads. The sun is a red orb in the ocean. Golden patterns are upon the waters. The green eagle soars, *shading drops of water from its wings.
‘Tell Joy to keep my supper!’ shouts Double with unabated defiance, forcing a smile that flickers like the light of a sooty lamp. ‘I am only going on transfer and I will soon come back.’
A wail rises just to my right. It comes from a dainty damsel wearing black gown, black shoes and black head-tie. She convulses with her tears, seeming to surrender herself to the endurance of pain and passion.
‘Ready!’ the captain shouts in a brisk, abrupt tone.
A hush falls on the beach. The soldiers aim their guns at Double and partner.
‘F-I-R-E!’ the captain barks. ‘Kill Biafra!’
Rat-a-tat! The first volley of shots knocks cold the courage and bluff of Double. Sputum drools from his open mouth and his burst head paints the stake with a sickly mix of red and yellow.
But the thin one still holds breath in him and some faint biblical words in the mouth. A second salvo of shots decisively ends his taciturn journey.
A happy roar rises among Akata and his companions, attracting the attention of everybody. In my stupor I turn to look at them. Jonah stands in front of Akata, as though just emerged from the large fish behind him.
‘He is alive!’ Akata is screaming.
‘Come here!’ the captain calls Akata and Jonah, annoyed. ‘Why are you disturbing the public peace?’
‘He is alive!’ Akata continues to holler.
‘You go and take down those bodies,’ the captain says, pointing at Double and partner.
Akata and Jonah obey, extricating the dead bodies from the stakes.
My anguished yelps cling to my throat as I start off on an unbidden walk until I am in the centre of the cemetery. The gravestone is different.
The AntiMan: Missing Linkman: R.I.P.
I stare until tears stand in my eyes. Carved out of concrete, the letters are golden. I stare some more. It is as though the sprawling Ikoyi Cemetery has coalesced into this one gravestone.
A cripple is at my feet. My heart skips beats as I wonder at the sudden ghost-like appearance. A broad smile sits on his face.
‘And what do you want?’ I manage to blurt out.
‘I thought you needed help,’ he says, still smiling.
‘And who are you?’
‘Maxim the Gambler.'
The ape is mad, I am thinking. His red T-shirt bears a black lettering:
Man goes ape
Then he goes native
And the native becomes him
While I look at the words on his rumpled T-shirt he fixates his eyes on the letters of the gravestone.
‘Bad story,’ he laments, shaking his large head ruefully.
‘Who’s buried there?’ I ask almost mechanically.
‘But you know.’
‘Something bigger than the AntiChrist is here.’
‘He confuses everybody including himself.’
‘You!’ He points at me.
‘Come on, what do you mean?’ I am beside myself with rage.
‘It’s not your fault,’ he says, hobbling away from my lunge.
‘Why are you wasting your time with Maxim?’
I swivel, beholding a large ape in three-piece suit. His appearance by my side is just as sudden and breath-taking as the cripple’s. But the cripple is no longer there. I look in all directions, and there is no sign of him. He has simply disappeared into thin air.
‘Where is the cripple?’ I cry, looking from the highway to the cemetery.
‘Don’t let him bother you,’ says the dandified ape, grinning.
‘But he was here just now?’ I am fidgety.
‘That is his way. Sometimes you see him, then he’s gone'.
‘Is he a spirit or what?’
‘He’ll tell you when he reappears.’
‘But you’re the man just executed?’
‘Who?’ A fire-bomb explodes inside my skull.
‘I’m sorry but...' The ape looks at the gravestone and laughs.
‘What is the matter with you?’ I scream crazily, frowning.
‘I’m sorry for upsetting you,’ he says, still looking at the grave. ‘I meant no offence. My
mouth was faster than my brain. I’m sorry.’
‘But who has this grave?’ I ask, stopping him from going.
‘But Maxim told you?’
‘But it’s written there.’ He points at the gravestone.
‘What’s the fellow’s story?’
‘The one buried there.’
He looks at me and at the grave and laughs out loud.
‘What is the problem?’ I ask, stupefied. ‘Why the laugh?’
‘Nothing.’ He shrugs.
‘Did I say anything improper?’
‘I can’t seem to hold myself together. Why?’ He stamps his foot on the ground.
‘I can no longer take this,’ I say, making to walk away.
‘Bear with me,’ he says. ‘You asked me a question, didn’t you?'
I sigh, torn between curiosity and pride. I can walk away from the antics of the ape but not without knowing the secret of the grave. Curiosity wins, and I stare from the ape to the gravestone.
‘Who is buried in there?’ I ask, pointing.
‘The missing link,’ he answers. ‘It’s written there.’
‘Did you say the missing link?’ I am incredulous.
‘Yes. Can’t you see the handwriting on the wall?’
‘What’s that his other name?’ I am still pointing
‘But you’re seeing it there. It’s bold enough'.
‘Can I know a bit of this fellow’s history?'
‘What happened to him?’
‘He is dead but he would not accept that fact.’
‘But he is buried here?’
‘That is the mystery,’ he says, staring blankly ahead.
‘When did he die?’ I ask, bristling with incomprehension.
‘He is forever dying.’
‘You’re not being of much help.’
‘I’m telling you the truth.’ *He swears and simulates touching earth and heaven with index finger pointes alternately in each direction.
‘When was he born?’
‘He’s always here.’
‘Inside the burial ground?’
‘There and amongst us.’
A very long pause. The tang of death hangs heavy in the air.
‘It’s our soldiers from Liberia,’ he says, closing his nostrils. ‘They were dumped over there some nights before. Nigeria we hail thee!’
‘Tell me about this fellow here,’ I say, as urgent as ever.
‘What else do you want to hear?’
‘He claims to be the missing link between what and what?’ I ask.
‘Ape and man,’ he answers.
‘Is he a fossil or what?’
‘Not any more than you are.’ He does a double take, and adds an afterthought: ‘You can dig up his grave to check.’
‘I guess that’s what I should do'.
‘But you will not find him there.’
‘Where is he buried then?’ I ask, almost exasperated.
‘People dig and gather skulls,’ he says and shakes his small head. ‘You are not cut out for that, are you?’
‘What are you saying?’
‘You gotta crack the skull to find the brain!’ He smiles.
‘The missing link has a brain. Or hasn’t it got one?’
‘I don’t understand you.’
‘If you get the skull inside the grave, what of the brain?’
It is as though this ape is speaking out of my mouth. I do not like it at all, this his feeding of my curiosity with subversion.
‘Do you at all know this fellow you are talking to me about?’ I ask, staring fixedly for moments on end at the gravestone.
‘I know him more than he knows himself,’ he asserts.
‘I am not convinced,’ I say, frowning.
‘What else do you want to hear?’
‘You have said nothing concrete thus far.’
‘If you want concrete, behold the gravestone.’
‘This is nothing to get angry about,’ he says, looking remorseful. ‘I am telling you a tragic history. And it is bound to upset. It is not easy for somebody who fails in his search for man and mankind. It is unbearably sad to traverse in vain from a small hut to a big mansion, from the village to the city, and from the aridity of Africa to the highs of Europe and America. And it is all a mirage.’
‘It is enough to make you turn against man and mankind,’ he continues, bathed in a kind of new seriousness. ‘There is a limit to faith.’ He looks away from me, fixing his gaze on the gravestone. ‘Somebody survives slavery and colonialism only for the pogrom and Biafra to bend his mind.’ He sighs, spitting a gob of sputum. ‘And more nightmares are on the way. The monkeys of Africa don’t live on trees; they live in the state house. Adjust yourself structurally, dear ape. That is the brave new world.’ He turns to look at me. ‘But the rural country is not the brave new world. There, pregnancy does not lead to abortion but to the bride-price and marriage. It’s as elementary as that. Our dear fellow upset the balance of the land and was put on the run.’
‘You are mixing up so many things,’ I complain, bewildered.
‘You appear to know the story yourself,’ he says.
‘It’s not that. But I can’t make the necessary connections. From Biafra to pregnancy and all that. It’s too much.’
‘Take it like that. It’s a history of nightmares’
‘What led to what is all I want to know.’
‘Somebody kills twins in an African abortion and flees abroad only to meet the twins as the President of America and the Queen of England!’
‘You are mad!’
'And you are your own nightmare!'
‘This is madness!’
‘That is the legend there.’ He points at the gravestone and I look.
When I look back the cripple is back and the dandy is gone.
‘I’ve come to visit you in your tomb,’ says the cripple, crawling up
I kick madly at him and I miss, falling badly beside the gravestone.
‘Home at last,’ he says and smiles. 'Thanks for the séance.’
I try to get up. I fail. I try again. I fail again. I lie back, sighing.
‘Antiman!’ he screams, crawling away. ‘Plotter of the mind-bending by-ways of fiction.’
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu is a playwright, poet and fiction writer. He was recently nominated for the prestigious Caine Prize in the UK for his fiction. He is the author of God of Poetry and Other poems. He has been published widely in journals like Wasafiri. He lives in lagos, Nigeria.