Juju

by Obi Umeozor

‘Juju’ was shortlisted for the 2018 Commonwealth Short Story Prize.

Read more about the Prize here.

 

The morning Dave comes to see me about his problem I’m in a foul mood. I mean, I’ve been in one most of my adult life, whenever there isn’t a bottle of Guinness in my hand. But that day – late in December – is particularly bad. The week before, my boss at the noodles factory on the edge of town had called all five of us in my work crew into her office, told us some customers had found bugs in their noodle packs, and, before we could even mutter any protest, laid down the hammer.

Then, a couple of days later, Nkechi just up and left me. Said I was ‘holding her back’. Five years tossed down the stinker, and she didn’t even look back at me as she dragged her Samsonite bag out the door. Took my favourite blanket with her too, the grinch. Anyway, this morning I’m sitting out on my front verandah after a late breakfast under four layers of worn flannel shirts and a wool beanie – sipping hot chocolate spiked with local gin from my good enamel mug, cursing the Harmattan chill and the Christmas in the air, thinking about how much warmer the night would have been had Nkechi not chosen the worst time of the year to leave my behind – when Dave drives through my gate in that beat-up Peugeot station-wagon his father left him, plops himself beside me on the verandah, and tells me he would pay me a hundred-thousand naira if I come with him to rescue his girlfriend.

‘Rescue? What do you mean “rescue”? Where’s Olamma?’

‘I just… I just want you to escort me to pick her up,” Dave says. He’s seated on the wooden recliner beside me, swinging his keys on his index finger, bouncing his legs on his toes – an impatient tick I try hard to ignore. His usually calm face is a canvas of worry, deep wrinkles across his forehead pushing back his receding hairline. His eyes are red with fatigue and the edges of his mouth stretch downwards as if pulled by invisible strings. Dave is only a few months older than me, but it doesn’t look so now. Speckles of gray litter his scalp and I begin to wonder if 31 is the new 60.

‘And you’re going to pay me a hundred thousand bucks just to escort you.’

‘Yes.’

See, I’m broke, but I’m no idiot. I’ve known Dave long enough to realise that nothing is ever straightforward with him; like the time we were twelve, when he asked me to follow him to pick up his book from a family friend’s house, and before I knew it I was standing with him in the front yard of Principal Odi’s house – Dave tossing pebbles at Olamma’s window and me looking out for the principal’s Rottweilers. But Dave knows me too. Knows I wouldn’t turn down an opportunity to make quick beer-money. That’s the way our friendship has always worked, right from the day, way back in secondary school, when I stepped between him and the class bully and took one in the face. We were as much friends as we were partners, getting each other through life in this dead, dusty town. He taught me the trumpet and I taught him to build an antenna for stealing channels; he taught me what he knew about picking up girls and I taught him not to flap his hands like an upturned kitten whenever he was in a fight.

But all this changed when he picked up jazz and moved to America after landing a major gig with some band out of New Orleans. We didn’t speak for six years; until he got into a brawl with a bouncer one drunken night out and shattered a full bottle of whiskey on the fellow’s head, knocking him clean out. Dave was arrested for assault and deported the next month. And now he’s back home we’re supposed to be best buddies again. But I wish it were that simple. Because, despite all that Dave has been through – the deportation and his father’s death a few months after – I don’t exactly feel much sympathy for him. A that’s not just because he’s mostly a pompous ass, but because he still held onto the one person I wanted the most, even after the way he’d treated her. Still beats me why Olamma took him back after his American experiment was over.

‘Where is Olamma?’ I ask again.

He hesitates. ‘At Okonkwo’s house.’

‘Come again?’

‘She’s at Okonkwo’s house.’

‘Okonkwo? The juju priest?’ I ask, not quite believing my ears.

‘Yes.’

Now it made sense he was offering me money.

‘Maka gini? What’s she doing there?’

He plants his face in his palms and says nothing.

‘Dave?’

‘Are you coming with me or not?’

Everyone in town knows Okonkwo isn’t someone to be trifled with. Dave and I grew up hearing stories about the people that had crossed Okonkwo’s path; we heard, and retold for years, the one about the local tax collectors that had come to arrest him – tossing him over their shoulders like he was a sack of roses – for refusing to pay his dues, but then were unable to put him down once they got to the Tax Office.

And this was the man Dave wanted me to get mixed up with?

‘I dunno man,’ I say.

‘I’ll add an extra fifty.’

The sneaky bastard.

By the time Dave gets up to leave it’s early afternoon. He tells me he’ll be back later in the evening to pick me up. His car leaves behind a cloud of dark smoke that hangs in the air too long and grates the back of my throat.

So, I’m sitting out there on my verandah in the biting cold, wondering how I let Dave pull me back into his mess of a relationship; wondering how Olamma ended up getting kidnapped by a juju priest. I have never set eyes on him, this Okonkwo; and, to be honest, neither have most people in town. All I knew about him – his all-seeing left eye, his looming seven-foot frame, his charms that helped politicians win elections – came from moonlight tales by the fireplace with Mama (God rest her soul). He had a shrine in the middle of Uba forest, an impregnable grove of oaks and bamboos and irokos with branches that reached to the clouds and trunks wide enough to shield three barrel-chested men easily. When I was young and Mama rode me to school on the back of her scooter, she would point to the part of the forest that led to Okonkwo’s shrine – marked by red ribbons around the trunks – and say to me, ‘Don’t get into any fight in school today or I’ll take you to spend the night with Okonkwo.’ It was a ploy that haunted me years after I had outgrown silly ghost stories.

The only reason I agree to go along with Dave – besides the money, of course – is Olamma. Because as terrifying as the prospect of messing with Okonkwo is, having something happen to Olamma would be a lot worse. I know it makes no sense, my unwavering attachment to her. After all, she goes through men – especially after Dave’s escape – like a tractor in a rose field. Still, something about her the night she came to see me when Dave left for America took a chunk of my common sense and held it captive ever since.

I’m thinking about all this when the gin knocks me out.

*

I wake up to a deep honk and headlights in my face. It’s pitch-dark now, and I figure it’s about 7pm. I make a mental note to cut down on my drinking as I struggle out of my recliner. My head is splitting in two when the horn blares again, shrill in the calm night air. I grab my mug from the coffee table beside me and fling it in the direction of the headlights, and try to hide my surprise when it bounces off the hood of the car with a clunk.

‘Wetin dey worry you?! I’m coming,’ I yell in the direction of Dave’s car.

I can’t see a damn thing when I stumble into my house. Only the glare from Dave’s headlights keeps me from stubbing my toes against my furniture. I rinse my face and shed two of my flannels because I figure, if I’m going to do this, I might as well be as light as I can in case I need to run. I lock my front door behind me and kick away the fallen mug as I get to the passenger door.

‘You been out there since I left you?’ Dave asks as I settle in, his eyes wide with shock.

I check the dash clock coated with dust. It reads 7:30 and I wince at it – at my ability to pull off a 6-hour nap in the middle of the day.

‘Are we going or what?’

Dave stares at me a few seconds longer, then shakes his head and slides the gear into reverse.

We take the dirt road that cuts through the middle of town, past the bamboo Baptist church – the ‘poor man’s church,’ as we called it – and then the market square where the former local government chairman had, a year ago, stolen public funds and raised a bronze statue to honour his wife, some white woman from America. I can make out its figure standing defiantly, with arms spread wide against the night sky.

‘I can’t believe they haven’t pulled down that statue yet,’ Dave says.

I turn to look at him, at his form bent over the steering wheel, peering hard into the road ahead of him. I can tell he’s nervous. And I would be too, if only I could ignore the pounding in my head, and the cold starting to crawl underneath my shirts. I reach for the heater knob but Dave smacks my hand away.

‘I’m trying to save gas,’ he says.

‘Gas?’

‘Fuel. They call it “gas” in America.’

‘Oh’ is all I say. I refuse to be the one to break it to him that he isn’t in America anymore. I eye the heater knob again, cursing myself for taking off my extra clothing, and then I crank the window up to keep out the chill at least.

Dangling from the dusty rearview is an open locket with a picture of Olamma – fair skin, luscious hair, hazel eyes and all – beaming from ear to ear, her full lips stretched thin to reveal that gap tooth that has disarmed so many. I remember how scarce that smile was in the days after Dave left for America without so much as saying goodbye. She had shown up at my front door, her face streaked with tears, and asked me if Dave had actually moved to America or if someone was playing a cruel joke on her. I had pulled her into a hug, and we had stood there on my verandah, her crying mascara down her cheeks and onto my shirt as I strained to grasp the extent of Dave’s idiocy. We spent that night, Olamma and I, on my couch, talking about everything. From the night we had first met, when I had escorted Dave to pelt rocks at her window and profess his love, to the years I spent playing the third wheel to both of them, on our many escapades to the stream for midnight swims. That night, I had told her how jealous I’d always been of Dave landing her, and she smiled as she smacked my shoulder and told me to shut up.

*

‘He must have used juju on her,’ Dave says almost to himself, his eyes still fixed on the road. ‘He must have.’

‘As in some sort of love charm?’ I ask.

‘Perhaps.’

‘Perhaps? You’re not even sure.’

Dave turns to look at me. ‘Ify, Olamma has been cooped up in Okonkwo’s house for weeks now. And you doubt he used juju on her?’

He had a point.

We peel off the dirt track onto a paved access road that takes us past the old brewery and in between rows of trimmed coconut trees. The houses are fewer now, though humongous, with sprawling walls to keep out prying eyes. I have only passed through this part of town a couple of times before, but I have heard that the families that live here had put their money together and hired vigilante mercenaries who patrolled the place at night. And this I am most wary of.

At the tail end of the street, Dave pulls to a stop by the fence of a two-storey brick house – with an oversized satellite dish hanging off the edge of the roof – and switches off the headlights and kills the engine. Two pillar columns run the height of the house from the roof to the ground, and the branches of a pear tree graze the front window on the left side of the house, from which a yellow glow emanates. The fence around the house isn’t as menacing as those we had passed up the street; it’s only about nine feet tall, and shoulders bougainvillea vines. But atop the fence sit shards of broken bottles that glisten in the glow of the security light.

‘Okonkwo lives here?’ I ask, trying to reconcile my vision of an old juju priest with the house I’m staring at.

‘Yup. He works in the bush during the day, and sleeps in a palace at night.’

‘Jesus. Maybe we should get into this juju business.’

Dave suppresses a chuckle. ‘Don’t make me laugh.’

We sit in the car in silence, staring at the house. Somewhere in the distance a dog barks.

‘What now?’ I ask after a while.

‘We wait till that light goes out,’ Dave says, pointing at the lit window obscured by the pear tree.

‘That’s where I think she is.’

‘And what’s the plan when the light goes out?’

‘We just climb in and get her.’

‘Please tell me you have an actual plan?’

‘Trust,’ Dave says.

My head is still clanging pots and pans, and I have absolutely no will to argue. Only to get through the night, be certain Olamma is safe, and collect my money.

I reach for the pack of Marlboro in my breast pocket and begin to crank down the passenger window.

‘What are you doing?’ Dave’s asks, turning fully to stare at me, ever the drama queen.

‘I can’t feel my nuts, man. I need a smoke.’

‘You can’t smoke now. Someone might spot the light from your cig.’

I let out a low groan and wind the window back up, re-pocketing my pack. I pay Dave’s eye roll no mind. Like I said, drama queen.

*

So, we’re sitting there in his stuffy station wagon, watching the lit window when, all of a sudden, I can’t help it anymore.

‘Why didn’t you tell Olamma you were leaving?’

‘What?’

‘Olamma. Why didn’t you tell her you were moving to America?’

Dave hesitates, traces his fingers across the center of the steering wheel. ‘I don’t know, man.’

‘You didn’t feel you owed her that much, at least? After all those years together?’

‘I just felt I needed a new beginning. It was… it was silly.’ Dave is fidgeting now.

‘Sorry to say this, but that doesn’t make any sense,’ I say, cranking down the window a little to send a spit missile into the night.

‘Excuse you? Since when do you care?’

‘Since you dragged me with you to profess your love in her crazy father’s compound; since you had me sneak all those love notes to her during classes. I got my behind caught and caned because of you.’

‘Wait, you’re still on that?’ Dave’s grin is wider than a Cheshire cat’s. ‘Man, that was years ago. Get over yourself.’

‘I should get over myself, abi?’

‘Yes, get over yourself. See, I know what your problem is.’

‘Oh you do now?’ I adjust myself to face him fully. ‘Tell me, biko. I need to hear this one.’

‘Don’t get sassy with me,’ Dave says.

‘Screw you, man. I can get sassy all I want.’

‘See your problem is you’ve always been jealous of me.’

I let out a guffaw that rocks the car.

‘Would you keep it down!’ Dave hisses.

‘Me? Jealous of you?’

‘Yes. You were jealous when I got Olamma. You were jealous when I got the gig in New Orleans. You were jealous of me then, and you’re still jealous of me now.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Do you see me laughing?’ Dave shoots back.

‘Why, in good heavens, would I be jealous of you now?’

‘Oh, I don’t know… I’ve still got money and you’re out of a job?’

‘Fuck you very much, Dave.’ I spit. My blood is in a deep broil now, and all I want is to get the hell out of that car. And I would, too, if it wasn’t freezing out there.

‘Thanks.’ Dave says. ‘And what sort of “friend” sends a condolence text message anyway.’ He is glaring at me now. I turn away from him.

‘I was out of call credit, man.’ I cringe at how lame I sound.

‘Yeah, the same way you were out of transport fare to attend the funeral, abi?’

‘I…’

‘Let me guess, you were passed out drunk on your front verandah.’ He is relentless now.

‘No, that’s not true.’ I hate how defensive he makes me. I hate that he has somehow found a way to turn this around on me.

‘But of course,’ Dave scoffs. ‘No wonder Nkechi left your sorry ass.’

I feel the air seep out the car, feel my jaw clench shut and my fist ball up. In that moment, the clanging in my head dissipates and all I can hear is the sound of my heaving chest. I look at him sitting there, chewing hard on a gum, staring unflinchingly back at me, and I fight back, with all my will, against the urge to swing my fist into his smug face. I look away from him and nod my head again and again. From the corner of my eye, I can see him watching me, no doubt waiting for me to lash out. And when he sees I wouldn’t oblige him, he makes to turn away from me.

‘I fucked Olamma the week you left,’ I say, my voice even and still.

‘What did you just say to me?’

‘She came over to my place to cry about you. So… yeah, we talked, and we–’

I expected a right jab, which I could have easily fended off. But Dave surprises me. He swings a wide arc with his left and crashes his fist into my snout. I taste copper. And then I throw my left elbow up as he leans over to grab me, but I miss my mark and connect with his forehead instead. I ignore the shock shooting up my left arm and his grunt of pain, and swing with my right this time, sending his head thumping off the headrest. Before long, Dave and I are grappling, and trading punches there in the front seat of his dead father’s station wagon.

And we barely hear the tap against the window – or maybe we do but are too caught up in our bile to pay it any mind. But the second tap is twice as loud, steel against glass, and it’s coming from the driver’s window. Dave and I shove each other off and look in the direction of the noise, straight into the barrels of a shotgun. A flashlight beam flicks on and sweeps over Dave and me in the front seat, and the empty back seats of the station wagon.

‘Puta.’ The voice on the other end of the gun is muffled, firm.

As I reach for the door handle, I look up at the house, at the window closest to the pear tree. The yellow light is gone.

‘Eb’a,’ the voice says. I look out to the driver’s side of the car and the shadow with the gun gestures to me to come around. I pull my shirt tighter around me as I do so, cursing the cold and my luck. As I pull closer to Dave and the figure, I spit the salty glob in my mouth, and no one needs to tell me I’m bleeding. I take my place beside Dave, who’s sporting, on his forehead, a bump the size of a golf ball. Because the flashlight is directly in my face I cannot make out the person waving the gun around.

‘Unu welie aka elu.’

Dave and I raise our hands to the sky.

‘Gini k’unu na’cho eba?’

‘I came for Olamma,’ Dave says, the edge of his voice trembling. ‘Are you Okonkwo? I’m looking for him.’

‘Onye na-aju?’

‘Dave. Dave Enebeli, sir.’

‘Oh…’ the voice says. And the flashlight swings back and rests on the face of the man with the gun. It’s as shriveled as tree bark. On it is attached a nose the shape of a vulture’s beak and a goatee, wiry and sparse like pine leaves. And his eyes are lodged deep in their sockets, dark and unflinching. What looks like white chalk is smeared around his left eye. He looms over us, about 6-foot-6 by my estimation. And he looks not a day younger than 65.

‘Well, you have found me,’ he says, in British-perfect English. And I feel the shiver crawl up my spine.

Dave mumbles something under his breath.

‘So you’re the Dave that has been hounding her? Didn’t she tell you to leave her be?’

‘Dave, I will kill you,’ I grunt under my breath.

‘And who are you?’ Okonkwo is staring full on at me now. And I can’t tell which is weirder; the juju priest with the British accent pointing a gun at me or the fact that he’s kept the flashlight on his face all this while without blinking away the glare.

‘Ifeanyi, sir. Olamma’s friend.’ I reply, in as meek a voice as I can manage.

‘Oh… you’re the one she likes.’

I swallow and nod earnestly. I’ll take anything at this point. I dare not look at Dave.

‘This way. Through the gate. No, no, keep your hands up.’

We walk beside the fence all the way to the wrought iron gate with Okonkwo behind us, lighting the way.

The moment we step through the gate, Dave and I stop in our tracks. Standing on the front verandah of the house, in a glistening white bathrobe, is Olamma. She looks more relaxed than I have ever seen her. Her hair is rolled up in a massive bun and her skin glistens under the light above the verandah. She is bare-footed.

She glares at Dave, her lips pursing, as it always does when she is ticked-off about something. But then her features soften and break into a meek smile and then a concerned frown when she notices me.

‘He dragged you into this?’ she asks me, ignoring Dave.

‘Ola, I came for you,’ Dave says before I can respond. And I can’t help but cringe at the cheesiness.

Olamma scoffs and shakes her head. ‘I’ve already told you many times, Dave. We’re done.’

She motions to Okonkwo who has been standing by our side, with his shotgun raised and rested on his shoulders. He throttles up to her, like a beckoned bellboy, and I can’t keep my jaw from falling slack. Okonkwo stoops for Olamma to whisper into his ears.

I look to Dave who is rooted to the spot, and he looks every bit as stunned as I am.

Olamma finishes whispering her message into Okonkwo’s ears and, as he turns towards us, with a glint in his eye, she grabs his butt and squeezes it – the little squeal that escapes Okonkwo’s lips is a sound I’m sure will haunt me for years.

Olamma then spins on her heels and walks into the house.

‘Alright, take off your clothes. Both of you,’ Okonkwo says.

‘What?’ Dave and I ask at the same time.

Okonkwo drops the gun to chest-level and points it at us. ‘I won’t ask again,’ his voice rumbles.

Dave and I exchange glances, and begin to shed the clothes. When my shirts come off, the cold pierces my skin like a thousand ice needles.

‘You, the one she likes,’ Okonkwo gestures at me with the gun.

‘Ifeanyi,’ I remind him.

‘She says you can leave your boxers on.’

I bite back the sarcastic comment that almost slips from my mouth, and wonder if maybe, just maybe, the boxers might save my balls from the cold. I strip my jeans off; my beanie too. Everything but my Winnie the Pooh boxers.

‘You’re going to sweep this compound till the morning. Then you can leave,’ Okonkwo says as I step forward to hand over my clothes to him. He momentarily lowers the shotgun to take the bundle, which he then dumps on the ground behind him.

‘Sweep all night? Without clothes? In this cold?’ Dave is incredulous – he is shirtless, with one foot out of his trousers. And now he is reluctant to take out the other foot. Now I regret handing my clothes over to Okonkwo so quickly. At this point, I’m sure there’s no way we would make it through the night with nothing but our skins on. I rub my palms together and blow into them. Like it would help.

‘You won’t be the first,’ Okonkwo says. ‘And hurry up with those clothes, young man. I won’t ask again.’

Dave looks at me and the terror in his eyes is unmistakable. He sighs, then strips off the trousers and then the boxers, and soon he is as naked as Adam.

‘What did you think was going to happen when you came to break into my house in the middle of the night?’ Okonkwo’s voice has a menacing edge to it now. ‘Hand over the clothes now,’ he says stepping forward to my right, towards shivering Dave.

And Dave does. Okonkwo lowers his rifle for a split second to take the clothes from him. And that’s when I seize the moment I’ve been waiting for.

I send a straight left pounder to the side of his jaw, and I can swear I hear his teeth rattle with the force. The gun clatters to the ground before Okonkwo does. And the faint thud of his head against the concrete gives me but fleeting pause.

Dave and I stand there, staring at the legendary juju man from the nightmares of our youth splayed out on the floor, his eyes shut against the world.

*

‘Is he dead?’ Dave asks.

‘I’m not waiting to find out,’ I say, jumping over his body and rushing to pick my clothes from where they are strewn out on the floor. Dave kicks the shotgun away from Okonkwo’s lying form and together we scramble out the gate – naked, clothes in hands – towards the waiting station wagon. We clamber into the car, and Dave cranks the ignition on and grinds the car into gear. As we peel off, I look up at the window by the pear tree to find it aglow again but with a bushy-haired figure standing dead-still within its frame, staring right at us.

We both sit in silence as the car shoots down the road, back towards town. The fog hangs heavy in the air, and each time I look behind to see if anyone is following all I can make out is the red glint of the car’s backlight bouncing off the encroaching darkness. I look to Dave and, as usual, he is leaning forward against the wheel, still naked, as I am, with his clothes on his thighs. I reach for the heater knob and switch it on, and after a few puffs of noise and dust, heated air comes spouting out the vents, thawing my frozen skin. As we approach the junction that leads onto the dirt road, Dave leans over and pulls open the glove compartment against my knee. He picks out a piece of paper and drops it on the bundle of clothes in my lap. I reach for the cabin light above and switch it on to get a better look. It is a cheque for a hundred and fifty thousand naira.

‘You don’t have to…’

‘Please,’ Dave says.

I fold the check neatly and slide it into the breast pocket of one of my flannels as Dave reaches up and flicks off the cabin light.

Up ahead, the silhouette of the statue in the market square glides into view, and at once I think again of the figure at Okonkwo’s window; of its wild hair, its spectral edge. And I begin to wonder if Olamma is in fact the one with the juju. For she has, in a sense, loomed over us, over Dave and me. From our preteen days plunking pebbles at her bedroom window to the night we walked through the gates of a juju priest’s home to prove that we were men. I steal a glance at Dave beside me, and he appears mired in his thoughts too. He takes a left at the junction, not towards the statue in the market square, but away from it, so that a few miles down that dirt road, the town is an indistinct blur on the rearview. I sit back and I let my nerves calm some, watching the headlights bob to the hum of the wagon’s tired heater.

 

Image adapted from photo by Eugene Triguba.

 

About the Author

Obi Umeozor

Obi Umeozor received his B.A. in English from the University of Port Harcourt, Nigeria and taught English Literature before moving to the United States in 2015, where he obtained an MFA in Creative Writing from Florida State University. His work has appeared in the New Orleans Review, Shift and other publications. He is currently a […]

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