The Collected Tricks of Houdini

by Rotimi Babatunde

Hannibal now goes to church, the old patrons in the palm wine bar opposite the town hall knew, yet they were surprised when they looked out and saw Hannibal stepping out of a bus with other members of his church, shouting in tongues along with his fellow congregants and raining damnation on the heads of the latter-day Philistines who organised the New Masquerade Festival.

The aged owner of the bar, nicknamed Old Peoples Home by young wits in town, shook his head. The chameleon has changed colour again, he said. Didn’t I tell you all that Hannibal still had another rabbit to pull out of his hat?

Hannibal doesn’t truck in mere rabbits, replied one of the patrons. Like his other stunts, this is more like a three-headed dog wearing sunglasses and smoking a clay pipe.

Some of the drinkers in the bar were older than Hannibal. They had known him for many decades, since the heady years just before independence when the beardless youth used to go around town railing against Her Majesty and the perfidies of the British Empire.

The British brought the Bible and said, look at the sky, and while we looked they took our land, he would declaim. Like General Hannibal, who humbled the arrogant army of Europe, our country will soon shake down the strong gates of imperialism and welcome with bright smiles a new dawn of greatness.

The lad spoke so often about the Carthaginian general and his exploits at Lake Trasimene that people took to calling him Hannibal. The name stuck even after the colonial flag was lowered, and the new rulers of the land began throwing chairs at each other in parliament, and reports of ballot snatching and pogroms in different parts of the country became a staple on the front pages of the newspapers. By the time the civil war commenced and tanks started rumbling through town towards the front line, Hannibal had long stopped talking about the general whose name had displaced his given one.

The town was far from the front and the war did not affect it much. Once every few weeks, there would be the drone of a fighter plane passing overhead, tiny like a distant kite drifting through the clouds. Children would look at it with longing and ask their mothers to buy a toy like that for them. Though there was a lot of confusing talk on the radio about which town was held by whom and which was not, the most pressing concern on the streets was the scarcity of table salt, so Hannibal was baffled when people took to the streets and cars began honking crazily on the day the radio announced that the last of the secessionists had been vanquished by federal forces. Smoking on his balcony, Hannibal watched as the crowd danced in the street below him, and he wondered about how salt could have become so eminent a commodity that the prospect of its availability should trigger such a celebratory carnival.

Our patriotic soldiers are the victors, a former schoolmate of Hannibal shouted. A great nationalist like you should be down here celebrating with us!

Hannibal scowled. I know nothing again about patriotism and nationalism, he replied. I only know that, on the other side, hundreds of thousands of civilians died from starvation.

*

On the noon the funereal procession of mammy wagons materialized like the second advent of a primordial tragedy, Hannibal was in a bar on the road from Black Ithaca with Ramses the Great, the big man who came from abroad but claimed kinship with everyone he met. People didn’t understand why Ramses sometimes stopped strangers on the road to ask them why they sold his forefather across the sea, and many often wondered why someone not known to have achieved anything notable would choose to call himself the Great. Despite those puzzling mannerisms, Ramses was well liked because he had a hearty laugh and was great company. And, anyway, wasn’t the big man thick with the popular Hannibal, who met Ramses some months after the war and began moving around with him as if they were children from the same mother?

Hannibal and Ramses spent a lot of time under the mango tree on the road to the market. There they gave lectures to passers-by about the great civilizations of Kush and Timbuktu, and about how people of the same colour as them were members of one big, glorious family carved up into rival nations by Europe. The duo commissioned a gigantic map of their mother continent, that was what they called it, a map that confounded schoolchildren because it was devoid of national boundaries and galled adults because no geographical point in the district was found worthy of being featured on it except for Black Ithaca, the forest-encircled beginnings of the settlement Ramses and Hannibal had just begun constructing many miles from town.

On the site only three huts had yet been built, one of which served as a field office, but Ramses and Hannibal were already exulting in the apparitions of the non-existent structures, announcing to all that the first phase of the settlement would comprise over a thousand huts which would house their brothers and sisters exiled for many centuries from their mother continent by the evils of the Middle Passage.

There were sniggers from the cynical, some of whom questioned why Ramses, who chose to lodge in a hotel rather than taking up residence in any of the completed huts, would expect others to relocate from the comforts of their homes abroad to poorly conceived thatch huts, but Hannibal and Ramses continued fine-tuning their project.

On the noon the disconcerting procession of mammy wagons lumbered into town, they had just finished inspecting the site when they stopped off at a nearby bar.

A border officer travelling to his base joined their table. I don’t like drinking alone, the officer said.

Yes, he who drinks alone dies alone, Hannibal replied.

Everyone laughed. On learning that the officer headed an inland border post, Hannibal advised him to resign his appointment.

The man looked at Hannibal as if he was mad.

He’s right, Ramses added. You must!

The officer laughed. Why would I do something that stupid, he asked.

For the next hour, gulping down pints from his mug in large mouthfuls and buying drink after drink for everyone on the table, the border officer listened attentively, nodding his head at intervals as Hannibal and Ramses expounded on the reasons why the man should relinquish his job, which policed paper boundaries between people of the same race.

It is a shame that this country still places restrictions on the free movement of beer through the external borders, the border officer finally responded. If people can access all drinks wherever they live, there would be no need for anyone to move from one country to another.

Only then did Ramses and Hannibal realize that the man only wanted company while he drank, and that he would also have bought beer for smugglers if they spared him solitude by allowing him to join their table.

The border officer laughed and made to leave, but he was halted by a startling cry. The alarm came from the bartender, who was staring wide-eyed at a point in the distance. Approaching on the road was one of the most disturbing sights any of them would ever see, a ghastly caravan of mammy wagons with their backs crammed with familiar items of domestic life and a variety of livestock and people of all ages looking stunned and anguished in the train of open-backed lorries snaking on as if without end, like a dejected city on the move.

Almost everyone in the bar knew the passengers had been deported from the neighbouring country after their host government claimed that migrants were cornering jobs at the expense of the locals.

They’ve done it, the border officer screamed. We warned them, but the bastards went ahead and did it! I will tell my men to shoot citizens of that country who attempt to cross our border!

Hannibal and Ramses began protesting that doing such to members of the same race would be scandalous, but the officer interrupted them. To hell with you both, he growled. I will shoot those bastards and their children! I will bury them like the common dogs they are!

The officer stormed out of the bar. Over the next few days, more and more mammy wagons ferrying sullen deportees came into town, and the homeless newcomers stared forlorn out of makeshift tents in the streets around the town centre. The prevailing sentiment was that of the border officer, but Hannibal and Ramses resolved to begin a mass mailing campaign to advocate their opposition to the treachery of retaliatory actions.

Hannibal was at Black Ithaca, drafting letters in the field office, when Ramses shuffled in looking even ghastlier than any of the deportees. Hannibal rose in apprehension. What is the matter, he asked.

Ramses handed Hannibal an envelope. It bore foreign stamps, depicting yellow jessamines and a wren, and addressed to someone Hannibal did not know.

That is my real name, Ramses said.

Hannibal gasped.

Ramses began spilling out the secreted details of his biography. He told Hannibal about how he had been accused of shooting a white woman at a nightclub in inner-city America, even though he has never held a gun in his life, and about his subsequent flight from his country. He lamented the racial injustices in his country, less with anger now but with a newfound tone of regret, and gave details of how, every few years, he had had to change his country of residence and his name to confuse the relentless bloodhounds of the law.

The letter which Hannibal held had just been received that morning by Ramses. It was sent by Ramses’ childhood friend who had become a rural chaplain in the Piedmont, the only person informed all through about the big man’s fugitive’s itinerary.

Read it, Ramses said.

Hannibal opened the envelope. In neat and cursive handwriting, the letter inside stated all charges against Ramses had been dismissed. Hannibal shouted with joy and moved to hug Ramses, but to Hannibal’s surprise, the big man shrank away and flopped down on a chair, looking even more miserable and disgusted with himself. Only later would Hannibal recognize Ramses’ discomforts as the symptoms of an identity crisis, the beginning of a character breakdown triggered by the sudden disappearance of the issue which, till just that morning, had dominated the big man’s adult years.

Some days later, Hannibal arrived at Ramses’ hotel room to see it empty of its long-time occupant’s belongings. On his way out, Hannibal paused to listen to the government spokesman talking on TV, denouncing the neighbouring country that deported his compatriots and ordering everyone from that country to leave or be jailed. It was raining outside. Hannibal, disconsolate and directionless, stumbled through the downpour that continued getting heavier by the minute, the last adherent to a creed doomed to be abandoned by its founding prophet.

*

Some years after Ramses disappeared from town, Hannibal was summoned to an emergency family meeting. That Friday, he was about setting off for the appointment, with his dog for company, when the postman brought him a letter. It was from Ramses. Hannibal dropped the letter in his bag and left home.

Along the way, he decided to make a stopover at the Molotov Cocktail. The first time Hannibal visited the place, he had come to pay for a scooter at an outlet nearby, but the manager he needed to see was not around. Hannibal strolled into the Molotov Cocktail to burn time with a drink while he waited for the manager’s return. On asking for the price of the drink he had just ordered, Hannibal was told he was free to pay any amount he could afford.

Why, Hannibal asked.

Today is Happy Friday, he was told.

Hannibal shrugged and settled for a table farthest from the chattering throng around the small stage in the space. An old man took the stage, and the crowd went silent.

Who’s that, Hannibal inquired from a shabbily dressed woman.

The woman glared at him, and hissed. So you don’t know Comrade Spanner, she asked. From what planet did you just drop?

Oh, I’ve heard a lot about him, Hannibal said. So that’s the famous Comrade Spanner!

The comrade had been the brightest in his class during his architectural studies at the Pushkin Institute, but after graduation, he showed more interest in the architecture of societies rather than that of physical structures. Hannibal found it amazing that the frail-looking old man sipping water from a glass was the same person whose legendary exploits included serving as a Colonel beside Amilcar Cabral in the guerrilla struggle against the Portuguese colonial forces and paddling on a flimsy raft with Che down a torrential river in the Congo.

Comrade Spanner began speaking. As the old man’s quivering voice ranged nimbly over the issues of heaven and earth, and the affairs of nations pale and dark, and the tools of industry in the hands of the owners of capital, Hannibal found himself paying greater and greater attention, until it seemed nothing else mattered in time and space but the old man’s outstanding wisdom and his supreme precision of utterance. In the course of the talk, Hannibal learnt that not until the year before, after Comrade Spanner’s roughly-used health compelled the old man’s return to his hometown, did Comrade Spanner design and build the Molotov Cocktail, his first and only purely civil project, as a model of socialist functionality.

Hannibal was intrigued that the austere venue was set up to run as a cooperative. People were allowed to become members with any amount they could afford, and they could drink as much as they could handle, in line with the motto From Every Man According to His Ability and to Every Man According to His Needs inscribed below the sickle and hammer logo on the red name board above the Molotov Cocktail’s entrance. Comrade Spanner always gave a talk at the Molotov Cocktail on Happy Friday, which took place once a month. On that special day, the privileges of membership were extended to all comers, to afford them the opportunity of hearing Comrade Spanner speak. When the aged comrade was done with his lecture, Hannibal, still shaken by the old man’s eloquence, rose from his seat and moved in a swoon to the drinks counter, where he paid for his membership with all the money he had saved for the purchase of his dream scooter.

Hannibal moved straight into the core of the comrades’ activities. He was actively involved in the villagization unit, whose mandate included the mobilization of peasants to form farming cooperatives and the survey of arable land on which urban bourgeoisie would be re-settled for real work after the revolution. When Hannibal took his mission as far as his father’s spread, which hosted the largest cocoa plantation in the district, his family elders called his paternity into question, even though his face was the spitting likeness of his father’s. That was after Hannibal arrived at the estate with his comrades and shocked the farmhands by announcing his intention to share his father’s spread to them in equal lots. Only bastards are known to play such games with treasured heirlooms, Hannibal’s family head said. That was why he summoned Hannibal to a family meeting, and it was to that event that Hannibal was going on the day the postman gave him the only communication he would ever receive from his old friend Ramses.

Hannibal walked into the Spartan interior of the Molotov Cocktail. He sat on one of the venue’s distinctive bamboo seats, under a plaque etched with Comrade Spanner’s lengthy list of detentions, a smart solution by the distinguished comrade’s admirers to the problem of Spanner’s refusal to have his portrait gracing the same walls alongside Lenin’s and Lumumba’s. Hannibal brought out the envelope given to him by the postman. Inside it were several photographs and a note from Ramses saying the snapshots were those of his young family.

One picture showed Ramses and his wife, a tall blonde woman whose lovely legs were set off by her shin-clinging boots, turning over barbecues in their backyard. In another the couple’s children, a girl with ribbons adorning her hair and a boy blowing coloured bubbles skywards, were playing in a landscape of snow-powdered twigs. The last showed Mrs Ramses, or Mrs Whatever-the-fuck-her-husband-calls-himself-now, Hannibal would later quip, assisting a boy driving a tricycle up the driveway to their home. Hannibal did not need anyone to tell him that the house was located in bourgeois suburbia.

Hannibal rose and clapped for attention. Hear, everyone, hear, Hannibal shouted. This is the evidence! This is the evidence that class, not race, stands at the crossroads of revolutionary action!

The pictures were passed around. All the comrades present, a normally argumentative bunch, agreed with Hannibal’s position. Hannibal left the place happy because of the rare consensus he had been able to inspire, and he headed towards the family meeting, his dog trotting behind.

At the venue, he would meet the gathered elders livid, not only against him but also against his father. The elders had been busy accusing Hannibal’s father of spoiling his son by giving him all he wanted, which was why Hannibal didn’t see the need to hold a steady job.

Isn’t it a shame that at his age he is yet to have a wife or children, the family head queried Hannibal’s father. And isn’t it disgraceful that whenever I ask him why he isn’t yet married, he tells me that marriage is just an excuse to convert another person’s genitals into one’s private property?

In response, Hannibal’s father said that all the accusations against him would be properly directed at God, because as everyone in the room knew, he, Hannibal’s father, had prayed for long to have a son, and having been given one, he could do no more than to continue thanking God for the provision, even though Hannibal’s father was not sure if God really deserved any gratitude, since it was He who bestowed on the family the capital scoundrel who answers to Hannibal, that ridiculous name no one in his family gave him.

That was when Hannibal made his entrance. Before any of the elders could begin chastising him, Hannibal prostrated and apologized for arriving late. He brought out a slate from his bag and, with the use of graphs and illustrations, proceeded to give the gathering an analysis of class and economic relations as an explanation for the actions he took on his father’s plantation. It took the weak-voiced elders some time to shout the family prodigal down. By the time Hannibal stopped talking, several of the elders were yelling that bastardy was too mild a diagnosis for Hannibal and that his affliction was a mental condition grave enough to perplex the finest psychiatrists.

Hannibal wished the furious elders a cheery goodnight. On the veranda, he nudged awake his sleeping dog. Even as a puppy, the dog had paid no heed to being the tiniest in its mother’s litter. It always fought viciously to prevent his sibling puppies from getting near their platter, not minding that its stomach was already bulging and it could no longer swallow a morsel. Hannibal was fascinated. The woman who owned the puppy was happy to give it away to Hannibal. He named it Adam Smith.

The small dog quickly became the terror of Hannibal’s kitchen, dragging out food from the cabinets and decimating crates of raw eggs. Then the fly-plagued dumpsite of the neighbourhood became its choice playground, the dog driving Hannibal crazy by bringing home fetid rodents and half-eaten chickens and used sanitary pads. Once Adam Smith hauled up the staircase a large plastic horse whose importance to the dog no one could fathom. Whenever Hannibal was asked why he had named the dog Adam Smith, Hannibal would reply that like capitalism and its agents, the dog stank, needed to be caged and had a high propensity for theft.

On the way home from the family meeting, Hannibal watched as Adam Smith, at frequent intervals, raised up its hind legs to piss on signboards and trees and houses and parked cars, the dog claiming each property as its with one sharp squirt. However, Adam Smith’s masterpiece would not come until a few days later when Hannibal arrived home to meet the dog chewing on a massive cow’s head it had dragged all the way from the shop of the wealthy butcher a couple of streets away.

The infuriated butcher arrived yelling and threatening hell, but Hannibal screamed back that the man had no reason to be angry because, as one of the town’s foremost capitalists, the butcher’s indulgence like the dog’s was also theft.

The only difference between you and Adam Smith is merely that you’re that dog’s senior colleague in the practice, Hannibal shouted at the now dumbstruck butcher.

Shortly after the cow’s head incident, Hannibal vanished. Stories filtered in that he was fighting alongside leftist guerrillas in Angola and Mozambique. That he was running guns from Yemen, through the Gulf of Aden and down the Indian Ocean, in aid of guerrillas warring against forces backed by the apartheid regime. That he had been shot by American special agents when he undertook a mission in the company of Cuban troops to take an enemy camp. After that, nothing else was heard about Hannibal, and people concluded that he was dead.

*

A few months after Everybody’s Goat was opened, three grandmothers returning from a church vigil saw the spirit of The Corporation hovering, like the Spirit of God, over the gravestones in the cemetery. Then the spirit descended and began dancing naked amidst the headstones. Perhaps it was just a mischievous drunk playing a prank on the old women, people said. But a fortnight later, the policemen guarding the community bank also sighted the spirit of The Corporation alighting from an expensive jeep, carrying a fat suitcase. The policemen dropped their guns and took to their heels. Anxiety became widespread after students in a boarding school came upon the spirit of The Corporation grinning with weirdly white teeth at them from the back of their dormitory, and the call girls in Central Hotel confirmed that a colleague of theirs had gone mad after being picked up for the night by a mutable creature that kept changing sex and age and skin colour all through the hours the girl spent in the creature’s embrace. What else could that creature be if not the spirit of The Corporation, the prostitutes said.

So when, in the murky light of dawn, a band of fish traders on their way to the market ran into the inter-state motor park, screaming that they had just seen the spirit of The Corporation smoking on a balcony, the marijuana-addled layabouts in the park said enough was enough. They picked up sticks and cutlasses, and the terrified fish traders led them to the building where they had seen the spirit. There, they met Hannibal on the balcony of his long-empty apartment, puffing away at his habitual morning cigarettes as if he had never been away. The morning was now much brighter, and the posse saw that Hannibal, who had just arrived in town the night before, was neither spirit nor ghost.

When Hannibal heard of their mission, he laughed. I heard about The Corporation while abroad, he said. The Corporation is not owned by any spirit but by a bunch of rich people.

So why have those faceless owners not made their identities public, asked a member of the posse.

That is the nature of modern business, said Hannibal. Even if there’s anything called the spirit of The Corporation, do you think you can kill a spirit with machetes and cudgels?

The posse dispersed.

Hannibal’s neighbours came out to welcome the man who now peppered his speech with phrases from a language some people said was Portuguese and others argued was Spanish. He did not look much different, except that his hair had gone mostly grey.

One of the neighbours asked Hannibal about the revolution. Hannibal stooped down like the Son of God, and drew a large circle on the sand.

What’s the meaning of that, asked the neighbour.

The only revolution I know is a circle, a wise man once said, Hannibal replied. I agree with that sage.

Hannibal inquired after Adam Smith. His neighbours told him that his beloved dog had been run over by a Coca Cola truck many months before. Tears streamed down Hannibal’s face. Adam Smith was right, Adam Smith was right, Hannibal sobbed. His neighbours didn’t understand what he was talking about.

Later that day, Hannibal headed for the Molotov Cocktail, but he was startled when, on arrival at the place where the Molotov Cocktail should have been, he saw Everybody’s Goat there instead.

An old regular at the Molotov Cocktail was passing by. He relieved Hannibal of his confusion.

Comrade Spanner died intestate, the man said, because he didn’t believe in inheritance and so didn’t leave any will. The man went on to narrate how Comrade Spanner’s children used the courts to take over the property from the comrades and how the children further trampled upon their father’s memory by selling it to The Corporation.

The Corporation’s workmen moved in, banging and scraping with manic intensity, and it seemed their mandate was not to effect a refurbishment of the building, not even to ensure the mere transformation of it, but rather it was as if they had been tasked with obliterating from the earth’s memory any reminder of the ideology that the property once concretized. By the time the workmen were done, the Molotov Cocktail had metamorphosed into Everybody’s Goat, the swanky nightclub and casino which only the very rich could afford to patronize and in whose glitzy frontage Hannibal and his old friend from the now defunct Molotov stood talking.

The goat jointly owned by everybody dies of hunger, that was the proverb from which those capitalist sharks derived the casino’s name, the man said.

Hannibal chuckled and said, I love the wit of whoever came up with that name.

This is no laughing matter, the man protested. They named it that in mockery of comrades like us.

I am no longer a comrade of yours, Hannibal said. Comrade Spanner was an old fool. And all of you statist clowns more than deserve any mockery you get.

Hannibal walked off, leaving his former comrade in shock.

Shortly after Hannibal’s return, The Corporation made a bid for the government-owned flour mill, the biggest employer of labour in town. Protests erupted on the streets, coordinated by Hannibal’s one-time comrades, but Hannibal was now on the other side of the ideological divide. He spoke a lot on radio and appeared on TV, arguing that all the nationalized establishments he saw during his years abroad were ruined by inefficiency and corruption, and that private enterprise was the only path to prosperity.

Hannibal’s camp won. Workers at the mill began receiving their salaries on time for the first time in ages, and farmers who supplied the mill grain were all smiles as demand for their produce rose to levels their fields could not meet, and people began wondering why there had been so much fuss about The Corporation’s bid for the mill. But some months after the takeover, the beautiful dream went bust when The Corporation announced that it would be reorganizing the mill’s operations. One miserable morning, the bulk of workers at the mill found their sack letters waiting for them when they got to work, and the farmers’ faces went grim when the mill stopped all grain purchases. Then huge trucks owned by The Corporation began making their way from the coast to the mill, bringing in imported flour and leaving from the mill’s exits with same flour merely repacked for distribution in sacks branded with The Corporation’s logo.

In the wake of these events, sleep became Hannibal’s gateway to hell. In his nightmares, oftentimes he would be held hostage by the labyrinthine streets of a rundown city, forever trying to force his way without success through legions of jobless folk who keep on multiplying on the streets like a recurring decimal. And at other times he would find himself running for hours and hours across erstwhile grain fields that had turned into a wilderness, a wilderness sloping up and down without end, or find himself wandering lost in a deserted mill, with its cobwebbed machine rooms opening on and on into one another. At dawn, his bed would be soaked with sweat, as if from a bucket upturned on him while he slept.

Hannibal decided to tender apologies to everyone he knew who was hurt by the sale of the mill. The wife of the machinist who died after being teargased out of the mill, along with other sacked workers, looked vacuously at Hannibal when he came to express regrets for his role in the affair.

I don’t understand what you are saying, but my husband will, the woman said. She paused, and then continued. Whenever I visit his grave, I hear him still coughing from the effects of the teargas. Pay him a visit and he will hear you out.

Hannibal visited the machinist’s grave several times. He never heard anyone coughing.

Hannibal also tried to beg for the forgiveness of the mill’s longest serving cleaner. You’re merely a man, Hannibal, not a spirit, the cleaner said. He gave Hannibal a sad smile. But I was not sacked by a human being. I was sacked by the spirit of The Corporation, the old man concluded, sinking Hannibal deeper into despair.

*

Hannibal lingered long in the doldrums, until brightness came for him with the arrival in town of Professor Wonder. The posters that had appeared all over town announcing the upcoming show of the Professor, an oblong-headed performer with a pointed goatee and a Sinbad moustache, billed him as the contemporary version of Houdini, the great man whose stories grandmothers had told their daughters and which those daughters still recount to their children. But to Hannibal’s delight, on the day of the performance Professor Wonder proved himself more a clown than a great magician.

The town hall was packed for the show. The spectators watched in expectation as Professor Wonder tried to turn three oranges into pigeons, but the oranges refused to transmute. Instead, the birds, which he had concealed in his pockets, escaped and began fluttering gaily around the auditorium. And when the Professor tried to sublime himself out of a locked cask, his assistants had to free him because the man had picked up the wrong key.

The Professor apologized and promised to slice the Fat Lady, his wife, into two and then seamlessly join her two halves back together. When Professor Wonder cranked down the lever of the contraption, the Fat Lady let out a scream that seemed too real to be part of the performance. She wriggled out of the contraption and accused her husband of trying to murder her so he could be free to spend time with his many concubines, but her husband shouted back that if she hadn’t eaten so much before the performance, her stomach wouldn’t have bulged into the blade’s range.

Hannibal had been laughing hard all through the show, but other members of the audience were not amused. They chased Professor Wonder off the stage and out of the town hall and all the way down the road to its very end. At that terminus, the Professor performed his only magical act of the night, by vanishing into the rooms of the brothel located there.

Hannibal joined the crowd gathered by the gate of the town hall. The older ones in the crowd, some of whom testified to seeing Houdini perform before their very eyes when they were children, were recounting the feats of the great magician. They spoke about how Houdini was welded shut into a drum and how the drum was cast into a pond, but some minutes later, Houdini appeared smiling on the other side of the water. And they talked of that other time Houdini was put in a straightjacket and tied seven times into seven sacks, before being suspended from a crane. The spectators’ eyes were still glued to the swinging crane when Houdini appeared on the roof of a nearby building, waving cheerfully. His most spectacular act though was the one in which he was nailed by a dozen carpenters into a hardwood coffin. The coffin was lowered into a grave, and the grave was packed hard with red earth. The hours flew past, but there was no Houdini. Just when his crew were about deploying emergency shovels to dig him out, the mischievous voice of Houdini sounded in the midst of the spectators, asking if it was him they really intended to go looking for.

You’re all wrong, a girl carrying a backpack said. Houdini lived on another continent, not here, and he was dead long before almost everyone here was born.

Then why does he feature in one of our well-known proverbs, an aged woman said.

What proverb, asked the girl.

The cage that will hold Houdini has not yet been built.

Another senior in the crowd began berating the girl, wondering how she could know anything about Houdini when she didn’t even know that common proverb. Your generation deserves nothing better than the illustrious mug who calls himself Professor Wonder, the senior shouted.

Hannibal intervened. Consider the great feats of Houdini and you will realize that you and the girl are right, he told the fuming senior. It would be nothing for such a legendary magician as Houdini to escape from a black skin into any other kind, and from the grave back to life, and from the past to the present, or vice versa, don’t you think so?

That pacified everyone. On the way home, Hannibal’s steps had the old spring back, and that night, for the first time in ages, his sleep was devoid of the endless horror trips. Afterwards, Hannibal’s pleasant spirits returned, and he began throwing himself about with the same energy as before. He danced through the streets when the radio announced the success of a military coup, joined protests calling for a return to democracy, began preaching anarchy when the politicians proved as venal as their military forbears, persisting in his interminable odyssey like a rolling stone that keeps on gathering more moss.

It was only a few weeks after Hannibal joined a new-age Pentecostal church that he accompanied his fellow parishioners to the town hall. The municipal authorities were repackaging the annual masquerade festival into a tourist event, but members of Hannibal’s church were not prepared to brook such diabolism.

The radio was on in the palm wine bar opposite the town hall, and the newscaster was talking about beheadings, abductions, suicide bombings, crucifixions, the same horrors being replicated in different places around the world.

I wouldn’t be surprised if one day we hear that Hannibal has vanished from town again, the bar owner said.

Why, asked one of the patrons.

To join those Islamic militants we hear of in the news.

Isn’t he too old for that now?

Remember our people’s proverb.

Which of them?

The bar owner looked in the direction of Hannibal. Everyone followed suit.

The cage that will hold Houdini has not yet been built, the bar owner replied.

 

About the Author:

Rotimi Babatunde is a Nigerian writer and playwright. In 2012, he won the Caine Prize for his short story “Bombay’s Republic.” In April 2014, he was named in the Hay Festival’s Africa39 project as one of the 39 Sub-Saharan African writers under the age of 40 with the potential and the talent to define the trends of the region. In 2015, his short story “The Collected Tricks of Houdini” was longlisted for the Sunday Times EFG Private Bank Short Story Award. His plays have been broadcast on the BBC World Service and presented at London’s Institute of Contemporary Arts, the Swedish National Touring Theatre, and the Halcyon Theatre, Chicago. He is also a winner of BBC World Service’s Meridian Tragic Love Story Competition as well as the AWF Cyprian Ekwensi Prize for Short Stories.

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