December 9, 1984;
The sun was hot enough to make a man go crazy. The sweltering heat made fat-bellied Nnaemeka drink more Coke than his body needed. He was driving the patients from the Yaba Psychiatric patients in Lagos to the Calabar Lunatic Asylum in Cross River State. At Onitsha, Nnaemeka stopped to take a leak. He alighted from the bus, walked a polite distance away, found a suitable spot, and released a long and warm fountain of nitrate to the poor, unsuspecting grasses, while letting out a reverberating fart. The erotic aroma of Egusi soup and stockfish strolled from a mile away, and began flirting with his nostrils; it whispered in his ears a song of a thousand voices. ‘Come,’ they chorused. Nnaemeka went.
An empty bus greeted his eyes when he came back. “Chineke,” he muttered while running to the bus. He flung the take-away pounded yam and Egusi soup he was carrying aside. It was what had set off this ticking bomb. Denying the obvious, he climbed aboard and checked under the seats. The patients were all gone.
‘They couldn’t have gone far.’
‘Oh Lord! I will lose my job.’
‘Even if I find them, how can I possibly get them into the bus at once?’
A rainbow of thoughts coloured his head. He paced the deserted highway, got into the bushes and out, but futility stared him in the face. He threw his rump to the ground and his hands cupped his bald head, an Igbo dirge trailing from his lips, and as irregular beads of water from his eyes.
After two hours of self-loathe and sulking, he got up, started the bus, and drove to the bus terminal at Obubra. With the help of a bottle of palm wine sour enough to rearrange one’s taste buds, Nnaemeka swayed the bus terminal administrator into letting him board the passengers traveling to Calabar by night bus. At 8:03pm, his bus full, he took off.
11:57pm, the sky was dressed in velvet black. Nnaemeka turned his headlights off as he approached the asylum’s gates. The gatekeepers let him in. Some passengers stirred as he came down from the bus. The sleep lingering in their eyes distorted their understanding of their reality. Three attendants came to escort the them to their rooms.
“Gentulumen,” Nnaemeka said in his gauche Igbo accent, “I think you are going to need more hands here, these ones are strong o! Since this journey started they have been telling me about how they’re all coming from Obubra and on their way to Calabar; all of them have the same story. Negodu, see for yourself.”
The attendants walked into the bus and began to drag out the zonked passengers. The air reeked of pandemonium. Some pleaded for their lives, some demanded for their rights to be respected, threatening to sue (the do-you-know-who-I-am-ers), while those who assumed they were being kidnapped declared their assets or their lack of. The attendants called for backup. Backup came with a stack of tranquilizers which were administered on the passengers. Silence returned.
The pungent smell of bleach mixed with that of dried gag and a hint of crusty old people smell kissed Kassie’s nostrils as she opened her eyes. She tried to move but couldn’t. She was bound to the bed by a belt and her movement was restrained by a straitjacket. Attempting to talk, the wind stole her words. After struggling for a while to become loose, she simmered down. The room she was in was a small one, with walls with peeling paint and cracks, a terrazzo floor, a ceiling fan whose motion was as slow as the ticking of a clock, a knob-less door, a wide pane of glass beside the door that allowed her to see into the hallway. In the room with her was another woman, bound to a bed, asleep, in a straitjacket too.
“Hello,” she called out. No response.
She tried to call again but an obese, angry-looking nurse barged into the room with a wheelchair and walked towards her. The nurse took off Kassie’s straitjacket, held up a syringe, and injected into her arm. She did the same for the other woman in the room. She then wheeled the woman out, and came back with another wheelchair for Kassie. Kassie sat there while being wheeled, unable to keep her head upright or keep her hands still. The nurse too her into a dining hall, sat her down beside a table and sat down opposite her, holding a bowl of yam porridge that looked like radioactive waste. The nurse took some and tried to feed Kassie. Kassie sealed her lips tighter as the spoon drew nearer. The nurse seemed not to care if Kassie’s mouth was open; she smeared the spoon of porridge on her sealed lips. She did this till the bowl was empty, and left porridge all over Kassie’s chin, neck and thighs. The nurse then stood up and left to fetch food to feed another patient. Kassie sat there, trying to remember what had happened the night before, but her thoughts were interrupted by a row on the other side of the room.
“This is all a misunderstanding. I was on my way to Calabar, and perhaps I boarded the wrong bus. I am not mad,” he kept on saying, “I swear to God I’m not crazy, this is all a misunderstanding, I am not mad.”
Two men took him away. Kassie remembered how and why she had gotten there. She called two nurses who looked less angry than the previous one, told them her name, and explained in a tender rant everything the screaming man was saying. The nurses looked at each other, sniggered and walked away. Names did not matter in that place.
Kassie’s drug-induced sleep was interrupted by the sound of a creaking bed. Her roommate was rocking the bed while looking into a hand-held mirror, stroking her short, thick black-brown hair. “I’m a pretty, white lady.” The British accent that rolled with her words almost as spotless and as pure as her teeth. “I’m a pretty, white lady,” she’d mutter repeatedly, chuckling at intervals.
“Hello, pretty lady. What’s your name?” Kassie asked.
“Hi, I’m Tee-tee.”
“Titi, that’s a lovely name.”
“No! Not Titi, tee-tee. Short for Motunrayo but I make everyone call me that because it rhymes with pretty. Pretty, Tee-tee, See?” Kassie smiled. “So, what are you in here for?”
“Well, this is, in fact, a prison for the crazy. So what did you do?”
“Look, Tee-tee, I was brought here by accident. It’s a long story but I need your help to get out of here.”
“Shhh, no one leaves!”
Tee-tee walked to Kassie’s bed and bent over her, bathing her nose with the putrid smell of onion and fish. Her face was so close to Kassie’s that Kassie could see her pupils.
“Come on, get up,” a wide-eyed Tee-tee said, “It’s almost time.”
Kassie pushed Tee-tee’s face away. “Time for what?”
“The best night of your life. Follow me, you’ll see.”
She brought in a wheelchair, helped Kassie on, and wheeled her out of the room. Kassie wasn’t sure what the time was, but darkness had blanketed the earth. Tee-tee wheeled her out to the garden and stopped. All the patients in the asylum were present there, but there wasn’t a single nurse in sight. An eerie calm fell on Kassie. She sensed they all felt the same way.
“What is going on, Tee-tee?”
“Oh dear, only the best thing in the world. It’s Tuesday night, stargazing night. For tonight, those frustrated, no-husband-at-the-age-of-fifty-five nurses will let us watch the stars, and sing, and laugh, and be. It’s the only good thing this place has to offer.”
The patients were sitting around a bonfire. Tee-tee and Kassie sat away from the group.
“Since you are new here, let me tell you about everyone.”
She began pointing, telling Kassie about the abusive relationship each patient had with sanity.
“See that man over there? Colonel John Onwubiko, he fought in Biafra. Poor fool still thinks he is in the battlefield. He is gay. He even wants to be a woman. Then that lady way over there is Delilah’s character in the alternate universe; Madam Cash. She thinks she’s a man. The wench goes around hitting on the female nurses. One time, she and Delilah were caught doing the do. You know! It’s crazy right? I bet you a thousand naira that thirty years from now, that won’t be seen as insanity.”
Tee-hee continued, “And that person standing right there on that little wooden podium is Ndinamsomfon- God! I bit my tongue again as usual pronouncing that. She has a bloody terrible Efik accent and she loves to play the maestro, that one. She loves music more than the air that keeps her heart beating.”
As they spoke, Ndinamsomfon mimicked someone playing the piano, “it is my pleyure to play the pyano for you all,” Ndinamsomfon jested.
Tee-tee smirked, and went on, “The old woman right next to her is Halima. She’s always holding an imaginary baby, cuddling and singing to it. Poor thing. Behind her is the sweet little boy who believes he’s a dog; he walks on all fours.”
At some point, Kassie stopped listening to her. Her eyes wandered around. Ndinamsomfon was waving her hands up and about as though leading an orchestra. Kassie recognized some of the people who had been in the bus with her. She counted them with her eyes. Twelve, the ones she could remember. Her roving eyes landed on a figure by the tree, camouflaged into the darkness. She tapped the still talking Tee-tee and asked her who that was.
Tee-tee pressed her lips against each other, shrugged her shoulders and said, “That one’s a suicidal maniac. I tell you, he is one of those angels that betrayed God and now carries his hell everywhere he goes. His name’s Faruq. He’s been here longer than anyone else, even me, and I’ve been here a long time. He knows this place inside out. If you want to get out of here, he is your guy.”
Kassie stood up from her wheelchair and went towards Faruq.
“Hey,” Tee-tee called, halting her. “Be careful.”
Kassie smiled and went on. She sat down beside Faruq. Minutes went by without a word spoken.
“Hello,” she broke the silence. “I’m Kasarachi. Nice to meet you.” He didn’t reply. She continued, “I’ll get to the point. I need to get out of here. I’m not supposed to be here.” She explained to him everything that had happened, but still he said nothing.
After about an hour of her coaxing him to help her out, he bent his head to his crossed legs and said under his breath, “There’s no way out.”
Kassie said in a brittle voice, “Please help me. I beg you. I’ll die here.”
He reached into his pyjama pocket, brought out a novel, and gave it to Kassie.
“This will help you pass time,” he said.
He stood up along with the other patients and they all went back into the building. Kassie ran into her room, and threw the book to the corner. She lay on her bed , the streaks of her tears dried on her face. Amidst the grave-like silence, a beautiful sound sprang up.
“That’s Ndinamsomfon singing,” Tee-tee said. “She sings that same song every night. It’s beautiful.”
Kassie turned her head on her pillow, faced Tee-tee and watched her close her eyes and sing along:
If the moon had a mouth
I truly doubt
If I could walk freely under the sun
Because my soul would be naked
And my mind unclothed.
It would tell tales about how my adulterous mind made love to the stars
And how my promiscuous head wandered off to Mars.
Tuesday night. Star gazing night. Escape night. Kassie, ten of her fellow bus passengers (the remaining, lucid ones), and some patients of the asylum including Tee-tee had a plan. The nurses left the patients, and then the escapees left the crowd. Stealthily, they took the workers’ aisle to the laundry room. One by one, they crawled through the drainage pipe. A fat passenger began to cry after he tried to fit through but couldn’t. The others all crawled out successfully. Their only hindrance from freedom now was the fence. They were contemplating which path to take so as not to draw attention to them when a bright white light was shone on them.
“Hey! Stop there right now.”
“To the fence!” Kassie yelped. They all responded, running towards the fence with Kassie behind to make sure they all got there. They could hear the dogs hot in pursuit. Kassie threw each leg forward faster than they had ever been made to go. Heavily-panting, hot air filling her nostrils and head, pounding chest. Like a child running to welcome her father home, she wouldn’t slow down.
Her pace grew weary when she noticed those ahead of her decreasing in number. Perhaps it was the wind in her eyes, she thought. A misstep, and she went down, sliding through the ground, scraping the side of her legs, arms and face. She was in pain, but the sight that met her eyes when she got up froze the soreness. They were sinking, about nine of them, in septic waste.
Kassie was able to pull Halima out. She reached out to Tee-tee. Kassie stretched her arm forward as far as she could. Tee-tee sank in deeper. Almost there. Their hands connected. Kassie was pulling Tee-tee out when someone grabbed her from behind, and pulled her away. The hands disconnected. He lifted her; her legs went back and forth throwing kicks in the air as she screamed, “No! Please no! My friend is in there please. She’s sinking, Tee-tee!”
The water sprayed from a hose by a nurse did well to wash the stink off Kassie’s tranquilized body, but failed at washing away the pain and hatred she felt at herself and someone else, someone unknown, God, perhaps. She lay in bed motionless. All those people, some of whom had been on the bus with her. Delilah, Madam Cash, Ndinamsomfon. All dead, and it was her fault. But what etched the deepest hole in her heart was that her pretty white lady was gone.
Three months passed. To Kassie, it felt like three years. Three years of endless pills, three years of numbing sedatives, three years of undercooked porridge that caused the anus to become peppery and shrink after all the purging, three years without Ndinamsomfon’s lullabies (she swore she could still hear it in the hallways on some nights), three years without Tee-tee. Old lady Halima constantly cursed Kassie out for ‘causing her baby die.’ Only two of Kassie’s fellow passengers were still alive, one of whom was the potbellied man who had been unable to pass through the pipe. It later came to light that he had ratted them out. He said that if he couldn’t leave with them, then no one would leave. The only person Kassie would speak to was Faruq, but he never spoke to her.
Stargazing night again, and guards were stationed at different places in the open spaces as had been for the past three months. Kassie went over to Faruq who was in his usual spot under the Melina tree, his head bent towards his crisscrossed legs and folded arms.
“Perhaps I’m crazy, but the truth is I do enjoy talking to you.”
“Perhaps,” he chuckled. “Don’t kid yourself, we’re all crazy here.”
He was speaking to her. Finally.
Faruq continued, “It’s amazing how people like you think that we can’t last a day in the real world when, in truth, you wouldn’t survive a night in ours.”
“People like me?”
“Yes. Your friends, the ones you came with; the ones who, like you, claim to be normal.” Kassie simpered. “I’m sorry about your friend Tee-tee.”
“Thanks. I didn’t know her for long, but what I do know is that Tee-Tee had a beautiful soul trapped in the wrong body. I miss her a lot. Do you have any friends?”
“Not anymore. I, um, I don’t like people much. I feel that they’re, well, temporary.”
“That’s a shame! Tell me Faruq,” she drew closer, “what’s your story? How long have you been here?”
“You’re nosy,” he paused. “I’ve been here for as long as I can remember. At first my parents, well, my mother, would come to see me. She’d bring food and drinks, my favourite kind, but all that stopped eventually. I wasn’t responding to therapy or to the drugs. I was a waste of her time, and so she gave up. She didn’t understand how it felt, worse, I couldn’t explain it either. It’s like,” he paused, drew closer to Kassie and stuttered, “have you ever had one of those terrible nightmares and then you wake up panting and sweating, and you look around and touch your surroundings, and then you heave a sigh of relief because you find out that it was a nightmare and that it’s not real? You see, I am stuck in my nightmares; I never get to wake up. I live in a prison where I’m both the afflicted captive and the sadistic captor.”
He told her so much.
When stargazing night was over, they all headed back to their wards. Kassie peeped into Faruq’s room as she passed by. He banged the door shut when he noticed her looking. All night long, the image of Faruq’s room flashed before her and she shuddered each time. Writings ingrained on the wall, some with charcoal, some, she assumed, with his fingernails and most with blood.
After that night, Kassie and Faruq spent most of their time together. Every stargazing night, they would sit under the Melina tree and tell tales about life before the asylum, or in the asylum. He would tell her how his father had abandoned his family, and how he had wanted to explain to his mother that his suicidal attempts were not to end his life but to end his pain, and that death had already reached him a long time ago. He would tell her how his head was a battlefield and how the number of cuts on his wrists was the body count. And how he loved to chew the yellow petals of sunflowers because he believes they’d bring him happiness.
One Tuesday night, Kassie and Faruq sat in their usual spot. The evening breeze blew the words from one’s mouth to the other’s ear. Kassie reached out and placed her hands on his saying, “Faruq, I know you’ve been here for quite some time now, you know the place in and out that’s why you’re the best person to help me. Please, I need you to help me leave this place, please.”
“You want to leave? He asked bashfully, “I thought you were starting to like this place?”
Of course, I like it here, but understand me. I don’t belong here; I’d die if I stay here much longer.”
“You,” he began to stutter, “You want… you want to leave…me all alone?
“Come with me? Yes! Let’s leave together. Wouldn’t you like that?”
“I would…I would love that. But this is my home. The same way you feel… you feel you can’t live here… that’s the same way… I can’t live in your world.”
They went on and on, the one trying to convince the other against their will. It was a verbal war with stray bullets piercing each other’s chest. Tears rolled down Faruq’s cheeks.
“You’re like the rest,” Faruq said. “They promise you forever, the most beautifully-crafted illusion known to mankind, and then… then they leave. They leave.”
“You’re being selfish right now,” Kassie ranted in a harsh voice. “Maybe, maybe, that’s why everyone around you leaves, and honestly, I don’t blame them.” Kassie stood up and left.
For the next few days, Faruq did not leave his room. Kassie was bent on leaving. She devised a plan she would execute before the next stargazing night. She didn’t want more deaths on her hands, so she decided to go solo. Monday morning, after breakfast ‒ bromate and saccharine bread and tea that tasted like it had only a pinch of milk in it‒ she headed to her room. On her way there, she grifted a tranquilizer from a nurse’s pocket. She didn’t leave her room until darkness fell.
When, in the evening, the nurse entered Kassie’s room for the normal check-in, Kassie pounced on her and half-emptied the syringe of tranquilizer into her nape. She changed into the nurses uniform, and walked out of the room. She walked through the hallway with her head facing the ground. She walked past nurses and nodded at them. No one suspected anything. She reached the end of the hallway but the door leading out was locked. She had to leave either through the reception which wasn’t an option, or leave through the door of the hallway at the back of the men’s ward which was at the other end of the hallway.
She walked. There was a chasm in her throat as she walked past Faruq’s room. The image of his room flashed before her again. She averted her face, and forced her eyes not to look into the room. She got to the door, twisted the knob and pushed it open. She was free from the clutches of her perdition. All that was left was to walk past the security guards at the main gate That wouldn’t be hard, they were fools already. She stepped out the door, then, a shrill cry behind her.
She turned back to see a trembling patient pointing at Faruq’s room. She ran, and flung the door open. Her stomach contracted, her skin grew dank, her knees wobbled, and she gasped as she reached out to lean against the wall. Her brown eyes turned glossy. “Far… far…” her words couldn’t take flight. She went in. Her chin trembled. Still hyperventilating, she stepped forward, and took out the piece of paper clutched between Faruq’s toes. Written boldly on the front with blood was her name, and on the other side, “This time, I’ll leave first.” Beads of salty liquid ran out of her eyes, she fell to the floor. “Faruq,” she mumbled. He couldn’t answer. His bed sheets were strapped tightly around his neck and tied to the ceiling fan. She squeezed the paper in her hands as the male nurses picked her up. They didn’t recognize her. She pulled away from their grip and headed for the door.
A woman wrapped in bed sheets crawled through the hallways yelling, “Impostor, catch am!” Kassie picked up her pace. The woman continued to yell, pointing at Kassie. Two male nurses ran after her. She pushed through the door and ran out. She headed for the gate, the night hazed her sight. Three more men, security guards ran after her from the side. They caught, grabbed her and they all rolled on the ground. She screamed and clawed and kicked and bit off a piece of one of the guards left ear. A huge vein protruded from the middle of her head, the muscles in her neck became swollen.
They dragged her back into the hospital. A nurse came along with an injection in hand. Five men held Kassie down. She was a charged bull. She grabbed the syringe and stabbed the nurse. She screamed, willing them to believe her, “I’m not crazy!” They were finally able to belt her arms and legs down to a bed. She was then sedated. As the syringe emptied, her words trailed off like a mist, “I’m… not… cra…”
The next morning, Kassie, now conscious, was wheeled into a room. It was still dark. She was placed on a bed, her chest and all fours bound by belts. Her hair had been shaved. A helmet was placed over her head. Iron pegs were clipped to her toes. She was being injected when she whispered to the nurse, “What are you doing to me?”
Drenched in cynicism, the nurse replied, “We’re sending you somewhere peaceful and quiet.”
The doctor looked over at the nurse. The nurse nodded. Kassie closed her eyes, banishing warm tears as the nurse pulled the lever. Her body was an earthquake, her teeth crackled, saliva spewed all over her face and neck, her heartbeat became irregular. Smoke began to appear on her bald head. The nurse pushed the lever, Kassie slept.
Kassie sat in a corner of her room, with empty eyes, pale skin, dry lips that hadn’t spoken a word in days. She held to her breast the book Faruq had given her the first day they met. She hadn’t read the book, now she couldn’t. An elderly woman walked into the room, wearing one of those bland, loose patient’s robes. She walked up to Kassie and sat with her.
“Hello,” she said. Kassie looked at her. She touched Kassie’s chin and said, “I’m your new roommate.”
Kassie’s lips formed a half-smile. The woman smelt of pine and sandalwood, Kassie liked it. She held the woman’s hand tightly and whispered with wet, wide eyes, “Promise you won’t leave me.”
The woman took up Kassie’s hands, kissed it, rubbed it on her face, closed her eyes and said, “I’ll never leave you.” She buried her head in the woman’s bosom.
The days passed. Kassie and the old woman were inseparable. They never left the room. They would sit at a corner and talk for hours, like she and Faruq used to.
The next month, two policemen came to the Asylum and requested to see the person in charge. They were sent to the Director’s office.
“What can I do for you, officers?”
“We are following up on a lead provided to us by a Mr. Nnaemeka Nnamani, do you know him?
“Yes, he is one of our transporters. But he has been absent for over three months now and we haven’t been able to contact his family.”
“Well, he’s been arrested. He turned himself in.”
“What did he do, officer? And what does it have to do with me?”
The policemen told the Director what had transpired. They showed him pictures of all the passengers. The story moved his bowels. He told the officers that he could account for only a few and that he didn’t know about the others. He told the officers that most of the bus passengers had either gone way beyond the realms of sanity or had committed suicide, only one of them stood on middle ground‒ Kassie. He stood up to go get her.
Kassie’s shrill cry, “I’m not crazy,” was on repeat in the Director’s head. Poor girl, he thought, I should have listened to her. He got to Kassie’s room, stopping to look through the glass. Kassie was talking, laughing, making hand gestures and faces. She stood up to explain a point, her cheeks flush with excitement. The doctor’s eyeballs sunk in. He placed his sweaty palms and banged his forehead on the glass. He wondered who Kassie was talking to.
Months turned into years, more friends like her roommate visited Kassie, they were the only people she talked to; she loved them all, they all promised never to leave her, and she promised never to leave them either.
Whether Kassie ever ran into the beautiful arms of sanity, or breastfed from freedom’s bosom, I do not know. But, I’d like to think she did.
About the Writer:
Lydia Durunguma is an emerging writer; a native of Imo state, Nigeria. She is inspired by food and people. She is currently working on a collection of short stories and a novel.