It was a smell at first, a reek climbing out of Cheta’s body. Like the stabbing whiff of rats’ urine. Something, sharp enough to draw blood, clawed at his skin while he slept. Then it stretched out even though Cheta was not willing to cede any space for it. It prowled his physical world as a quilt of heavy drumming occluding his apartment; a figure looming over his line of sight while he scanned invoices at work; a light tap on his shoulder as he marched home from work; and sometimes, after it rained, light tarsus marks of hexapods stamped into the wet soil of the compound where he lived.
The flats in his compound held hands through corridors and thick walls. He worried that his neighbours would notice the line of insect footprints branching out from his frontage. But the banker and the civil engineer and the boutique owner and their partners and their two children seemed too engrossed in their affairs.
Cheta, a financial services assistant, became sloppy at work. His fingers stiffened and loosened around his mouse. Excel table bled past the page like a glob of saliva sliding off a wall. He blinked often, but his vision doubled and a black fog rose in them. He often had to lean too close to his superiors to explain how he arrived at a figure on an invoice. You need to recalculate this, they would say to him, thumbing the erroneous digit on the monitor. Cheta sniffed himself, wondering if the odour leaked outwards into their noses; into the computer, blurring digits; into his mouse, misdirecting the cursor.
He studied his colleagues’ faces. Did they frown when he walked past or came too close?
They said instead that he resembled a sleep-deprived agbero. “They” meant Ada and Fred, the only two people who smiled at him. The rest of their colleagues lulled their high positions and mouth-watering salaries on their shoulders and only acknowledged him with curt nods.
“Look at your eye bags,” his mother complained. “Is it Port Harcourt? Is that city stressing you out, Nnaa?” Cheta angled the phone on his face, cutting out his neck bones and lean shoulders. His voice was shrill, like whistling. So, he made it thicker when he said, “hello mama” piling vocal cord on vocal cord.
He stared at his mother’s forehead furrowing like his. It comforted him to be preoccupied with their resemblance, with the memories of his family house at Onitsha that scented with ehuru even when nothing was on fire, with the shuffle of brighter thoughts different from the sudden scrambling movements he now noticed everywhere.
Since the accident took his father five years ago, there was only his mother and him. His bond with her bolstered on the nights when the thing grew too active. My mother will not bury me. My mother will not bury me, he intoned each time this thing shuffled about in his body, before growing into a new invisible form that knocked things over in his flat.
Cheta traced these changes to the week he turned twenty-seven. The memorable thing on his birthday was his work colleagues gathering around his desk and singing him a happy birthday song. They weren’t at all close-knit, but birth anniversaries creaked open the doorways of camaraderie, which often, by the final hour of that day, fell again shut.
“Welcome to the twenty-seventh floor!” they chorused, handing Cheta boxes of chocolates and shaving sticks and hand-sewn boxers from Aba.
He remembered picking a dark-blue, polyester tee shirt from a bend-down-select display by the roadside at Rumuola. On the shirt was a sublimation print of a spider crawling out of a spider and out of a spider. An endless cycle of spiders sheening in bright colours, opening themselves up to birth a hundred new selves. Thrift clothes were not his favourite thing, but this one called out to him, chose him. He fell instantly in love with it. It loved him too because it held his neck like a small hand. His chiseled chest, the ladders of his ribs and the outline of his breasts, stood displayed on the shirt.
A sleeping animal came alive inside him at night. It was in the rheum collecting at the corners of his eyes. It was in the odours sweeping through his flat, which he could not douse with air fresheners. It was in the hazy dreams he forgot at dawn.
At work, Fred cornered him. “Guy, you dey lose too much weight. What is it?”
“I actually feed well.”
“You feed well? Like this? Guy, what’s the problem?”
Cheta could not divulge the manic hunger that gnawed him open, or how his body repelled cooked food and yearned for uncooked things. He could not say that he now lingered around meat shops on his way home from work just to catch the pong of fresh blood. He knew that his colleagues thrust themselves into his story once he turned away from them. The imagined harsh peal of their laughter rang. How did Fred cope with standing close to him without covering his nose?
“I actually feed very well,” he repeated.
When the denizens of his compound called an emergency meeting, his stomach seared in panic. Had the smell already prised doors and curtains apart? He imagined a dozen hands reaching for the knobs of electric fans or pushing windows to their open limit. To prepare for the meeting, he scrubbed his body with scented soap and brushed his tongue until he tasted blood.
The troubled notes of the neighbours’ voices welcomed him. He sat down at the end of the wooden bench and waited for them to pounce. The smell worsened when he was panicky. He set his mind on his mother and the carpeted rooms of his childhood home. He thought of the evening sky, of a moon that shreds itself into invisible millions just to show up on every rooftop in the world. He heard it coming still. Their accusation. What is that smell we perceive, mister? It bothers us nau!
“Are you with us, Mr. Cheta?” the caretaker’s voice roused him.
“Have you noticed a strange movement around this our compound? It happens every night. It has become disturbing. That’s the reason for this meeting.”
“I will pay more attention,” he muttered, relief thudding in his heart. He wondered if the smell only existed in his nostrils because no other person appeared to notice.
It took him some time to acknowledge the rashes on his body. They resembled life imprints of an insect from every angle he looked at it. He linked dots and thought that the dark-blue tee caused them. Because how was it that the spider design on the shirt somewhat faded even though Cheta had washed it only once. The bright colours drained out like a world slowly vanishing underneath a sunset. He wore it to work on Fridays, to the grocery shop along Worlu, along his street, to the football viewing centre at the edge of the main road. Even though the smell clung to it and his sweat somehow made it worse, he enjoyed loping his head through it every other week.
He set a kettle of water on the stove and stayed close to it as it boiled. Its steam filled the small kitchen space and doused the discomforting rash. Nothing changed after he soaked the shirt in the boiled water. It sent small electric bolts through him when he wore it again, triggering new labels of rashes. So, he ripped it apart with scissors and discarded it in the bin. But the infestation continued to erupt on his body. Worms burrowed under his skin, mapping a road-like network.
The receptionist at Remi Hospital said Cheta’s health insurance did not cover the skin culture he needed. He was not surprised. His superiors at the office went to bigger hospitals and could afford to improve their plans. His rent and utilities gulped his income. There were his mother’s needs too. The doctor prescribed some drugs and ointment. There was a small crowd of parents holding antsy babies in the reception room. He eyed the seating space in their midst but was afraid to take the seat because of his smell. When he finally sat, none of the patients squeezed their faces. After a two-hour wait, a pharmacist called him up and handed him the prescription. She announced the next person before he could utter “thank you.”
The antibiotics only tempered the itching for a few days. But the visions continued, and the bad smell lingered.
On his way back from work one day, he walked into a Pentecostal church pitched at the roadside. He was not sure what pulled him to it. Maybe it was the church hall’s lights spilling into the dark recesses of his soul, or the knowledge in his heart, like a barbed arrow, that something had invaded him and was steadily prying him away from his humanness. A hymn being sung in the church asked if he was weak and heavy laden or cumbered with a load of care. The serene tones pushed him to his knees. It was his first time in a church since his father died. He’d hoped that the old man would beat the odds after his car ran into a full truck of Ibeto cement bags. And the man almost did. It surprised Cheta how his father passed on at the point of recuperation. Did a body cell suddenly feel enraged and ignored? What was that tipping for, that quick turnaround of news? For that betrayal Cheta nursed a bump of resentment for God. Now, he needed some reprieve from the thing lurking in him like a secret identity waiting to pop off.
One of the church’s ushers tapped him. “Go to the altar, brother.”
“Kneel,” the usher gently said. The cold of his touch seeped through the light shirt Cheta wore. There were others crowding the altar, asking for God’s healing touch. From poverty and strayed children and cheating spouses and unemployment and imprisoned loved ones. Cheta hunted for words but found an empty supply.
“Who are you?” a phlegmy voice asked him. It was a disturbing replica of his father’s voice in his final days, disfigured by the accident. The doctors said his windpipe was clogged by saliva, the thing he once controlled deliberately muffled his breathing and speaking chances. For months afterward, Cheta feared being submerged by his own spittle.
“I am Cheta, sir.”
“I do not ask of your name. Who are you, mister?”
Clouded by confusion Cheta said, “I am a man, sir.”
“I do not see a man in here,” the voice said, and fat stumps of his fingers jabbed at Cheta’s chest lightly. Cheta looked at the minister’s face for the first time. Chubby face: a little wide and angled with cheekbones jutting out. He talk-smiled, making his pronouncements even more frightening.
“I am a man, sir.”
“You know what you are,” he said into the microphone and Cheta wished he would diagnose him privately. His back tingled with the glares of the congregants.
“Search your heart well,” the man said again, “then come back here. I tell you this because so many bodies plagued by ungodly spirits do not desire to be freed. When you acknowledge what you feel and see, come back here and God will deliver you.”
The church erupted in a chant led by the minister.
“O na-eme ka odi eme?”
“O na-eme!” the whole church screamed.
“Miracle dey happen abi e no dey happen?”
“E dey happen!”
The usher who brought Cheta to the altar took his hand, and led him through a door at the corner of the church hall. They were in a room that looked like a mini shop for religious items. Countless bottles of olive oil and pamphlets on the importance of prayer and daily devotionals lined the shelves. There was another door in with a small hole through which the evening light trickled in.
The usher handed him a piece of paper. “I know what you have. I already saw it before I came to you.” He scratched his ear. “That’s what your deliverance will cost. We are running a promotion right now. It will be costlier if you miss this chance.”
“Three hundred thousand naira? It is too high!”
The usher smirked. “People pay twice this amount from trivial demonic possessions. Your own is even more difficult.”
“So what am I? What is this thing I have that requires this amount of money?”
Though the usher laughed, pity clouded his eyes. He opened the second door and led Cheta outside.
“Right now, something is eating you up on the inside.” The usher closed his eyes and swayed a little. “Yes, yes, lord! Speak, your servant listens!”
Then he opened his eyes. A different fire glowed in them.
“You have a creature inside you. I see eight legs! You bought a demonic shirt! The demon in the shirt is attacking you! This demon grows bigger as we speak! I see blood! It wants blood! Human blood! Oh Jesus, save your son!” He shut his eyes again and calmed. “My number is on written on the paper I gave to you. Call me if you have questions,” he said while his eyes remained shut.
One week after his visit to the church, the epidermis around Cheta’s fingers fell off, leaving his hands reddened and sore when he touched things. Fred recommended a cup of Vaseline. The skin continued to disappear in flakes. The proximal interphalangeal joints of his fingers ridded themselves of the flesh folds. He had some difficulty flexing his fingers or balling his hands into fists. Cheta bought a pair of fingerless mittens.
The image of the creature came in snatches, fuzzy. Sometimes an ant with a small human head that resembled Cheta’s. Sometimes an enormous insect. Cheta woke up every morning with a jaw worked out from chewing, fresh blood wafting in his room and on his breath.
Cheta was latched in the present, inside his house or at work. He was also in the past, in the suburb where he was a child, and in the future, a woolen room with no solid ground. He was aware of himself only in pinches, in moments where he carried out an action, like depress the green button on the copy machine. Or acknowledge an email. He had no clue where his mind went often, or where the weariness that often stole into his feet came from.
Worlu street was full of nerves. There is something. I hear something. Do you hear it? They distributed whistles to the warren of houses on every close. Landlords asked their tenants to be on alert. Every weapon was poised, on the ready. Cutlasses. Spears. Guns. It was their responsibility to kill this thing before it killed them.
“Something chased Mr. Uche last night,” the entire street vibrated. The thing caught him at the gate of his compound and tore open his left arm. There were pictures of the deep red gash on Mr. Uche’s upper arm. It filled Cheta’s WhatsApp picture folder. He kept deleting but more pictures rained in. Have you heard? Have you seen? Mr. Uche was almost killed last night. Did you hear him screaming?
Cheta did not hear but he’d dreamed it. He watched the creature poise and pounce. Mr. Uche called out for help, but Cheta’s spirit only kept rabbiting in his body. Though he stood just nearby, some forces rendered him immobile.
His face looked more shrunken in the mirror. His cheeks thinned in size and almost outlined his gums. He declined his mother’s video calls. He sent her only messages because his voice grew worse.
Can you lend me about one hundred thousand naira? He texted some of his contacts. The church deliverance appeared as the only escape from the fracture his life was fast becoming. Apologetic replies inundated his cell phone.
The economy is unfriendly. I lost my job.
I earn very little now. Things are hard.
Sorry, who is this?
Guy! What’s wrong with you? What do you need 100k for?
See this scammer o. A whole 100k? Like say I dey pluck money from tree!
Everything slowly downscaled to smaller things. It might have been days or weeks or months. He might have been shape-shifting. He did not know. He merely existed. There was his resignation because he felt too sick to keep reporting at his work desk. There were phone calls and messages left unopened. There were more reports of more attacks on people and animals. There were descriptions of the creature and blurry pictures captured in dim lights. There was people’s readiness to kill the creature.
One midnight, he woke up and saw something hovering in his apartment, shinning like a burning sun. He chased after it until the image stuttered and stilled. A conglomeration of spiders vomiting spiders, like the design on the tee-shirt he once bought and loved and tore. He reached for his whistle to alert his neighbours. The spiders reached for theirs with hundreds of claws. It dawned on him that the figure in the mirror was he. And there was no other creature there but him.