My sister and I didn’t go to the market with the intention of buying a carpet for the new house. All we really wanted were some souvenirs to bring back to Chicago. We did buy a few ebony masks, some bead necklaces, a bronze statuette of the mermaid goddess Mami Wata, stuff like that. But those were insignificant in the grand scheme of things. How differently things would have gone at the new house had we not bought that . . . thing.
We were in Nigeria to visit our relatives. Our dad was sick so our mom stayed behind to care for him. I was fifteen and Zuma was sixteen. It was our first time visiting Nigeria without our parents. So, though we’d been there many times, it felt new, different, darker. No, those are the wrong words . . . more mysterious.
We spent the first few days of our trip with relatives in Abuja, which is a city in the central, drier, Muslim-dominated part of the country. On the third day, after we’d recovered from our jetlag, we went with our cousin Chinyere to the market. By the time we got back to the house, someone had picked my pocket of the few naira I carried, a group of Muslim men had shouted obscenities at my sister for wearing shorts, and two men threatened to smash my video camera because I had the nerve to record people at the market. This was a normal day.
On the fifth day, we were getting ready to travel to my father’s village. It would be an eight-hour drive south. My parents had a house built in my father’s village and my sister and I were to spend three days there before moving on to my mother’s village. We went with our cousin Chinyere to the market one last time in search of a few more souvenirs.
“Just ignore this man,” Chinyere said as we walked through the market and approached a really extravagant-looking booth. The man sitting at it was short and old, his potbelly pushing his long white caftan forward.
“Why?” I asked. My hands were shoved in my pockets to protect my money.
“The Junk Man lost his mind a long time ago,” she said. “Everyone knows it.”
If he’s crazy then why is his booth packed with people checking his stuff out? I wondered. But I kept my mouth shut; I knew it would annoy Chinyere.
My sister, Zuma, was a few steps ahead. She hadn’t heard Chinyere. Within moments, she had spotted something interesting and she too was drawn to the Junk Man’s stuff. Chinyere groaned and rolled her eyes.
“One man’s junk is another man’s treasure!” the Junk Man announced, looking Chinyere right in the eye, as if challenging her. He turned to my sister Zuma. “Have a look-see, but none of it’s free.”
“Look at all his . . . things,” I whispered to Zuma.
“I know, man,” Zuma said, grinning.
“Just junk,” Chinyere snapped, thoroughly annoyed.
The Junk Man’s booth was the same size as everyone else’s, about twenty feet across, separated from the utensil shop to his right and the basket shop to his left by wooden dividers. But all that was exposed of his twenty feet was a narrow path that led in a semi-circle through his “junk.”
Everything was arranged. Some items were on tables, most on the ground, or hanging from nails on the wooden dividers. Knives, ebony statues, bronze statues, rings, necklaces and anklets of various metals, piles of colorful stones and crystals, ancient looking coins, brown, white, and black cowry shells of all sizes, some the size of my pinky fingernail, others larger than my head, scary and smiling ceremonial masks, an eight foot tall ebony statue of a large breasted stern looking goddess, a jar of gold powder, a pile of bejeweled and rusted daggers, baskets and bags of colored feathers.
“What you look for, ladies?” Junk Man asked us in his gruff voice, after helping a customer. The stool he sat on creaked as he shifted. He motioned to all his wares like a proud dragon. “Junk or jewels, I sell it to you at a good price.”
“Do you mind if I look at . . . ” Zuma pointed to the rolled-up carpet on one of his tables. It had golden tassels on its sides. That must have been what caught her eye. Zuma always loved anything that looked like something Scheherazade would own.
“Go ahead. Don’t be shy,” Junk Man said. “That’s what all this is here for. But don’t touch the things you don’t think you should. And especially, don’t touch those parrot feathers over there.” He pointed to a bowl full of gorgeous green fluffy feathers. The things were practically begging to be touched. I frowned.
“For some reason, people don’t know better,” Junk Man said with a smirk. “Then they get home and wonder why all they want to do is chatter about nonsense.”
Behind us, Chinyere sucked her teeth loudly and muttered, “See? Told you.” Zuma and I looked at each other, uncomfortable. The man was either crazy or, seeing that we were American-born, he was trying to lay the mystery on thick. He thought we were like those stupid tourists who bought stuff because they thought it was “magical,” like those people I saw buying fake voodoo dolls in New Orleans. Little did he know we’d been coming to Nigeria since we were five and six years old. The country was more like a second home, than the “dark continent” to us.
“Ooookay,” Zuma said. “I’m gonna just look over here.” As she moved through all his junk, she kept her hands close to her sides. The Junk Man chuckled and turned back to me.
“Yeah,” Zuma said as she looked at an ebony mask.
“Who’s older? You?” he asked, pointing at me.
“No,” I said. “She’s a year older.”
“Nah, that ain’t older, you’re practically twins,” he said. “And you’re the older one. Your sister hasn’t been around as many times.”
“Uh, sure,” I said, trying not to look him in his wrinkly nearly black face.
“Parents born here?” he asked.
“Yeah,” we both said.
“Then you from here.”
I laughed hard. “If you say so.”
I heard Chinyere loudly suck her teeth with irritation.
“You interested in that carpet?” he asked my sister.
“Sort of,” Zuma said, putting down a large cowry shell and returning to the carpet.
He nodded. “Go ahead and unroll it.” He snickered again. “It won’t hurt you.”
Zuma dragged the rolled carpet to Chinyere and me.
“This will be a good finishing touch to the house,” she said. “A good house warming gift.”
“I dunno,” I said.
From what we’d been told, the house was already fully furnished. I wasn’t sure if there would be room for it.
“It’ll make the perfect gift, yes,” the Junk Man said. Then he laughed again. The three of us ignored him and unrolled the carpet. People passing behind us kept getting annoyed, sucking their teeth and grumbling with impatience because the carpet took up part of the market path.
“Oh,” I said, blinking with surprise. “It’s really pretty.”
“Yeah,” Chinyere said quietly, all grins.
The carpet was a bright periwinkle color stitched with intricate symmetric geometrical winding designs of thick black threads. I could stare at it for hours. It was a nice piece of artwork, and the gold tassels were beautiful, too. Zuma quickly rolled it back up and said, “I want to buy this, sir. For . . . two thousand naira.” That was about twenty dollars.
The Junk Man paused, looking intently at Zuma. Then he smiled. “Okay, let me wrap it up for you. Come on, bring it here.”
Zuma grinned, surprised. But I felt a little annoyed. If a seller agreed quickly, then you’d proposed too high a price. But I know I would have also made the same mistake with such a beautiful carpet. Even Chinyere was surprised.
“It’s worth over five thousand naira, I’d think. Even after bargaining down,” Chinyere quietly told me. “He really is crazy.”
• • •
Uncle Ralph drove us in his blue Mercedes. The eight-hour drive was long, grueling, and hot. We spent the last two hours on red dirt roads pock-marked with deep holes from the rainy season. Dusty and tired, we arrived in my father’s village, our relatives running out and hugging, kissing, and inspecting us. The house was enormous and lovely, a white adobe mansion in rural Nigeria. However, when we went inside, we learned that the house was also completely and utterly unfurnished! Empty as hell! Apparently, over the last year, since buying the furniture and placing it in the house, relatives had gone in and taken everything. Piece by piece. Nice.
Beds, couches, dressers, tables, chairs, rugs, a refrigerator, all gone. The house also had no electricity or running water. To make matters worse, it was ridiculously dusty from being locked for months. It seemed massive house spiders dwelled in every corner, proud and fat as Shelob from Lord of the Rings. Then there were the pink wall geckos that scurried across the ceilings. These were okay because they were cute and ate the mosquitoes and small spiders; I doubted that they could eat the Shelobs. I also saw a pile of larger droppings upstairs in one of the rooms. Not a good sign.
After getting a tour of the house, we both stood there in what was called the Yoruba Room. Our Aunt Mary and Uncle Daniel stood behind us, quiet. Everyone else who had run out to greet us when we arrived had mysteriously disappeared as we walked into the house. The Yoruba Room was the largest in the house, with high ceilings and a lovely, though dusty, tiled mosaic of frolicking fish on the floor.
“But I thought . . . didn’t you say that everything was here?” was all I could ask.
“Auntie, uncle,” Zuma said, angry. “What happened?”
Uncle Daniel sighed and shook his head. “No one could stop them,” he said. “No shame.”
Zuma could barely contain herself. “Why didn’t you tell . . . ”
“We thought your parents would come with you,” their aunt said. “We didn’t think they’d come if they knew.”
When people travel to Nigeria, they don’t usually disclose who is traveling or when. You give as little detail as possible, or risk armed robbers waiting for your arrival or unscrupulous relatives from heaven and earth coming by to ask for this and that. Best to catch people off guard. People knew my father was sick, but they did not know the extent. That he would be having heart surgery soon. I pushed thoughts of my father’s illness out of my mind.
“Well . . . ” Zuma said. She turned and looked out the window at the sky. Then she said, “We’re going to stay here tonight.”
I gasped and said, “Zuma, I don’t think . . . ”
She gave me one of her icy big sister looks. I immediately shut up.
“This is our parent’s house and we are their daughters. And we’re in dad’s village. We stay here,” she said, her voice shaky with emotion and her fists clenched. I understood. Our relatives knew our father was sick, yet they took his furniture. This was his house and they robbed it. His home in his homeland. We would honor our father before all of them by staying in the house he and my mother built.
“You don’t have to,” my aunt said, looking worried. She motioned to the house next door. “Please, you will stay with us . . . ”
“No,” Zuma firmly said. “We stay here.”
And that is how we found ourselves in a dusty, creepy, empty but lovely house in the middle of semi-rural southeastern Nigeria with no running water or electricity, the only furniture being a bed my aunt had had carried in and the carpet Zuma bought. We were to stay there for three days.
The village was made up of the gigantic and not so gigantic houses of our relatives but it was also surrounded by lush forest that used to be farmed for yams and other crops back in the day. This meant there were probably all sort of creatures living in that house.
In the evening, after pleading with us one more time, my aunt had a group of girls bring us a tray of red stew, rice, fried plantain, and two bottles of orange Fanta for dinner. We were so hungry and exhausted that it was the most delicious food we’d ever tasted. The girls also brought a barrel of well water for bathing. Even after washing in the dirty bathtub with cups of freezing water, it was still sweltering hot in the room we’d locked ourselves in.
“Geez!” I said, scratching at my itchy sweaty scalp. I planned to dunk my head in a bucket of water to wash my braids tomorrow. “How are we going to sleep in this heat?”
Zuma shrugged, sitting on the bed, looking miserably at the lit candles.
“I almost want to dump water on myself, soak my clothes and the bed!” I whined. I held my little battery-powered hand fan to my face. I sat beside her. We crossed our legs on the bed, afraid to touch the floor with our bare feet. “And we’re probably gonna get bitten up by mosquitoes with that open window . . . ”
“Will you just shut up?” Zuma snapped. “If you want to run to uncle and auntie’s house, go! I’m staying here. What are we supposed to tell mom and dad when we get back? You think this is gonna make dad feel better? That a bunch of his relatives are greedy jerks even when he’s sick? Who cares about mosquitoes, man. This is . . . ”
Then we heard it and we both shut up.
Softly, scrape, scrape. Then clunk, like something falling. Then a more continuous scraaaaape.
It was coming from downstairs.
“What’s that?” I whispered.
“Shhh!” she hissed.
Scrape, scrape. Quiet. Minutes passed. Then more scrape, scrape. It seemed to be moving away from us, toward the front of the house downstairs. We stayed frozen like that all night. Listening. Come morning, we were still in the same position. In the village, there were night-sounds that were normal, like the hoot of an owl, the clicks and chirps of insects, the screech of some animal we couldn’t name. But what we’d heard was in the house and it only stopped at about the same time that the sun rose.
Someone knocking on the door forced us to leave our room.
“Hey,” I said, smiling tiredly, as we slowly walked down the stairs. I pointed at one of the ceiling corners. “Looks like those nasty spiders are taking off because of us. The webs aren’t just empty but it looks like the spiders actually cut them down.”
“Cool,” Zuma said. “I guess they aren’t so stupid. I was gonna ask Tochi to come and crush them all today.”
“Good morning,” our aunt said when we opened the door. She carried a tray of breakfast: bottles of water, thick pieces of buttered bread, scrambled eggs, and a tin of sardines. She looked extremely relieved to see that we were okay.
“Good morning,” we both said.
“How was your night?”
“Not so great, but we made it,” I said.
“It was fine,” Zuma said taking the tray. “Thanks for breakfast. It looks great.”
We quickly ran back upstairs, anxious to eat. Zuma would be the only one eating the sardines, though. Those are nasty. As we walked past the Yoruba Room, I glanced in. Then I stopped.
“What the heck?” I shouted. “I knew something was missing downstairs!”
“What?” Zuma asked anxiously. She obviously wanted to eat before doing anything else.
I ran into the room without answering. “But how?” I said. “How did it get here?”
“No way,” Zuma said, running up next to me, when she saw the carpet. “Did we lock all the doors?”
We spent the next several minutes relocking every door in the house and then locking all the rooms that had windows. “Someone snuck in here last night and is trying to mess with our heads by moving our carpet around,” Zuma angrily said as she locked a door. “Not gonna happen again.”
That night, night number two, we slept a little better. We were exhausted and went to bed at seven p.m. Plus, knowing that the noises were probably made by human beings related to us and that all the doors were locked set our minds at ease. At least until about four a.m. when we heard that scraping sound again. I was terrified, thinking maybe this time the noise was armed robbers or . . . zombies. My sister, she took it all a different way.
“Dammit,” Zuma hissed angrily. “They’re not gonna drive us out. This is so mean.” She got off the bed, this time not caring that her feet were bare.
“What are you doing?” I whispered loudly.
“Gonna see who the hell that is!”
Next thing I knew, she was opening the door and going into the hallway with the flashlight.
“Wait!” I whispered, creeping behind her.
Quietly, we moved down the stairs, toward the scraping sound. My sister peeked around the corning, staying on the last stair. She flashed her flashlight. She gasped. “Shit!”
“What is it? What do you . . . ”
She grabbed my hand and we ran up the stairs.
“What? What?” I shouted. “What?”
She pushed me into the room, slammed the door and locked it. Then she shut the window.
“Okay,” Zuma said, calming down, sinking to the floor. “Okay, okay, okay, okay, okay. Oh my God, I wish we’d have . . . no, not really. Just . . . man. Alright.”
“What?” I sobbed, sitting next to her with my heart pounding. She didn’t answer. For minutes, we both just sat there, quiet and listening and sweating. The scraping had stopped.
“What was it?” I finally asked again.
My sister turned to look at me with red-rimmed eyes.
“A snake, a big black snake.”
• • •
We spent most of the next day outside with our cousins. We didn’t tell anyone about the snake. After sitting there feeling tired and scared and confused, we had both silently thought about dad and decided to spend the last night in the house. One more night. And then the wildlife in the house could do whatever it wanted . . . until people were hired to clean the place up.
Zuma said that the snake was over four feet in length and thick in body. That it was a dusty black and had yellow eyes. We assumed it was poisonous and that it had probably been prowling the house at night searching for rats or mice or whatever else lived in the house.
Our cousins took us for a walk down to a nearby lagoon and for hours after that we sat and played cards and forgot about our troubles. But eventually we had to return to the house. And that night was the most disturbing of them all. We’d locked the door as always and then we listened for the snake to start its foraging. Around three a.m., it started.
“Let’s go see,” I said. It was our last night in the house and, of course, I was scared, but something in me wanted to see that snake. If only to be able to talk about it when we got back to Chicago.
At first Zuma looked at me like I was crazy. It was a similar look to the one I had given the crazy Junk Man back in that Abuja market. Then she smiled. “Alright. Let’s go.”
We crept out the room with our flashlight and tiptoed to the staircase, but we didn’t go down. We didn’t get to see the snake either. Why? Because the carpet was on the stairs. No, it wasn’t just on the stairs, it was creeping up the stairs. It moved like some giant stingray. We stumbled back as it glided by, hovering about an inch or two off the floor as it swam through the air. Zuma followed it with the flashlight.
Once it disappeared around the corner with a flick of a golden tassel, we both made a run for it to our room and shut the door. Then we just sat on the bed, speechless. I thought about the Junk Man. He would have laughed hard at the two of us trembling in our room like that. Shocked and shivering and mentally shifted. Shit.
“Did you see . . . ”
“Shhh,” my sister said as we sat there.
“It was a flying carpet!”
“Shhh,” my sister snapped. “Don’t talk or something. What if it hears us?”
“Well, we’ve been here how many days. I think it’s probably safe to say . . . ”
“Mukoso, shut up!” she said. “And it wasn’t a flying carpet; it kinda just crept over the floor and stuff.”
“Whatever, man. A carpet isn’t supposed to move!”
What we both agreed on was that neither of us was leaving the room again that night. Not with snakes and carpets and shit creeping and fluttering around the house. Danger abounded. So we stayed there and went to sleep. For the first time, we slept through what remained of the night. Be it from shock, mental fatigue, or just common sense, it didn’t matter.
We woke up hours after sunrise, around eight in the morning. We dressed and washed in silence. And when our aunt came with breakfast, we didn’t say a word. Instead we went and sat on the floor in the Yoruba Room and ate.
As we sat there with the empty plates, my sister nibbling on a sardine, I said, “Let’s go find it.”
“Why not?” I said. “We’re leaving today . . . plus, it doesn’t move during the day, at least thus far. I . . . don’t . . . think, at least.” I shook my head. “Come on, let’s go see it.”
“I . . . I dunno,” she said. “Let’s just get outta here and act like . . . ”
“But it did!” I said with wide eyes. “We saw it, man.”
We found it in the kitchen.
“Hello?” I said loudly.
I shrugged. “Just making sure,” I said.
Even as we looked at it, neither of us was dumb enough to start doubting what we’d seen last night. Sure, it was dark, yes, we were tired, and we were scared. But we’d seen what we saw; this periwinkle carpet with black thread designs and golden tassels was alive. And maybe now it was asleep. Who knew?
We stepped into the room, staying close together. Then slowly, we walked up to it. Still, it didn’t move. It was spread out flat, taking up about a third of the kitchen’s floor. There were a few lumps in it.
I squatted down and touched one of the rug’s golden tassels. Then quickly before I changed my mind I lifted and threw the rug back over itself. We both jumped back. What we saw underneath still haunts me to this day. There was a big pile of those huge spiders, black, crushed, and dead. There were also several large dead rats and the brown black body of a smashed scorpion, too! To top it off, there was the black snake. I got to see it for myself after all. Coiled up, scaly black-skinned, and dead as all the other creatures under the carpet.
As we stood there, the carpet rippled and began to turn itself over and flatten itself out. Then it floated away from us a bit; later I would think it did this almost shyly. We didn’t wait to see anymore. That was enough. We ran upstairs, packed our things, and dragged them down the stairs, trying not to look toward the kitchen. We spent the remaining hours in our aunt and uncle’s house. I could almost hear the Junk Man laughing his giggly laugh.
• • •
As the airplane took off, flying us back to the United States, I couldn’t help but think about the next time we’d visit. I had a feeling that the flying carpet that lived in our house was one piece of furniture our relatives would not steal.
“You think it’ll be there when we go back?” I asked Zuma.
Zuma looked at me, then we both started laughing. We laughed and laughed until we looked out the window. Then I nearly screamed and Zuma just stared.
Do I need to say what we saw?