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There’s Nothing Left Without the Smoke

Last time I slept I woke up naked and in the woods, amongst piles of bodies that I couldn’t determine were dead or alive. I didn’t bother to ask questions as to what had happened before my blackout. I didn’t bother to wake any other person up. I did, however, search through the woods in my nakedness to find a single copper-gray lighter, bent up but still in good use. For a minute I held it up, the flame a flashlight, and wondered if I should burn the trees.

I didn’t burn the trees. I burnt the land around them, rendering it infertile, empty and impossible to plant. I burnt the air and clouded the sky with smoke, burnt the plants and all the things down low. It was an unforgiving burn: I burnt the animals and I burnt the bodies. I left nothing for spoils. In the heart of that wreckage, I walked away.

Nowadays, anything that does not carry the scent of smoke will not fill me. If it’s not hot on a pan, fogging up the room till no one can see, I don’t want it. For breakfast today Kechi makes bacon that is so burnt, that when I walk all the way downstairs, I can’t help but cough. I didn’t sleep, not that she’d know that anyway, but I still throw water into my eyes and yawn like I’m just seeing the sun for the first time when I watch it rise every single moment.

My stomach growls and my throat opens, slick and slimy and so hungry, ready to eat. I pull up a chair and grab a plate and fetch out three pieces of the bacon, burnt to a crisp, while Kechi looks at me in horror. I keep gulping it down, devouring everything in the pan till there’s nothing, till all I can taste is that dead sizzling feeling drowning out in my throat, collapsing down to my belly, filling me with weight.

“I would have thrown that away,” Kechi says, dropping the fiery pot down into the sink, where it hisses for one last time.

“I liked it better like that, don’t worry,” I say instead, reaching for the packets of coffee in order to get my daily dose of caffeine. It’s nothing special, just dark and black, unsweetened with no milk, just to keep me going. In the silence, I scratch my tongue against my teeth, trying to slide out all the pieces of bacon that got stuck in there, in the gaps of my incisors and canines and molars.

Kechi throws me a toothpick, then she turns on the radio. It’s static for a while before an OAP’s voice fills the room, starting off the day by reading the daily news.

Kechi throws her apron off to the kitchen table, dusts her work clothes on, and wears her shoes. From her bag, she takes out a pocket mirror and a bit of Vaseline, rubbing it on her lips before throwing it to me. I didn’t even think that my lips were ashy, but she caught it. She catches everything.

Local police are investigating the mystery that took place in Agiga forest today, the radio blasts. I turn the volume down immediately. Maybe Kechi didn’t hear that, but when I look up at her, her eyes are set ablaze and she drops her car keys down and turns the volume up again. I sigh and put my head down to the table, closing my eyes, tasting the black. I tune everything out. When the story is done and they’re on to another, Kechi taps me and looks at me with a wild smile.

“I think it’s cultists,” she says, and I nod like I care. I don’t want this to be a story: the forest, that night. I don’t want this to be investigated. I just this to all be over, to live this semblance of a life. I don’t want this.

Kechi looks at her watch and curses under her breath. She stumbles on her way to the door.

“We’ll chat more about this later!” she says, before she disappears into the day, her car, her work. She always leaves me to myself. I pretend to smile and wave her off.

I throw the radio to the sofa when she’s gone. Spill my coffee down the drain. Scrub the pots and pans till they’re sparkling clean. Till they’re bright. Till I can’t think of anything and I don’t have much of an appetite anymore, a wanting, a feeling. I’m so tired, but I can’t sleep, so I just lay on my bed for some time, watching the hours change.

A flash of the past dawns on me, a memory of that night, and I dig into my pockets. Inside the left one is lint, some folded up notes, and a copper gray lighter. For a minute, I hold it up again, transfixed at its power, and wonder if I should burn my hair.

Instead I let the fire dance over my hand, spreading heat from my palms to my fingertips, growing roots in its flame. I do that all day till Kechi comes through the door, ranting about work to some of her friends who came over to see her, and then I tuck the lighter away and go down to greet them.

A memory, a feeling: that night, I was dancing in the dark, surrounded by flashing lights before the blackout. There was a girl, or maybe a guy, and there was such a beautiful song. I was out of my mind, transcended and dazed and loose. Then there was the woods. Then there was a fire.

Kechi makes breakfast once again, but this time it’s the weekend. She whips up fresh pancakes that are very lopsided but I still eat them because they’re tasty. I pretend to yawn like I’ve had a good night’s rest when I’ve spent all that time watching the ceiling. Laying on my bed, marinating in the dark.

And in the dark, there was that hunger again, like I felt last morning, slick and slimy and disgusting, like I could swallow anything my way. Like I had a second stomach and a second throat and I could feel it all, pulsating and groaning and begging for food. Something burnt. Something blackened. Something tarnished.

I let it fade away because I didn’t want to eat again, rustle up something and wake Kechi up with the sound of used pots and pans. I don’t want to do anything but stop feeling this way, abnormal and ominous and lost, like my life is a mystery I can’t solve.

Just then the radio blares again, cracks open from the static. It makes so much noise that Kechi and I both look up from our breakfast plates, transfixed at the little device.

In today’s news from the Nigerian times: local authorities are still investigating the mystery in Agiga forest last night, which left many dead and the forest burnt.

Me sef, I think say na cultists when I hear the sound for night,” a local resident tells the police. “I think say make i mind my business first, I no want trouble, until I come smell smoke, and then I look outside. I come see fire eh, so much fire, I think say na hell i dey see. I almost—”

More to come soon from Naija Broadcasting Radio, 95.6 FM

Kechi looks at me after hearing the news with a mischievous grin. I groan and bury my head in my hands. I don’t want to think about what she’s pondering, what she’s investigating, what she’s about to do. I don’t want her getting involved. But I know she will, by that smile, by that decisive way she marches up to her room and comes back minutes later with a stack of newspapers, all tied together with several rubber bands.

“What’s all this?” I say, eyeing the rotting stack of paper that I see in front of me. The bundle looks so worn out and damp and chewed up, like it’s been locked in a dusty corner for centuries. Kechi ignores me, cutting the rubber band on the stack of newspapers and letting them all fall to the floor.

“I swear, Badmus, this isn’t the first time I’ve heard of a fire in the woods,” she says, digging through the mess of dead news.

“So?” I shrug it off. “Deforestation happens.”

She glares at me like she can’t believe I made that comment. “Don’t be stupid. I mean this: this strange inexplicable burning that just occurred out of nowhere. This isn’t a new story. And I swear it’s happened before.”

My teeth tightens, so tense that they might snap. “What do you mean? Why do you even have all of this?”

She looks up at me from the mess she’s created on the floor. “My dad used to do this thing where he read a paper every day then kept them in piles in parlour. At the end of the year, he would tie them into a big bundle and keep them in the family library, like he was collecting history. When I moved out, I started doing the same, but on a smaller scale, because it was so interesting. And now it’s come in handy.”

“Handy for what?” I almost roar. She ignores me. “You’re looking for nothing.”

“Sure I am,” she says, peering closely at some of the papers. They go back as far to when Yar’adua and Obasanjo were president. The papers have headlines on Bring Back Our Girls, on the recession, on the Ebola epidemic. She’s been keeping these articles for years. I don’t even want to imagine what she might find.

And then I think about my lighter again, about that night, about the lighter’s haunting flame and the unbelievable burn. I think about the smoke, how glorifying and blessed it was to watch things burn, to consume and devour. To stop the truth. To stop the spread. When things burn, they simply end, crinkle up and fade way, blacken together and turn to dust. I imagine all of this gone and it gives me so much peace, so much relief, I could almost sleep.

I snap out of it. I wouldn’t be able to explain myself if I burnt the stack, and Kechi would never forgive me. It’s not the time. My stomach aches as I watch her sit by the pile of trash, sorting and rambling through them in her desperate attempt to find the truth. While she looks through it, I take a walk outside and play with my lighter.

On. Off. On. Off. I wonder how I even got this thing in the first place. I’ve never smoked in all my life, and I’m not the type to burn candles with anything other than matches. I really don’t know how this lighter arrived. On. Off. Maybe someone left it the house at some point when they came to visit, maybe it was one of Kechi’s friends. On. Off. Her friends. On. Off. She has so many friends, a job, life, and I barely have anything. On. Off. Still, I play with the lighter’s shape and form, watching its flame lick up in my hands. It feels so beautiful, watching the growth. It feels comforting, like a friend to me. Fire feels so special.

I find myself outside. I don’t remember leaving the house, but I must have been distracted. I focus my eyes on the flame in front of me, switching it off, on, controlling it, I need something to control. Purpose. Something to wreck. I was getting so anxious watching Kechi read all those papers, and so I needed a break. This is my break. I don’t feel anxious anymore.

The fire swells in my hand, burning my fingers, and I don’t bother to stop it.

A memory, a flashback. I remember more now.

That night, I was feeling the dance at the club, breaking into moves at every song. It was 2am and I was in the heart of Niloc, drinking my sorrows away. It had been the third week of another failed job interview, my life was in shambles, and despite it all, I couldn’t sleep. I needed to not think. Not think about the dreading loneliness that was creeping up on me, about the depression, the isolation. So of course I danced. I danced until the night was bright and the bright was dusk.

And then three people came up to me. Two guys and one girl, in the heat of the moment. Well, they didn’t come up to me, exactly—we melded at the dance floor, to become one. The girl and the guys and I all melted with each other, grinding and pounding our chests to each song like we were one being, like we were best friends, like sex. It was our moment in the heart of the dance of the floor. We didn’t know each other at all, but we connected with our emotions, our rhythm, so It was the start of something special in such a short time.

“I’m Nini,” the girl said. She hadn’t drunk much yet, so she was still put together.

“Ojo. Samuel,” the two guys slurred. They seemed like they were on their ninth bottle of something.

A wave of bright club lights flashed before my eyes. I needed to not feel anything, so I was on every drug you could possibly imagine. “Bad—eh? Sorry, I’m waved, I’m Bad-mus. Omo, you guys can dance o!”

The next morning, I am consumed by the flames once again. I watched them all night, exploring my body with the lengths of the lighter, scorching and waiting for the burns. I blackened parts of myself, lingering my hand over my chest till it faded to purple, watching with excitement. The tarnish, the rot, the end when there’s nothing left of yoursel—

Then I realized what I was doing and I stopped. I promised myself to stop. I chucked the lighter across the other side of the room, and I tried to focus on sleeping. But all I could think about was Kechi’s excitement as she went through that stack, the happiness on the phone as she talked to her friends that morning when the sun came up, their friendliness. It made me think about the emptiness next to me, inside me, the meaningless of my existence, compared to the fulfillment of hers, and it made me bitter. It made me enraged.

Who am I even without this lighter? Do I have anything, anyone?

Downstairs, Kechi is making French toast that is very burnt and yet somehow soggy. I don’t even pretend like it’s inedible when I sit down at the table this time, I just gobble it up with a crunch, spite, hardened at the opportunity of eating anything. I’m still reeling from my night, hiding the chest burns with an oversized shirt, so I’m too burnt out to even act functional. Kechi continues to look through her stack of newspapers like it’s the best thing she’s ever seen. She is so engrossed in them, and she acts like they are all she has when they’re not.

“Won’t you let this go?” I shout. The moment I say that to her, I imagine a flame for my hands.

“No, why would I? I’m so close. I can taste it now—I feel myself getting closer to the date on one of these papers.”

“Yeah, whatever,” I reply. I have to play it cool, I can’t be too angry, so I drop the subject. “Unrelated to this issue, are any of your friends missing something? I found a copper grey lighter in the house that may belong to one of them.”

“What? Why did you say friends like that, even, so upset?” Kechi shouts, waving me off. “No, I don’t think any of them even smoke. Why do you ask?”

“No reason,” I say immediately.

While Kechi searches through the papers on her weekend off, I try to do something productive. I need to cloud my mind of all its horrors, its jealousy, so I focus on the mundane, on the chores of the day. I wash plates because it’s the only thing that makes me useful. I mop floors and I scrub pots because they’re the only reason I’m sill in this house, as I’m the errand boy, the house-help, and that’s probably the reason Kechi hasn’t kicked me out for lack of rent. I wipe floors till they’re clean, till they’re bright, I do everything I have ever done to keep myself productive, to keep the feelings of laziness, unproductiveness, bitterness away, but it just keeps flooding into me. All I can think about is loneliness. That night. My guilt. The darkness the pulsing darkness the rage rushing through my veins and every centre of my being that each moment I speak I feel like a fuc—

“I found it!” Kechi screams to me from the sitting room. When I look at my eyes in the pot I am washing, all I can see is torches.

“What?” I say, trying to pretend I’m normal. My anxiety is building again, and I need something to burn.

“In a newspaper article from 2011. In that same Agiga forest. I was right, Badmus, I was right! A burning like this did happen.”

And it all comes rushing back into me.

A memory, a recollection, a story.

That night, me and my newfound friends were having the time of our lives. Nini, Ojo, Samuel, and I were busting up the club, ordering drinks left and right as we danced more and more. We dosed on vodka as we moaned about our lives, our failures, our loves. We all had the same problem—we were so bored with the way our lives were going, with the way we had graduated at least three years ago and hadn’t found work, with the way adulthood was a falsely advertised scam that had trapped us all. We drowned our sorrows in drink after drink and crashed by the bar, dancing till we literally dropped, and after one too many the bouncers kicked us out. I tried to argue like I always do, to say we were just having fun, but Nini, Samuel, and Ojo told me that it was okay and that I shouldn’t argue and we shouldn’t cause any more trouble, so I listened to them.

After we were kicked out, we looked for a party somewhere else, as drunk people always do. It was getting pretty late (or early, rather, it was past midnight), and everywhere was starting to shut down. That didn’t stop us, though, so we took the streets, yelling and shouting our butts off. We screamed our freedom into the air in the hopes it would make us feel alright.

We wanted to be happy, to feel the warmness of our childhood once again, our best ages, to have that long-lasting young fulfillment. We wanted, mostly, for an age where we could be successful, fruitful even, where we wouldn’t be so behind on everyone in our careers. And in that period, I felt a longing in my chest. A call. A whisper, I remember, from the deep dark beyond. I thought it was a hallucination from all the drugs I took but it didn’t feel like a drug high—it didn’t feel psychological. Something was pulling at my chest, at my heart, at everything I have ever known, and calling me.

And I listened.

That was when Nini said she needed to piss.

“Just goooo, it’s not like anyone will care,” Ojo slurred, hanging onto Samuel’s shoulders. He was the lightweight out of all of us, and he was pretty gone.

“I’m not—Oh God—I’m not using myself on the road!” Nini drunkenly blurted.

A thought occurred in my head and I pointed—I didn’t know where I was pointing at, the feeling was just instinctive, like memory—to a forest. “How about there?”

“A forest?” she almost screamed.

“You’re the one complaining,” Ojo pointed out.

“Isn’t that Agiga?” Samuel asked. “I feel like I’ve heard bad bad things about that place.”

It was like something whispered in my ear immediately, and I felt inclined to listen to it, to follow its instruction. “I haven’t heard anything bad.”

Samuel shook his head. He seemed puzzled, disturbed. “No no, I feel like there’s definitely something. Something not great. I can’t really remember, but I know people don’t vibe with the area.”

I found myself insisting. “Well, Nini needs to piss and she needs somewhere to go. Or am I wrong?”

Nini looked at both of us and shook her head. “It’s not like we’re going camping there, abeg, so it doesn’t really matter. Let’s just go in and out, because this thing is killing me.”

I lead the way to the forest because there was a guide in my head which spoke to me, which held my hand the entire way. I listened to its instruction because I had felt purposeless, lost all this time, useless, and the voice was tugging at my heart in a way no one had before. It was telling me I could be valued. Telling me I was special. It was the first time in my life I felt spoken to, purposeful, and so I was bound by it. I desperately wanted to feel like I was in charge of something, so I directed our path.

The forest was a thick patch of old brambles and dark wood, the leaves on the trees so full they clouded the area. Nini didn’t even appreciate the scene; she quickly ran into some bushes, leaving me and the rest of the men to ourselves. For a minute, I didn’t think about the voice in my head and the whispers of worthlessness in my mind. I just felt…grateful that I was finally in a space with a group of my own, with people to call a circle, not lonely anymore. I talked to them, Ojo and Samuel, and they just stared at me, still drunk off their minds. I was just coming down from the drugs myself.

“Can’t lie, this is the most fun I’ve had in years,” I said, smiling and excited. I was so dazed but I felt kind of happy, for the first time in forever, like I was free. “I know this is kind of fast to say, and maybe ridiculous, but is it weird to say I love all of you? You all make me feel so good, like I could just die in the moment and I’d be fulfilled. I just know we’re gonna have more of these memories, and more of these moments, and more adventures—”

Samuel and Ojo’s eyes widened before I could finish my statement. They looked shocked and surprised. I didn’t understand why they seemed so turned off, so caught off guard. They looked at each other, sharing uncertain words, and Samuel caught me on the shoulder, just as Nini was coming out of the woods, giving an awkward laugh. “Woah woah woah, Jesus. We only just met. Cool down, abeg. Guy, sorry to ask but what’s even your name again by the way?”

My chest hurt. I didn’t realize that they thought of me as a stranger. I didn’t realize that they barely knew who I was, and they were only walking with me because of the drunkenness. I suddenly realized the nature of the scene in front of me, that these people in my presence didn’t care about me. My eyes began clearing and all I could notice was the way they viewed me as worthless, a quick party favour, not a person who had connected with them and their stories. Not a person that had melded with them at the dance floor, that had talked with them all night. My hands burned, as though about to spark and my throat caught with slick metal, with something hot and tempestuous, with acid-fire tears. They were all friends with each other, and they had the connection of being purposeless together, and no matter what I did, how I laughed with them that night, I would always be the outsider. I would always be alone.

“Bad-uh-guy?” Nini tried to tap me, say something to me but I couldn’t hear anything past those whispers. Those feelings in my mind, that I would always be worthless, that I would never be cared about, that they would abandon me. The forest felt within my grasp and I just wanted something dark something rotten twisted something painful wicked heartless dead dead

To happen to them.

And then their eyes went black. Their pulses fell, and their necks dropped, snapped, twisting into two. I killed them. As they fell to the floor, onto the forest that night, so did I.

And so I slept that night for the very last time.

Kechi’s eyes widen by the living room table. She runs close to me with her stack of papers to tell me the story.

“So, in January 2011, a small group of farmers burnt themselves to death while they were trying to clear a part of the Agiga forest for farmland use. It is suspected that someone was trying to light a cigarette when they had already started burning the trees, and in that dry harmattan weather, the fire must have spread.”

A warmth circles in my chest, like the whisper of home. I can hear those thoughts again. I don’t want to ignore them.

“I remember reading the story in SS2 and thinking it was super fascinating, but that’s not even why I remember it. I know you didn’t live here when you were younger, but this fire was the hot topic of discussion in Benin for a period of time. People were making up all sorts of rumors about these farmers.”

I look down at the copper-gray lighter in my hand. I don’t know how it got here when I left it upstairs, but it beckons me, it needs control. I have to stop this. “Kechi, stop this. Stop talking.”

She looks at me for a second, as though puzzled, shocked, but she ultimately continues. “Do you have somewhere to be? I’ll be quick with the story, I promise. Okay, so I faintly remember that there was gist that the farmers didn’t burn themselves the day they died by accident. They said that they were trying to burn off their sin by burning themselves. Apparently, they were being haunted by trees and wanted to stop the whispers coming from it. Can you even believe?”

Anxiety builds within me and I just want her to stop talking about this, to stop talking stop being. Dead dead like the bodies in the forest. I release I don’t regret what happened to them in that forest. I don’t regret burning their bodies now. I don’t regret that night. I relish it. And what will happen to her, I will not regret. Dead dead, I envision. It’s what I’ve always wanted.

But my skin feels prickly.

Kechi doesn’t die. She doesn’t stop talking. “It’s so wild, this story. The farmers were terrible people who everyone in Benin hated that time. I remember: they destroyed forests, they never paid their debts. Some people even said that the farmers burnt people they didn’t like, that they made their enemies disappear, but I don’t believe that. People those days, however, mostly said that the farmers who cleared Agiga forest were troubled, isolated, and that they never socialized with others. Then one day they spoke of how the dead trees were speaking to them. Haunting them, for all the destruction the farmers had in their lives, for all their pain. First, the trees lured them in, then they praised them, then they attacked them. There was a myth being spread then, I remember, that the trees in Agiga were a special kind of plant—the people called them whisperers. This was because they honed in on mental thoughts, emotions, and the plants haunted people based on that terribleness, that mental isolation the people brought against everyone else, and manipulated it against them. So it tormented the farmers constantly. And one day they couldn’t take it. The whispers got too much. They tried to burn off their sins by burning themselves for a moment, to stop the torment, but they never stopped burning. The whisperers wouldn’t let them. And I remember people claimed that that was what the plant wanted all along.”

I cough from my chest. A thick layer of smoke comes out of my mouth, and my skin feels on edge. I look down at my hands and I swear I can see the outline of flames growing on my palms, the trace of the forest. The lighter is on my skin. And I can’t hear anything else but whispers in my ears, the quick snips, the isolation.

You’re worthless, the trees say. They snip. They bite. I try to cover my ears but they’re in my eardrums, in my head, my eyes, my skin. You’ll never be anything. You’re going to be Dead dead dead dead dead.

They consume every part of my mind.

“Are you okay?” Kechi asks me, but I can’t even answer her.

I put the lighter on my skin, the torch to match, the pain to feeling. It feels right, it is true, nobody can stop me. Kechi can’t even react when I start scream and yell, running out of the house when the fire starts to come. On my legs, on my toes, on my skin even where I did not light it. She follows me out of the room, confused, scared herself, but she can’t keep up with all of my steps. She will never be able to. The smoke is never ending. My thoughts are all-consuming.

Dead dead dead dead

The flames rise on my legs first, building up, before they move up to my chest. They build on my lips, my eyes skin, and I can feel the whispers. Every word I’ve said to myself, every thought, every period of bitterness, hour spent lingering in the night, it comes building up to me. I can’t even speak or cry, there’s nothing left to say without the smoke. I can’t move without tearing up, I see the memories of all my sorrow. The fire reaches my head by the time I reach the forest, heavy and mighty, and with enough weight and enough pain and enough hurt and everlasting sacrifice to join the bodies of those I’d burned before.

About the Author

Osahon Ize-Iyamu is a writer of speculative fiction. You can find him online @osahon4545. He lives in Nigeria, where he is currently working on his first novel.