In the country of Madia (based in part on Ndibe’s native Nigeria) a young prostitute runs into the sea and drowns. The last man who spoke to her, the “madman” Bukuru, is asked to account for her last moments. When his testimony implicates the Madian armed forces, Bukuru is arrested and charged with her death. At the first day of trial, Bukuru, acting as his own attorney, counters these charges with allegations of his own, speaking not only of government complicity in a series of violent assaults and killings, but telling the court that the president of Madia himself is guilty of rape and murder. The incident is hushed up, and Bukuru is sent back to prison, where he will likely meet his end. But a young journalist manages to visit him, and together they journey through decades of history that illuminate Bukuru’s life, and that of the entire nation. A brave and powerful work of fiction, Arrows of Rain is a brilliant dramatization of the complex factors behind the near-collapse of a nation from one of the most exciting novelists writing today.
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|Publisher:||Soho Press, Incorporated|
|Product dimensions:||5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.79(d)|
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The young woman lay on the sands, her mouth frozen in a smile, as if nothing in the whole world surpassed the sweetness of death. Her face was hardy, but death made her seem older and sadder than twenty. Her eyes bulged glassy, like a grasshopper’s. Her bright blue shirt and skimpy flamingo skirt hung loosely about her, rent. A large copper earring dangled from her left ear. Patterned into the circle was the image of an eagle in the attitude of flight. Her right ear was bare, bloody.
Eyes stared at the sprawled body. For a moment I was tempted to maneuver my way to the front, to ask questions and take notes. But a force from within me restrained this urge. The scene was too stark, the crowd’s voyeurism too unnerving. Sweat ran in streaks under my shirt, cold and tingly. I put my notebook under my arm and clasped it tight. This was my first sight of a dead body, and I seemed paralyzed. In quick succession, my emotion changed from shame to anger to fear. The dry cold wind of harmattan blew lazily into my ear, soft like the hum of a lover’s breath. I began to move my toes in small circles against the grains of sand in my shoes. The sand’s coarse tactility gradually restored my calm.
Near the corpse stood a lifeguard named Lanky, a man with an athlete’s body, taut muscles, and veins that crisscrossed the length of his arms. The crowd formed a semi-circle around him, listening enrapt to his story, told with the fervor of an unlikely raconteur surprised with a captive audience. His hands chopped the air and pointed, conjuring up emotions and events that seemed beyond the reach of his words.
Whenever more people joined the crowd, Lanky retold the story for their benefit. He rendered each telling slightly differently, modulating his voice, mixing in pidgin, altering details, padding events, adding new insights, conjectures, rhetorical questions, sprinkling in proverbs for flavoring, his hands all the while deft in the air, kneading their own tales.
He had just concluded when a group of Europeans who knew him strolled onto the scene. One of them, a pudgy man with a wrestler’s body and freckles on his shoulders and face, spoke first.
“Gosh! It’s rather early to have a drowning customer, isn’t it, Lanky?”
The rest of his party, two men and a blonde woman, laughed with the freedom of people who had spent much of the night drinking. The crowd fixed the revelers with shocked glares, but the Europeans were not in the least perturbed. Instead, the blonde, high-shouldered, amplebreasted but lean in a nearfamished, weight-loss fanatic sort of way, became so titillated she began to cough.
“Obviously not, Dan! Obviously not,” she said between spasms. “It’s never too early for a lifeguard to have a customer. I mean, Lanky here has to earn his living!”
“Hear! Hear!” exclaimed one of the men. Another, his head bald and bony and his chest covered with white hair, spoke in a contrived tone of sympathy.
“Bloody awful to die on New Year’s Day. How did this calamity come about?”
The lifeguard’s lips quivered with a quick smile and his eyes became radiant as he mounted the orator’s platform once again. “My mouth cannot tell everything my eyes saw today. To God!” he swore, dipping his index finger lightly on his tongue and lifting it skyward. “I got here at seven sharp.” He raised his left wrist half-way to his face and with his right hand tapped where he might have worn a watch had he owned one. “Seven sharp. Next year will make it six years since I started this job. Six good years,” he stressed, raising the requisite number of fingers. “A few months ago the corpses of prostitutes began to appear on beaches like poisoned fish. I never thought that one day I would see one with my two eyes. But this morning I saw this one.” He paused, pointing to the corpse.
“True true, it was a big shock. Imagine it: a black woman drowning at seven sharp! If it had been an oyibo woman, no surprise at all. Many many oyibo who work at the embassies like to swim early in the morning. Like you people,” he said, indicating the four Europeans. “Some American businessmen and tourists who stay at Hotel Meridian also come out for early morning swims. I used to wonder why oyibo people don’t fear cold water. But an American tourist told me about a weather in their country that’s as cold as the inside of a fridge. I think they call it . . .”
“Winter!” shouted the blonde.
“Aha, winter!” Lanky echoed. “I even heard it can be colder than a fridge. Imagine that! That’s how I knew that what we call cold here is like a joke to oyibo people. As for us, cold can make us panic. Before we come out to swim, we make sure the sun has woken up well well and cleared the clouds from its eye. When the sun has warmed the water fine fine, that’s when we come out to swim.”
He paused again, as though searching for an appropriate tone.
“I came to work at seven sharp and heard a terrible sound. It was the sound of a drowning person. My spirit-voice told me there was no hope. The harmattan was heavy: I could not even see my hand in front of my face. The sound came again, sharper and louder. Then my spirit somersaulted and told me to do my job, whether there was hope or not. I wiped my eyes and looked in front, no blinking. Still, I saw nothing. That’s when my spirit told me to trust my ears. I was about to dive into the water when I saw a ghost rising out of the waves. I nearly peed on myself. To God! But the ghost took a man’s shape and even spoke words I was too afraid to hear. Then I saw it was Bukuru the madman. I began to shiver. Everybody knows he’s the boyfriend of Mammy Water, the water spirit. True true, I wanted to run away. But the drowning woman cried out again and my spirit-voice reminded me of my duty. I stepped into the water.
“I swam madly to shake away fear. The waves played tricks on me, moving the woman from place to place. I went fim this way and her cry came from another direction, so I swam fam that way. Fim, fam, fim, fam, like fish. By the time I found her she had swallowed so much salt water she was as heavy as a cow. Imagine the likeness!
“You see that spot where a wave is rising?” Lanky thrust out his hand towards the ocean, as though expecting his concentration to freeze the spot. “Yes, right there! That’s where I found her. Her belly was like this,” he said, clasping his hands in front of his belly. “Like a woman pregnant with twins. Yet I managed to bring her out. As I pressed her belly softly softly, horrible sounds came from her mouth and nose. Death had already entered her body and taken a seat.”
Lanky paused again, to let his audience absorb the details. Some of them seemed to despair of his long-winded style, but were in no hurry to move on; nothing on the beach that New Year morning rivalled the spectacle of a smiling corpse. Others seemed entranced by Lanky’s strange commingling of ocean tales with the story of the drowned woman.
Lanky looked up at the sea of clouds, then spoke in a mournful tone. “God who lives in the sky. God knows I did my best. But it was not easy to fight death alone. If there had been anybody to help me, we would be telling a happier story now.” He shook his head, slowly, sadly, seeming to fight back tears.
“When I looked around, do you know who I saw? Bukuru the madman! He stood close to us, sharply watching the woman. The woman turned towards Bukuru. They looked at each other like ghosts sharing silent secrets. The woman opened her mouth to laugh, I swear! Something choked her, so she only smiled. Then she began to shiver: jijijiji. The madman turned and walked away, saying something I did not understand. The woman became quiet. Still smiling, but dead.”
The spectators remained silent, their gaze on the corpse. In the quiet, the roar of the ocean became buoyant, a belch from an old, far-away world. A young girl’s cry pierced the silence. She and her mother had just arrived at the scene.
“Mummy! Mummy!” she shouted, her eyes wide with bewitchment .
“Ssssh! Sssh!” the embarrassed woman hushed in vain .
“Will this dead woman . . .”
“. . . go to hell?”
“Didn’t you say . . .”
“that bad people . . .” “Ssh!”
“. . . go to hell?”
The girl trembled, then burst into tears.
“Wait till we get home, silly weaverbird!” thundered her mother, pulling her away.
The new silence was brief. Lanky said, “Why would a dying woman smile? Perhaps she saw the home of the dead and liked it more than this wretched life.”
There was a confused chatter, then an old man with a dome of grey hair gained ascendancy over the contending voices.
“She’s an ogbanje. Only an ogbanje would smile at death. I’m certain of that.”
“What’s an og . . . og . . . o-g?” asked a man in a husky American accent, stumbling on the word. “What does it mean, the word you used?”
“Ogbanje. They can die and return to life over and over again.
To them, death is a game, that’s why they can laugh at it.
Death only means a brief visit to the land of spirits. Then they return to this life.”
“How does a dead person return to life?” asked the American.
“It’s a secret known only to ogbanje,” asserted the old man. “And most prostitutes are ogbanje. That’s why they live the way they do. Their bodies are like borrowed things, so they use them anyhow, without regret. To come and to go is the way of ogbanje. It’s the music they dance to.”
“Good for them,” said one of the Europeans. “Wouldn’t mind being one of these ogbanje characters, myself.”
“Not much hope of that,” the blonde woman said. “I’m afraid when the curtain comes down on you it’ll be for good—in more than one sense.” She laughed tipsily at her own witticism, and others in her party joined in.
Perhaps it was the facetiousness in their attitude that provoked the outburst from someone just behind me in the crowd. “The dead don’t envy the living!” rang the powerful voice. Everybody turned to look. It was Bukuru the madman! He stood, unmoved by the eyes that rained on him. His hair was knotted into long gritty locks that dropped like a Rastafarian’s to the small of his back. His eyes were deep-set, the color of an old lake. Wisps of hair sprouted from his nose above his matted moustache. His toes, long estranged from shoes, strained apart from one another. A strand of cloth held up his trousers . His grimy shirt fluttered lightly in the wind . His stink was musty and doughy, like the sea’s smell.
He was one of the monsters in my childhood dreams, dreams in which a figure much like him chased me across wide veldts and over jagged hills to the edge of precipices; dreams in which I felt myself tripping, slipping, falling—only to awake to the shame of having peed again in bed, the piss still warm, quickly turning cold.
“He knows something about the woman’s death,” Lanky said, pointing at Bukuru. “Otherwise, what was he doing around where she drowned?”
A din of voices tried to answer, but they were drowned out by the shrill commotion of an ambulance as it hurtled into view, flashing its bloody lights. Bukuru took in the scene with the passivity of a statue, as if his mind were focused on more lasting things: the rays of the sun, the wind’s song, the waves which continued to rise and fall, making eternal love to the shore.