The boy moves slowly through the dormitory in the thick of the night, a pale figure startlingly argent in the darkness. The room is large and crowded. He can see the bunks lined against the walls, interspersed with the windows through which the silvery gaze of the moon spills in. Still figures, like heaps of rummage-sale clothes, sleep on the bunks. He takes in the night sounds humming around him – the deep breathing, the sporadic coughing and the restless shifting in beds. He can even hear the noisy chatter of the frogs and crickets hidden in the thickets outside.
At the end of the next dormitory, where he is headed, a single candle burns on the ground, and its flickering flame casts into the shadows the form of the boy lying on his mattress which is spread out on the floor close to the candle.
The pale-skinned boy ghosts into the room, his footsteps a whisper on the ground. A cold current of air wafts through the dormitory at his entrance, causing the candle flame to bend this way and that. The boy lying on the bed is reading, and he shivers at the cold draft. He moves to tug his wrapper more snugly around him and with the motion, he sees the newcomer. He squints at him in the surrounding darkness.
“Who is that?” He sits up and begins to gingerly lift the candle. “Who is –” He is cut off when another draft snuffs out the candlelight. The darkness closes in instantly, relieved a little by the light of the moon pouring into the dormitory. The faint silver rays appear to settle on the pale-skinned boy, lighting him up into a near-phosphorescent figure, standing there, watching with eyes that held some menace in their milky depths.
“Who is that?” the other boy croaked.
“Where is the other one?” The newcomer’s voice is a hiss, a snarling sibilance, a slither of ice.
The boy on the bed begins to whimper. “Who – what – please . . . who are you?”
“Where is the other one?” The hiss resonates, stretches at the end of each word.
And he begins to transform. The tall figure collapses to the ground and extends horizontally. It shrinks – the face, the body and limbs. The body parts distort and stretch out again. Hair, lots of it, sprouts all over the body. They bristle in the stiff air and then lie back, smooth and silky and pale, on the body of the giant cat that now hulks in the room, glaring maliciously at the boy on the bed.
The boy stares back, horror frozen on his face, eyes widened with incredulity. Then he sucks in air, a rush of breath that goes in with a rattle as he gathers the momentum to scream. And when the scream comes, it is loud, ear-splitting, and stricken with his fear that he is about to die.
“What about Joyce Agberia?” Joseph said.
Ibuka made a scoffing sound the same time that I said, “Joyce will not agree for you.”
“Do you even have to ask? You’re the one who made her cry in the first term when you told her she can’t kiss.”
Ibuka giggled and the bucket on his head swayed. “My dear friend, I think it’s time for you to accept the fact that you will leave our JSS days without a girlfriend.”
“Tah! Lai-lai!” Joseph burst out. “I’m a fine boy. There has to be a girl – a fine girl – in our set who will agree to be my girlfriend.”
“Yes, someone like Osas Obaseki,” I deadpanned, knowing how Joseph felt about the Hope House girl in JSS3F and her plain, dark looks.
He shuddered. “Eze, please, how many times will I tell you I’m a fine boy? If you want to insult me, give me warning first.”
“Yes, I support Joe,” Ibuka intoned. “Osas is not only not fine, she’s so black and from Edo State. And we all know how those people can like to do juju medicine.”
“Ibu, Joe is looking for a girlfriend, not someone he’s going to go and do Igba Nkwu for,” I said.
“Same difference,” Ibuka rejoined.
We laughed as we approached our hostel’s gate, with our containers of water balanced on our heads. It was Sunday morning and we were on our way back from the borehole. As we walked into the compound, we saw a small cluster of boys crowded on one end of the pavement closest to the eighth dormitory. The hostel building was erected to form a U-shape, with four dormitories located on either wing, and the lavatories and laundry rooms making up the base. Because of the intersections formed between the base and the last two dormitories on both wings (Dorms 4 and 8), the entranceways into them was nestled in the alcoves created by the intersections.
In that moment, the Dorm 8 alcove was teeming with boys, with pockets of students gathered on the courtyard as well; everybody was talking about something. Rising above the din was the shrieking of a woman coming from inside Dorm 8.
“I wonder what is going on,” Ibuka asked as we moved slowly to our dormitory.
“I heard before we went to the borehole that someone in that dorm is possessed,” I supplied.
“Are you serious?” Ibuka’s eyes bugged. “Who? Possessed by what?”
“I don’t know the full gist.”
“Let’s find out,” Joseph said. We had brought down our containers on the pavement before he waved Obieze over. The boy, who was an indefatigable gossip and considered by some to be a well of information, sauntered over with a shine in his eyes. He was bursting with news, and we wanted to know what he knew.
“Obi, how far?” Joseph said. “What’s happening?”
“Is it true that someone is possessed in Dorm 8?” Ibuka asked.
“Whether someone is possessed or not,” Obieze said, “we don’t know for sure. But Frank has been crying and shouting since that he saw something terrible –”
“Wait, who is Frank?” I interrupted him.
“Frank now – Frank Odiaka,” he said impatiently.
“That Frank that is in JSS3F?” Joseph said. “The one that turned from day student to boarder last term?”
“What’s the terrible something that he said he saw?” I asked again.
“Ah-ah now, is that not what I’m about to gist you people?” Obieze complained, with a scowl shot in my direction.
“Oya continue,” Joseph cajoled. “So you were saying?”
“Hmm, so the boy has been crying since. He said he was reading a novel early this morning, when somebody entered their dorm. He turned his candle to see clearly who it was, and breeze now come and blow off the candle. That is how he saw himself in darkness o. And the person nko that he saw, the person had turned into a white cat.”
“What!” gasped the three of us.
“Yes o, a big giant white cat,” Obieze enthused, obviously pleased with the reaction he got. “Not like a tiger or leopard o, but bigger than a normal cat sha.” He gestured with his hands to indicate the varying sizes. One would think he’d been right by Frank’s side when the horror occurred.
“Ekwensu!” That female voice suddenly burst out again from inside, the shriek climbing up a few decibels of outrage. “Devils! That is what is all over this place!”
The manic screaming was cut off by the lower volume of a male voice. It had the somber quality of one trying to assuage the frantic woman.
“Who is that woman shouting?” I asked.
“That’s Frank’s mother. She and our housemaster are inside there now. It’s the man who called her after Senior Ifeanyi told him of Frank’s case. The woman came straight from their house in town, and has been shouting ever since.”
How much time exactly had my friends and I spent at the borehole? I wondered, thinking about the much that had happened that we’d not been around to witness.
Just then, there was a stir in the cluster of bodies in the Dorm 8 alcove. The students parted hurriedly to make way for the woman barreling through. She was several pounds overweight and seemed to struggle to carry it while walking. Her breathing was a loud wheeze, but her gait was sure and bull-like, every stomping footstep revealing her displeasure with her immediate environment.
Hurrying to keep up with her, seeing as her hand held his in a tight clasp, was Frank Odiaka. I recognized him now. He was a light-skinned, pudgy boy who, until last term, belonged to the group of day students whose names I didn’t know. Then he moved into our hostel, a decision I hadn’t understood, considering the fact that he lived with his parents in town.
“This is unacceptable! I can’t take it!” Mrs. Odiaka screeched as she moved. “Ah-ah! So this is what it has now come to, ehkwa?!”
“Madam – look, try and calm down. . .” A flustered Mr. Nwachukwu, the housemaster for Peace House, walked after her. He was a scholarly-looking man with thinning hair and steel-framed glasses. He taught Biology to the senior classes.
“Calm down?!” Mrs. Odiaka stopped and rounded on him. “Mr. Nwachukwu, i simu calm down?! Ehn?! Ekwensu ewerechago nwa m! Yes! The devil almost took my son, and you’re saying I should calm down! Ihukwa nonsense!” She executed a vicious ‘Mscheewww!’
“Mrs. Odiaka, let’s not be hasty,” Mr. Nwachukwu urged. “You know how little children can be . . . with their vivid imaginations . . . they see a stray cat through the window and then blow things out of proportion –”
As Mrs. Odiaka cut him off with another blistering diatribe salted with furious Igbo, I watched Frank. And what I saw filled me with no small amount of unease. The boy was looking up at his mother, and his eyes had a hollow, haunted look. They were red-rimmed and sunken, and his body swayed as though he was going to topple over any moment.
Mr. Nwachukwu was wrong, I decided. Whatever this boy had seen wasn’t something trivial that he was blowing out of proportion.
Ibuka was also observing Frank and, unnoticed by the disputing adults, he sidled to the boy’s side and started saying – whispering – something to him. Frank looked blankly at him at first, before responding. His lips moved slowly, and he talked as though every word came out with an effort. Joseph, Obieze and I stared at them, nonplussed and consumed with curiosity over what revelations the tortured boy was imparting on Ibuka.
Just then, Mrs. Odiaka turned and saw Ibuka by her son’s side. She pulled Frank sharply to her other side and fixed Ibuka with a gaze that smouldered so much he took an involuntary step or two back from her.
“See them! See them o! These demons we have in this hostel!” she shrilled. “Ifugo fa ncha, eh, Mr. Nwachukwu?! Have you seen them? You people won’t get my son, you hear? I have the Holy Spirit on my side! My family is covered with the Blood of Jesus Christ! You see, when I told my husband that these hostels are too dangerous to bring our son to, too full of ogbanje and mammy-water, he laughed and told me I’m overreacting. Ngwanu! Okwa I’m overreacting! Ifugonu ya now?! You people should just wait” – she was wagging a finger in a sweeping gesture that encompassed everyone watching her – “just wait! Today, I have come for my son! Tomorrow, my husband will come for his things. And when he comes. . .” She paused for a dramatic effect. “When he comes – Oh, Hallelujah! That demon in this hostel should better run because it will be made to perish, in Jesus’ name!”
Reflexively, a good number of boys in the compound chorused, “Amen.”
The woman took her son’s hand firmly in hers and waddled out of the hostel, followed by our housemaster and his exhortations for diplomacy.
In their wake, for a split second, the entire environment was suspended in a quiet state of bewilderment, awe and simmering titillation. Then the moment passed, and everybody was talking at once, the buzz climbing as the speculation rose and opinions were bandied about.
“This one she’s talking about her husband, who is he sef. . .?”
“Don’t you know the general overseer of Crown of Glory Ministries in town. . .”
“Wait o, you mean Frank’s father is Bishop Odiaka. . .”
“So evil spirit came to possess Bishop Odiaka’s son – see wahala o. . .”
“Trouble don sleep sotay inyanga come wake am. . .”
Joseph, Obieze and I hurried to Ibuka’s side. “What did you ask him?” we said at once.
“I wanted to know if he truly saw a big, white cat.”
Stung by what he perceived to be Ibuka’s doubt of his story, Obieze interjected vexedly, “I told you that’s what he said he saw nah. Did you have to go and ask him again?”
“Shettup, Obieze, and let him finish,” I snapped. The boy’s busybody-ness was starting to annoy me.
He tightened his lips at my rebuke, and Ibuka continued, “So I asked him, and he said yes, that that’s what he saw. He also said that before the person changed to a cat, he said something.”
“What?” Again, the three of us said at once.
“He said the person asked him, ‘Where is the other one?’ That he asked him like two times before he transformed.”
“Where is the other one?” Joseph repeated with furrowed brows.
“What does that mean?” Obieze paused, and said in a voice that quavered with a mixture of fear and excitement. “Does that mean what I think it means?”
“That there are two possessed people in this hostel?” I said. “Yes, I think that’s what it means.”
“Either two possessed people,” added Ibuka, “or two underworld spirits posing as human beings.”
TO BE CONTINUED.
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