From the eternal sea he rises,
Creating armies on either shore,
Turning man against his brother
‘Til man exists no more.
– David Seltzer: The Omen
This is Lagos, the city that never says welcome. I rise from a vast ocean, the waters shining and shimmering as the dark and frothy blanket spreads out to the distant dip of a lavender sky. A green eagle rises from among the nearby lilies, flutters about the air and disappears in the white and the blue of the clouds and the ocean. The wind is tender and sweet, and it wafts through in soothing, cooing whistles.
I am on the stone embankment, the warm flow of ebb-tide tickling my feet. The beach teems with men and women and sundry evil spirits: the naked, the half-naked, the quarter-naked, the overdressed, young and old, and so on. I am listless to the doings of the crowd, until a Black Maria of creaky body and worn tyres comes to a jerky halt in the distance. I start as a roar rises in the throng. I nudge a fortyish man, asking him what the shouting is about but his excited involvement in the shouting is total and he takes no notice of me. I try again with another man buried inside a double-breasted coat and I still get no reply. I swallow my disgust, deciding no longer to ask anyone. I use my ample shoulders to ford through the crowd, ignoring a curse here, smothering boos here and there, and generally standing my ground in the face of the disapprovals of those I shove.
A handful of policemen surround the Black Maria, carrying Mark-IV rifles and shiny truncheons. The truncheons lash out time and again to keep the surging crowd at bay. Another vehicle, a black jeep, appears and a hush falls over the beach when a dozen or so gun-wielding soldiers emerge from it.
A hefty policeman yanks open the door of the Black Maria and asks in a vague, matter-of-fact way, ‘Are you there?’
The dim and blurred face that had been peeping through the bars of the Black Maria’s small window disappears and I behold myself trundling down the treacherous steps of the vehicle, my hands manacled in front of me.
Another me? I cry at the terrible sight but it chokes in my throat. I make to take my eyes away but I cannot. I ask to disappear into the ground but the earth does not open up. As ever, I can only stare and wonder.
‘Relax, my friend,’ says the burly inspector by my side, nudging me.
Stiffening, I look ahead.
My double nods at the crowd, a mischievous smile on his face.
‘Double Wahala!’ the crowd roars in his salute.
Double raises his chained hands, smiling. His shaved head shines like a vulture’s and his brown prison clothes need a wash. Shifting with a measure of assurance and comfort he looks intently at the open door of the Black Maria. Another fellow in similar prison clothes appears at the door, leisurely takes in details of the scene before him, and then jumps down from the vehicle. He makes the sign of the cross, mouthing some inaudible words.
‘Move!’ a soldier says unnecessarily, shoving Double and his partner with the butt of the gun.
Double and partner are marched by the policemen and soldiers to the two stakes of iroko wood mounted a dozen or so metres from the bank of the ocean.
‘Double Trouble!’ says the burly inspector, nudging me. ‘No bullet can kill him.’
‘He uses his head to collect bullets,’ says an unrecognizable fellow nearby. ‘Ram that goes to war with the head, Immortal Antiman!’
Two police constables are now tying Double and partner to the stakes, making ambidextrous crosses of the palm ropes over their necks, chests, stomachs and knees.
‘Who do you think you are tying up?’ says Double, breaking free from the stake and ropes.
Soldiers and police rush forward, surrounding him and pointing their guns.
‘Move!’ a soldier says, trying to push Double back to the stake with the barrel of the gun.
‘I move if I want to,’ says Double defiantly.
‘What?’ the soldier cries, holding aloft his gun.
‘And I get tied up if I want to!’ Double is unrelenting.
Tension and silence.
‘What did I tell you?’ says the burly inspector, nudging me again. ‘The man will walk right through those bullets.’
Meantime, Double is locked up in a life-and-death struggle with the officers of the law. He dares them to do their worst as they vainly struggle to lift him off his feet and take him back to the stake.
‘You are wasting your time,’ Double says, a mocking smile on his face.
‘We shall see,’ a soldier says, hitting Double with the butt of the gun.
‘Is that all you can do?’ Double sneers at the soldier, unmoved.
‘I’ll shoot you now!’ the soldier threatens, directing the barrel of his gun at Double’s eyes.
‘What are you waiting for?’ Double asks, smiling. ‘Shoot!’
The moment stands still.
Gradually, the soldier lowers his gun.
‘What do you want?’ another soldier says to Double. The lanky soldier appears conciliatory.
‘Some respect,’ Double says, walking back to the stake.
A constable ties him up and he yields without further ado.
His partner, a very thin fellow, sings a mellow gospel song of what awaits all mortals during the Second Coming.
‘Don’t listen to that coup-plotter!’ shouts a voice near me. ‘He thinks he can deceive soldiers with his church music. That’s why I like soldiers. They dislike stupid jokes.’
‘Sure,’ says another voice.
The thin fellow at the stake sings away with gusto, time and again punctuating his nasal baritone with a high-pitched yelling of the many names of God: Jehovah, Chukwu, Olisa. He quotes Bible passages with a smooth, robot-like easiness that could only have come from learning by rote.
Double is taciturn, seeming to be engrossed with the rolls of fat protruding through the ropes that cut into his flesh. He looks up for a minute flashing large, blood-shot eyes at the crowd; then he shakes his head as if he had a sinister plan in store for the world. Another minute he looks at the ropes travelling from his neck to his knees, staring out of eyes that appear to laugh at those who thought he could come to any harm.
‘I am going on transfer,’ he shouts suddenly, ‘and I will soon come back!’
A ghostly quiet descends on the scene but it soon gives place to a subdued hubbub.
‘That man is a devil guerrilla,’ the burly inspector says. It is as if he cannot say a thing without nudging me. ‘My brother, that man is terror. He fought with Dedan Kimathi in Mau-Mau. He is the white man’s malaria. He has juju and can appear and disappear. He is above human destruction.’
Double and partner are now quite alone, standing like nameless dots against the backdrop of the vast and sprawling ocean.
‘You are all wasting your time,’ Double says, shaking his head in a kind of spirited dare. ‘Nobody can take me away from this earth. I still want to be here! And that’s the way it’s going to be. I shall return!’
‘No bullet made by man can kill that devil,’ says a fellow nearby.
‘A bullet kills anybody that it hits,’ counters another.
‘There is nothing like juju. The man is doomed. He is dying…’
‘My friend, you don’t know what you are saying,’ the first voice retorts. ‘You may know book, my brother, but you don’t know juju. And you do not know Double Wahala. He is bullet-proof. Shooting him with bullets is like shooting the wind.’
‘Your superstition makes me want to vomit.’
‘This is no superstition. This is science.’
‘What abstract science!’
‘African science. Otumokpo! Made in Agege!’
‘Victory is sure!’ Double shouts looking fierce. ‘I have known bigger wars. This ritual is nothing. Let’s get it over and done with.’
‘What did I tell you?’ the burly inspector says, nudging me as usual. ‘Nothing is happening to him.’
‘I have been chained across this sea and I swam right back!’ Double intones.
‘Double Wahala!’ the crowd cheers.
‘I built America with these hands!’ he shouts, looking down at his chained hands.
Double is now in frenzy, shouting: ‘I have known hope and I have seen disillusionment but I keep on keeping on. I have seen through the black masks of my inheritor brothers. I have seen their insides and they are as white as tissue paper.’
‘Bloody coup-plotter,’ sneers a soldier.
‘I will keep on surviving,’ Double continues. ‘This Bar Beach Show will not be the end of me. Never!’
‘We shall see,’ the soldier says.
‘Freedom and justice for the greatest number!’ Double screams. ‘Down with parasites that are making monkeys of us by asking us to structurally adjust ourselves. We have to make that vital connection with humanity.’
A bespectacled Roman Catholic priest walks up to take the last confessions of Double and partner, his flowing white soutane billowing in the wind.
The thin one ignores the reverend father, singing his gospel songs with renewed vigour as though the messenger of God in front of him doesn’t exist.
Nodding and making the sign of the cross, the priest moves over to Double.
‘Stay clear,’ Double says, letting go of a generous spit that lands smack on the priest’s cheek.
There is an awkward silence as the priest gently, almost imperceptibly, rubs the spittle with a white handkerchief. Moving back a couple of paces, a safe enough distance, he administers extreme unction and makes the sign of the cross.
‘Mr Father, I am not the one to make a confession,’ Double says. ‘It is you who needs to purge yourself of the sin of betraying your ancestors.’
‘I am watching my own execution! Ha-ha-ha!’ a voice of thunder from inside me hollers, surprising me.
‘Shut up!’ an outraged voice rings out of the crowd.
I look around, flustered.
‘White man’s experiment in Africa!’ Double says, sneering at the departing priest.
‘The man is mad,’ says the outraged voice.
A big black fly hovers over the head of the thin one and then perches on his temple. He shakes the fly off with an aggressive jerk of the head. The fly hovers some more but the thin one continues to shake his head furiously, denying target to the fly.
‘Useless man,’ says a voice; ‘afraid of a fly when facing bullets.’
Laughter and patter swell past the throng.
‘By the left, mark time!’ shouts an army captain, marching in tune to his orders. ‘Left! Right! Left! Right!’
Some eight soldiers march in single file until they are a couple of metres away from Double and partner. They halt and, in obedience to the captain’s barked orders, genuflect, the mouths of their guns yawning coldly at Double and partner.
Seconds tick away, tolling like thunder.
As though from nowhere, a dozen or so rustics move towards the stakes. It is quite apparent they are oblivious of the firing squad. A couple of them are already wading into the ocean.
It would have been impossible to shoot Double and partner without the bullets also hitting them.
‘Stop!’ the captain shouts.
The rustics freeze. The soldiers run in jarring strides towards them, the crunching falls of their boots jolting many hearts.
‘What did I tell you?’ the burly inspector says with yet another nudge. ‘Didn’t I tell you they can’t kill that hard-liner today? I am sure he is the cause of this present disturbance. He is blessed with remote control.’
I am a sandbag staring, in trance, at my double.
The twelve or so rustics in the distance are now squatting, holding their ears with their hands and doing the frog-jump. The soldiers loom over them as they do this. It goes on for a while until the captain asks to bring them over.
Their rotund leader strides forward to meet the captain. There is a familiarity about this leader that is troubling. He is my father.
‘Our own, he drowned,’ he says to the captain, pointing at the bubbling water.
‘But didn’t you see the shooting going on?’ the captain queries.
Father scratches at his brow, stammering: ‘He died. Our own. He drowned and his death wouldn’t let us see.’
The captain grunts, passing a hand over his wispy moustache.
‘Wait till after the shooting. You can then go in. OK?’
The captain turns briskly, facing his soldiers. He holds up his left wrist to his eyes, checking the time. He nods in an assured manner, cursorily surveying the crowd.
The lilies of the beach toss their flowery heads. The sun is a red orb in the ocean. Golden patterns are upon the waters. The green eagle soars, shading drops of water from its wings. Father leads his rustics away.
‘Tell Maxima to keep my supper!’ shouts Double with unabated defiance, forcing a smile that flickers like the light of a sooty lamp. ‘I am only going on transfer and I will soon come back.’
A wail rises just to my right. It comes from a dainty damsel wearing a black gown, black shoes and black head-tie. She convulses with her tears, seeming to surrender herself to the endurance of pain and passion.
‘Ready!’ the captain shouts in a brisk, abrupt tone.
A hush falls on the beach. The soldiers aim their guns at Double and partner.
‘F-I-R-E!’ the captain barks. ‘Kill the coup!’
Rat-a-tat! The first volleys of shots knocks cold the courage and bluff of Double. Sputum drools from his open mouth and his burst head paints the stake with a sickly mix of red and yellow.
But the thin one still holds breath in him and some faint biblical words in the mouth. A second salvo of shots decisively ends his taciturn journey.
A happy roar rises amongst Father and his companions, attracting the attention of everybody. In my stupor I turn to look at them.
‘He is alive!’ Father is screaming, eyeing me out of a corner of his eyes.
‘Come here!’ the captain summons my father, annoyed. ‘Why are you disturbing the public peace?’
‘He is alive!’ Father continues to holler.
‘You go and take down those bodies,’ the captain says, pointing at the bloodied and sagging bodies Double and partner.
Father and his companions obey, extricating the dead bodies from the stakes.
My anguished yelps cling to my throat as I start off on an unbidden walk until I am in the centre of the cemetery. The gravestone is different.
The AntiMan: Ender of Mankind: R.I.P.
I stare until tears stand in my eyes. Carved out of concrete, the letters are golden. I stare some more. It is as though the sprawling Ikoyi Cemetery has coalesced into this one gravestone.
A cripple is at my feet. My heart skips a beat as I wonder at the sudden ghost-like appearance. A broad smile sits on his face.
‘And what do you want?’ I manage to blurt out.
‘I thought you needed help,’ he says, still smiling.
‘And who are you?’
‘Maxim the Gambler.’
The fellow is mad, I am thinking. His red T-shirt bears black lettering:
The End is Lagos
AntiMan rocks Nigeria
While I look at the words on his rumpled T-shirt he fixates his eyes on the letters of the gravestone.
‘Bad story,’ he laments, shaking his large head ruefully.
‘Who’s buried there?’ I ask almost mechanically.
‘But you know.’
‘Something bigger than the Anti-Christ is here.’
‘He confuses everybody including himself.’
‘You!’ He points at me. ‘Explain yourself!’
I am beside myself with rage, lunging at him furiously.
‘It’s not your fault,’ he says, hobbling away from my lunge.
‘Why are you wasting your time with Maxim?’
I swivel, beholding a large man in three-piece suit. His appearance by my side is just as sudden and breathtaking as the cripple’s. But the cripple is no longer there. I look in all directions, and there is no sign of him. He has simply disappeared into thin air.
‘Where is the cripple?’ I cry, looking from the highway to the cemetery.
‘Don’t let him bother you,’ says the dandified mammoth, grinning.
‘But he was here just now?’ I am fidgety.
‘That is his way. Sometimes you see him, then he’s gone’.
‘Is he a spirit or what?’
‘He’ll tell you when he reappears.’
‘But you’re the man just executed?’
‘Who?’ A fire-bomb explodes inside my skull.
‘I’m sorry but…’ The man looks at the gravestone and laughs.
‘What is the matter with you?’ I scream crazily, frowning.
‘I’m sorry for upsetting you,’ he says, still looking at the grave. ‘I meant no offence. My mouth was faster than my brain. I’m sorry.’
‘But who has this grave?’ I ask, stopping him from going.
‘But Maxim told you?’
‘But it’s written there.’ He points at the gravestone.
‘What’s the fellow’s story?’
‘The one buried there.’
He looks at me and at the grave and laughs out loud.
‘What is the problem?’ I ask, stupefied. ‘Why the laugh?’
‘Nothing.’ He shrugs.
‘Did I say anything improper?’
‘I can’t seem to hold myself together. Why?’ He stamps his foot on the ground.
‘I can no longer take this,’ I say, making to walk away.
‘Bear with me,’ he says. ‘You asked me a question, didn’t you?’
I sigh, torn between curiosity and pride. I can walk away from the antics of the man but not without knowing the secret of the grave. Curiosity wins, and I stare from the fat man to the gravestone.
‘Who is buried in there?’ I ask, pointing.
‘Antiman,’ he answers. ‘It’s written there. Can’t you see the handwriting on the wall?’
‘What?’ I am still pointing
‘But you’re seeing it there. It’s bold enough’.
‘Can I know a bit of this fellow’s history? What happened to him?’
‘He is dead but he would not accept that fact.’
‘But he is buried here?’
‘That is the mystery,’ he says, staring blankly ahead.
‘When did he die?’ I ask, bristling with incomprehension.
‘He is forever dying.’
‘You’re not being of much help.’
‘I’m telling you the truth.’ He swears, touching earth and heaven.
‘When was he born?’
‘He’s always here.’
‘Inside the burial ground?’
‘There and amongst us.’
A very long pause. The tang of death hangs heavy in the air.
‘It’s our soldiers from Liberia,’ he says, closing his nostrils. ‘They were dumped over there some nights before. Nigeria we hail thee!’
‘Tell me about this fellow here,’ I say, as urgent as ever.
‘What else do you want to hear?’ He does a double-take, and adds an afterthought: ‘You can dig up his grave to check. But you will not find him there.’
‘Where is he buried then?’ I ask, almost exasperated.
‘People dig and gather skulls,’ he says and shakes his small head. ‘You are not cut out for that, are you?’
‘What are you saying?’
‘You gotta crack the skull to find the brain!’ He smiles.
‘The Antiman has a brain. Or hasn’t it got one?’
‘I don’t understand you.’
‘If you get the skull inside the grave, what of the brain?’
It is as though this fellow is speaking out of my mouth. I do not like it at all, his feeding of my curiosity with subversion.
‘Do you at all know this fellow you are talking to me about?’ I ask, staring fixedly for moments on end at the gravestone.
‘I know him more than he knows himself,’ he asserts.
‘I am not convinced,’ I say, frowning.
‘What else do you want to hear?’
‘You have said nothing concrete thus far.’
‘If you want concrete, behold the gravestone.’
‘You are mad!’ I scream, pouncing on him.
‘And you are your own nightmare!’ he says, smothering me in a bear hug.
‘This is madness!’ a voice from nowhere screams.
‘That is the legend there.’ The fat man points at the gravestone, pushing me away.
When I look at the gravestone and back the cripple has returned and the fat dandy is gone.
‘I’ve come to visit you in your tomb,’ says the cripple, crawling up. ‘Maxim the Gambler meets with Antiman. Ha-ha-ha!’
I kick madly at him and I miss, falling badly beside the gravestone.
‘Home at last,’ he says and smiles. ‘Thanks for the séance.’
I try to get up. I fail. I try again. I fail again. I lie back, sighing.
‘Antiman!’ he screams, crawling away. ‘Plotter of the mind-bending by-ways of fiction.’
Uzor Maxim Uzoatu started out as a rural peasant theatre director before venturing into journalism. He was the 1989 Distinguished Visitor at the Graduate School of Journalism, University of Western Ontario, Canada and was nominated for the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2008 for his short story “Cemetery of Life” published in Wasafiri magazine, London. He is the author of the poetry collection God of Poetry. He lives in Lagos, Nigeria with his wife Chidimma and their four children.