The bulk of my mortality rings are gone! I wish I’d heard the thief last night, I’d have screamed until my neighbours intervened. Rings confirm my productivity and value to the government. Without them, I’ll be deemed a dependent nuisance to society, and chucked into jail until the date of my execution.
I re-filled the glass jar last night, then succumbed to sleep’s soothing promise of obliterating my horrendous afternoon. The list of my worst days fattened with each visit to the Council of Mortality Affairs, queuing to purchase more breathing days.
Before my parents died, council officials delivered mortality rings to our house. We had a mortality rings room, a long room with marble slabs gummed on walls. Similar rooms surfaced in homes of relatives and friends. They were rooms you showed your guests, sobering them with proof of your connections. Queuing for mortality rings, for me, then, was foreign.
The Council of Wills labelled our inheritance illegal and confiscated everything because we couldn’t answer questions about our parents’ properties. They reluctantly gave me the house I live in. A claustrophobic cage of a house in an area bottled with bend-down-select cars. An assortment of puffed-out plastic and shattered glass bottles harangued the street. We didn’t want the house. Too basic for my younger sister, Falila and I. One-bedroom. No pool. No gate. Baba bought it, believing in its future potential. His predictions haven’t materialised yet.
Yesterday’s weather tasted like onions. Silver canopies shaded council officials. The queues were divided into four: men above sixty, women above forty, men below sixty, women below forty. We queued outside the canopies, banned from shade unless we were called. Unseen speakers flaunted the Governor’s accounts of his achievements. Falila and I used to huddle in front of the TV in one of our eight living rooms, clapping and hooting whenever the Governor ‘gave back’ during an interview.
Men congregated outside the council gates, brandishing fancy car keys in their hands and barking promises of lush and lazy lives.
“Follow me and you’ll never have to stand in line again.”
“Rings will be delivered to you while you sleep.”
“I have millions coming in from contracts.”
“Did you read the Gaskiya Daily yesterday? I was on page five.”
“You won’t regret it.”
Twenty-eight women, gullible and hopeless, believed the men and abandoned the queue. Council officials miserably gazed at the men. Five percent discounts were the sole perks of working for the Council of Mortality Affairs. The woman in front of me clenched and unclenched her fists. The buzzing of indecision in her mind reverberated around us.
The past month had been difficult. I returned to my dreaded former job: private lessons with primary six students gearing to take their entrance exams to secondary school. I barely scraped enough to buy my breathing for the next month.Yesterday, my feet angled towards the men. I took one step off the queue, remembered Falila, and dragged the betraying foot back in line.
The woman in front of me decided. She sped away from the queue and landed in front of a man wearing red sunglasses and a black shadda. She pleaded for acceptance.
“Didn’t you hear me specifically saying only uneducated women?”
“I stopped after primary five,” she said.
The man disagreed. He said he couldn’t take chances with her, that her eyes looked wise. Too wise; she didn’t look like someone he could mould. She moved to another man, and then another, until rejection charred her voice to whispers. I didn’t argue when she requested to reclaim her spot on the queue. I leapt back, as if her humiliation would squish me to the ground if I got too close.
The usual band of underage beggars lurked outside the council, thrusting plastic bowls, pleading for rings. The rule for mortality rings kicked in once a person turned fifteen. We had a huge celebration with musicians when I turned fifteen. One of my nine cakes was shaped like a mortality ring. Falila’s cakes on her fifteenth defeated mine. She dissolved all her friendships a month to her birthday. Her friends jam-packed one of our storage rooms with birthday cakes and gifts to regain her companionship. Of course, they are nowhere to be seen now that our addresses are beneath their walls.
I ignored the beggars who ran after me as soon as I stepped outside the gate. They didn’t need the rings yet, and I wasn’t going to part with any of mine so they could submit them to their heartless teachers.
I’m not hallucinating. Yesterday, I bought thirty-six rings to keep me alive for thirty-six days. The rings are programmed to melt one after the other. One has already melted, as it should. Thirty-five healthy rings should still be inside the jar. Only six, healthy rings left. The next council weekly check is in exactly six days. Misery is a mistress to coincidence.
I prowl around my house to appraise my possessions. Three plates, two mugs, scattered cutlery. No expensive shoes, clothes, handbags or anything. I walk back to my living room, stare at the maroon sofa.
“No one will want this pothole-freckled piece of junk.”
No TV or worthy appliances to sell.
The frame with our family picture stands beside the jar on the shelf. The four of us. Baba’s hands are on my shoulders and Falila’s. He smiles like he’ll always be alive to trim life’s queues. Mama rarely smiles with her teeth out; our family picture was an exception. Will the frame bring in enough money to buy a few more rings?
Falila will have a panic attack. My sister, my only friend, my only family, my life. I pluck up my phone from the floor and saw it had gained a new scratch. Great. I threw it earlier, after realising that oblivion beckons in six days. I tried to sell it five months back. Sixteen phone sellers laughed me out of their shops. I dial Falila.
“You didn’t call yesterday. How many did you get?”
Typical Falila, jabbering as soon as she answers the phone.
“Still there? Useless network. Hello? Adama?”
“The rings. I bought thirty-six yesterday, should be thirty-five in the jar, found only six.”
Falila shushes someone, probably her husband, Abdullah.
“I don’t think I heard you well,” she says. “Did you say your rings, that you only bought yesterday are gone? Shikenan? Gone?”
She screams. The sound dents my hearing, as though worms with sandpaper skins are burrowing into my ears. Abdullah’s voice comes on the line. I repeat my saga.
“Someone must have followed you home yesterday. Inevitable. Most people can’t afford refills legally,” Abdullah says. Falila cries in the background. The last time I cried was when I called our former favourite Auntie, Yalwa, to ask for help. She labelled us as ‘pampered, entitled devils.’
I shouldn’t have called Falila.
“Run away,” Abdullah says. “Have you heard about the rumours, the escapees? It’s true. Run, don’t wait for the weekly check.”
Run? Leave Falila? She needs me.
“Press…speaker,” Falila stutters and sniffs. “Adama?”
“Come stay with us. I’ll protect you.”
Falila, always unrealistic. Perpetually believing that she’s omnipotent.
“Let me look again. I’ll update you later. Bye!”
I hang up, cutting off Abdullah’s assurances that he’ll take care of Falila. Our relatives weren’t interested in Falila’s marriage, not even the ones who made Mama promise that she’d leave all our wedding preparations to them when the time came. Abdullah didn’t mind. He loved Falila enough to accept her. And me. He’s a good man. Falila struggled more with our fall from grace. I was terrified by the thirst in her eyes when we trekked around the city, searching for familiar destinies. Abdullah’s presence has calmed her. Our parents would be pleased; Abdullah succeeded where I couldn’t. Falila’s repulsion towards earning money by herself endeared her to him. I was against her choice. It wasn’t fair to burden him like she burdened me.
I rush to the bathroom, dust water on my face. I change into a green and yellow leaf patterned atampa. I bought it cheap, but it has an expensive mirage. I tie the matching scarf, stuff the loose ends at the back of my head. I look like a foil paper-wrapped thumb.
Two patrol men shuffle on the steps of the station. Twinning in brown shirts, black trousers and black berets. The Governor’s stern face stamped in circles dominates their shirts. Sun rays flash on bald heads they scratch after swallowing handful of groundnuts from the bottle they pass each other. I’ve never been to a patrol station before. It’s the nearest one to my house; a small square building that stares down the rest of the street. A fleet of black and green patrol cars without tires are stationary models on the left. When the patrol men see me coming, they place a lid on the groundnut bottle, stand upright.
“Good afternoon, sirs.”
“Small Hajiya, what can we do for you?” the tall one with a round black birthmark on his right cheek asks.
“I need your help, I-I woke up and found that my mortality rings have been stolen. A thief must have sneaked into my house somehow, I-”
“Es! Slow down, do we look like your age mates? Speak calmly,” the good-looking one says. His allure falls the more he speaks, as the cigarette odour from his mouth thrash my nostrils like whales on land.
“Sorry, sir. My rings that I only refilled yesterday have been stolen,”
“Kai! What will you do now?” cigarette odour mouth asks.
“I need help.”
“Small Hajiya, have you installed the new mandatory security cameras?” the birthmark police asks.
With what money?
I abandon the station, swivel away from their taunts.
Two days later, with four rings left, I choose the last resort. Not exile. I can’t leave Falila alone. The underground market.
I’ve heard rumours of successful replication of mortality rings to mirror those approved by the council.
Falila is still in ruins. I keep cajoling her that everything will be fine. Abdullah has drafted an exile plan for me, just in case. It is a brilliant plan that a former colleague of his executed to escape the financial strains of buying mortality rings. Apparently, his former colleague sneaks into the city to see his parents once in a while. Running away isn’t permanent. I can find a job at the water market outside the control of lunatics. The pay, if luck finds me, will be enough to resettle and pay off council officials to forget I had ever escaped. I hesitated to take-up his plan then he offered to buy more rings for me. I declined. They’re also struggling. I can’t be a burden to my younger sister.
“Should I sell the house?” I asked Falila. The suggestion only made her cry more.
“Okay. I won’t,” I said.
It shouldn’t be called an underground market. It’s not even hidden. I spy a few patrol men and women, valuing items, haggling, threatening. Most of the shops have opaque windows. The curtained ones have muscled men guarding the entrances.
Sellers yell out common names to get my attention.
“Zainab come here.”
“Fatima! I have nice shoes.”
“Maryam look here, look at these necklaces.”
“Pretty Aisha, what do you need?”
“Halima, I sell jewellery that’ll make her excellency jealous!”
When I hear, “MORTALITY RINGS! Branded! Plain! Customised! Discount!” my head snaps, tracing the voice of the angel. I find a short man, flapping his hands as though he’s fighting a kangaroo. He sees me staring, smiles, and signals to be followed.
I keep a safe distance, move by narrowing my shoulders, lest I bump into someone in a foul mood. He leads me to a shop with orange curtains.
“Customer, go in. Someone will be with you.”
He runs out of sight to entice more customers.
Fear gnaws my knees. Spiky teeth cut my intestines into pieces that liquify and lodge in my bladder.
I’ll go on exile. Falila will be fine. It’s not the end of the world. I can return. Maybe a revolution’s around the corner. A head in a pink scarf parts the curtains.
“Assalamu Alaikum,” the head’s sharp voice greets. The curtain is parted further, and a short woman, shorter than the man, peers out.
“Assalamu Alaikum,” she repeats. I stutter my reply, and she looks offended.
“It’s only polite to reply in the complete form.”
“Wa Alaikumussalam Warahmatullahi Wabarakatuh,” I say, to which she smiles, grabs my arms and leads me into the shop.
Rows of rings glitter in transparent jars. Different colours. Different materials.
“The man, he mentioned a discount. I need enough for a month.”
She rubs her palms.
“Plain will do. The cheapest. And, uh, is there an extra cost to get it registered on the council’s portal?”
“Can you pay?”
“Mine was stolen! I bought thirty-six! My house, a break-in,”
I splash on the floor. Cradle my knees and cry. Finally. My stomach empties into my lungs.
“Here for rings? Or to find the thief?”
I lift my face. “Is that possible?”
I cough, sniffle. “The thief?”
“It’ll cost extra.”
“I can’t afford extra.”
“We offer two payment options, cash or service?”
“Work for me.”
Even if I get the footage of the thief, the patrol men won’t help.
“If we catch the thief, can you get my rings back?”
“I’m not running a thuggery business here. Check the shop with the black door, two lanes ahead.”
The only valuable item I can think of us is Mama’s bracelet, the one thing I was able to snag from our former life. I gave it to Falila when she got married. She called yesterday.
“We are pregnant!” she announced. She apologised for springing it on me during my turmoil, but I was her sister, her best friend. She wouldn’t be happy unless I was aware of the recent joy in her life.
“Hel-LO…work for me?” the short woman snaps me out of my contemplation.
She laughs. “Where do you think you are?”
I look down at my body, still on the floor. My green skirt is tainted with black lines and ovals of tears.
We agree that I’ll return when calmer.
I thread through the fishy-stench environment, listening to the sounds of haggling and curtains being opened and closed. I don’t want to go home. A familiar image increases the volume of my despair. I look up at the shop sign.
J.K. REAL ESTATE
We want your house!
Pictures of houses, including mine, are exhibited on the shop’s display.
I charge into the shop, not knowing where my courage is coming from. I must be at the end, accepting my fate.
Inside is like a pageant for ACs; my body shivers. A man in a black suit looks up from his white desk. He slaps the book in his hand shut, glides out of his chair. I’m almost jealous at how graceful he is. He opens his mouth, but I’m not interested in salutations or sales pitches.
“One of those houses you’ve displayed out front is mine. I’m not selling.”
He doesn’t look shocked. He’s smiling.
“Why is it on display?”
“We don’t scout properties. They’re offered to us. Every single house on that display was presented to our company.”
“I’m the only one authorised to sell it. You’re mad!”
The man is alarmed. I get some satisfaction hearing his pleas, apologies, and promises to set things right. I don’t believe him. This is a scam. Just another unfair scam to target the lives of those already with unfair lives. I blurt out my problems: being an orphan, my pregnant sister, my low-paid jobs, my stolen rings.
“You criminals have found ways of knowing those that can’t afford rings anymore? Is that what’s going on here? You want the government to kill us?”
I’m on my feet, swearing at him. He suddenly looks like a teenager, a boy… I used to teach this boy, my first tutee. He lived in a mansion with a horse stable and a home movie theatre. What’s he doing here? The thought that his family might have gone broke shamelessly gives me joy.
“I was hoping you wouldn’t recognise me.”
“What are you doing here?”
“Extra cash. I’m a great salesman. Everyone says so.”
“Your parents are fine with you working here?”
“Don’t report me, please.”
His family is still wealthy?
“I got early admission to University. Abroad. You were a great teacher. The best teacher I–”
I point towards the display. “What’s my house doing there? I still have your mother’s number.”
“Step-mother,” he corrects me. He didn’t need to. I already know that the woman isn’t his mother.
“I still have her number.”
“I’m not allowed to tell you anything about our customers. Breach of duty.”
“I don’t have the time you think I do. A thief snuck into my house and stole my mortality rings. I thought I’d find a solution here, but, I can’t even afford fake ones. I’m a dead woman.”
“Which picture is your house?”
“The last on the second row.”
He runs to a red metal chest of drawers. Opens the third, flips and flips, brings out a yellow file. He opens the file, and points to the bottom of the first page.
“Here,” he says. “That street is HOT! It’s going to be torn down and reconstructed soon. Big, big plans.”
One signatory. Abdullah.
“Must be a mistake, someone forged his signature.”
Najib walks to his desk, rolls the chair to me.
I sit. He opens the mini-fridge and tucks a cold bottle of water in my hands.
“You said your rings were stolen?”
Our eyes lock. His expression secretes fear.
“Stupid question. Sorry. There’s a friend of mine. Nearby shop. He can show you the CCTV footage of your house.”
“How? Isn’t that illegal?”
“I don’t have money.”
“I’ll pay. My step-mother always praised-”
Najib’s stepmother knew my parents. She recognised me on the first day I stepped into their house, and jumped into interrogations about their death. She’d heard that they were assassinated. I told her the truth, it was a car accident. She preferred the rumours.
“Just go to your friend.”
“If my colleagues return, please, please, pretend to be a customer. Please. I really like this job, they don’t care about my age.”
Najib saunters back in after twelve minutes. He hands a tablet to me.
“Possible to zoom in?” I ask, feeling stupid. No need. The two figures sneaking out of my house are my sister and her husband. At three thirty-six am. There’s Falila cradling a mauve jar, and Abdullah twisting his head. The jar used to be mine. On a visit to my house, Falila wrapped her palms around it and professed its beauty. I gifted it to her, because it made her smile.
They want me gone for the house?
“Can you direct me to the armed robbery shop?”
He laughs. “The what?” I glare at him. “I understand,” he says.
It has been three days since I found a solution. Falila calls me, her voice doused in hysteria.
“Adama!” Falila says.
I move the phone to my left ear.
“Lafiya?” I ask.
“There’s a demon after our lives…our house was broken into, too. Mama’s bracelet is gone.”
“What are we going to do?” Falila asks.
“Find a job. Abdallah can’t do it all.”
“Our life is over.”
“Believe in miracles. I miraculously found a good Samaritan to buy rings for me, didn’t I?”
After the call, I tour my house, exhaling the anxiety of the past week. I reach the shelf, lift our family picture, kiss it, glimpse at my jar.
One-hundred and eight more days to breathe.