BY OKAFOR EMMANUEL TOCHUKWU
I have empty dreams when I sleep.
Describe an empty dream.
In my empty dream, I am in a pitch dark room. And everywhere is dead silent.
Do you have these dreams each time you sleep?
No, Doctor. Only when a death is about to happen.
A death? Like the death of your fiancée?
Yes, Doctor. And many other deaths.
Tell me about these other deaths.
When I was a child, my father had a close friend who lived two houses away. He is older than my father, I think. People called him Papa Eze, after his last child, Eze. Papa Eze had four girls before Eze. He was a man to be trifled with at meetings and other public gatherings. He was shunned not to speak because he had, as it were before the arrival of Eze, only female children. So, many people laughed and even snapped at him and said things like, “When you become a man, then you can contribute your opinions,” and “Real men father boys.” I was only about seven at that time, naïve and unknowing. But Papa Eze was quite popular for his girls. Even the wind whistling down the street knew of his predicament.
Eze was born the day my father got a new job offer at a construction company. And to everyone’s surprise, my father was more ecstatic about Eze’s birth than Eze’s father. Papa Eze invited the whole street to celebrate his new joy as though he could foot the bills. But my father supported him like he was his backbone. The men who once tagged Papa Eze a woman bought drinks for him and many yards of wrapper for his wife. As a child, I felt happy to have found a new playmate, never minding that he was seven years younger. I hated that I had to play tente or hide-and-seek with Nkiru, Eze’s sister. She patted her hair a lot and drawled her sentences. Boys at my school would laugh at me and call me a girl and tell me that I would end up like Papa Eze, but did I have any other choice? My father would not let me hang around with the boys on my street. Papa Eze’s girls were strong enough to play football with or any other sort of childish play, he said.
The night before Eze died, I had an empty dream. In the dream I was in a quiet dark room. I can’t really say if it’s the same room I still enter in my dreams. Or whether it is a room at all. It was velvety black. Like a dark screen was placed over my eyes. I walked round and round. Still, darkness. I tried to sit on the floor and wait for something to happen. But there was no floor. There are no floors in my empty dreams. Only thick layers of more darkness underneath. Perhaps, I should scream. Nothing escaped my mouth. It was like being in a vacuum, and the vacuum tightening itself on you, on your soul, except that you breathed and every other thing was normal.
Early the following morning, just before sunrise, there were loud knocks on our front door. It was Papa Eze. I stood behind the threadbare linen curtains of our living room, watching. Papa Eze kept on saying, “Onwugo. He’s dead.” He bit his lip, hid his face in his hands and sobbed. My father looked at him, a heavy mistiness, almost grave, danced in his big eyes. That same dark look he had when Big Sammy — my uncle nnukwu — fell from a palm tree and broke both legs.
Eze died in his sleep a week after his welcome celebration. I never found out the cause of his death. Nobody talked about it. In fact, at the age of seven, I didn’t know what death was.
Having empty dreams does not make you the cause of anyone’s death.
But they do, Doctor. Like I could have done something in such dreams.
Dreams can be mysterious, however, they mean nothing.
Nothing? Even when a death happens in consequence?
Yes. Dreams are true. They are personal experiences playing into the subconscious. But what they mean, if they have any meaning, isn’t what we think they mean.
Wait, Doctor. There is more.
My family moved to Lagos after Eze’s death. In Lagos, things were different. My father started his new job at the construction company and, just after three months of work, he bought a new car. I remember that the car — a bright, blue Mazda — gleamed in morning light after cleaning. And the windows, glassy and lustrous, shone and reflected people and walls and things. My father also brought a houseboy, Bonaventure, from the village. Bonaventure did all the house chores. He was a very shy boy who went about his duties with noiseless efforts. Because my two siblings were at a boarding school, my father let him sleep in one of the rooms of our three-bedroom flat.
My mother opened a new store on Brown Street, close to where we lived. She sold jewellery and handbags and other women’s stuff. She warned me not to play with Bonaventure. She said he looked scraggy and was wont to inflict me with his village manners. So, while I waited for my mother to enrol me in a new school, I was stuck with my former books. I avoided Bonaventure for two years though we lived under the same roof and walked down the same corridor and, sometimes, shared the same bathroom. Then one dry afternoon, I found him bent over on the floor on his knees and hands. Like a dog. I remember asking him if he liked dogs. He hesitated for a few minutes before speaking to me. His father bred dogs in the village. He adored them. There were those ignited sparks of passion you could see in his eyes as he spoke about dogs. I liked dogs, too. I suggested finding a stray dog and keeping it. Bonaventure, at first, declined, almost crying, but after a little persuasion, he accepted.
Like the Disney cartoons I’d seen on television, I named the dog something significant. Ikuku. Air. Because my parents never saw it. Bonaventure was amused that a dog could have a name. Ikuku died a few weeks later, in a hit-and-run accident. We did not claim its body. Two nights after Ikuku died, I had another empty dream. Again it was dark. But this time, I was levitating. Muffled hums sounded in my ears, as if someone was struggling to tell me something but couldn’t. And after the hums stopped, my head began to burn. I woke up very ill the next morning. A number of weeks after I would return from the hospital, Aunt Nene, Bonaventure’s guardian, would visit us. Behind closed doors I would listen to Aunt Nene talk of Bonaventure’s death. Bonaventure, who had left for his village on a short break, had drowned in a river where he always swam with his friends. His body, then, was yet to be found. I would cry and shiver and fall ill again: Bonaventure was just a boy of twelve.
Yes, Doctor. Very sad.
Perhaps, sadness is nothing. Misery. Yes. That consuming feeling of despair, of bleakness. I thought I could bear it all, you know, on my own. But who does? Night after night hopelessness clutched my soul like human hair on flesh. Its fingers crept under my skin, prickling me. Till self-hate set in. Then, provocation at the slightest.
A year fleeted away. And another year. And another two years. The dreams seemed to have gone; vanished into thin air like curly wisps of grey smoke. I stopped expecting them. I grew happy. Not full happiness. But a light, almost white, bright and spark-like, rekindled inside me. It lasted for a while, a long while. There were good signs, too. My father was promoted to the post of Head of Engineering division. His salary grew fat and healthy. He started his house project in one of the expensive estates in Lagos. My mother expanded her business: she opened branches in many parts of Nigeria. Hers was an incredible success. And my siblings, as my father had planned, were sent to college in America.
One night, on Easter Sunday, I had an empty dream. It was more forceful. Like I had been pushed with accumulated force from the real world into the unreal. The darkness crowded in my eyes. No muffled hums. No levitation. No head burns. I was more like a thing in dark space, weightless, abstract. Then I began to choke. My throat scorched. My whole body burned. Flames singed the blackness. Bright orange-red flames. All this time, it was my mother waking me from sleep, dragging me to safety. Her gas cooker had caught fire. Half of our flat was gutted.
Was anyone lost in the fire?
We lost no one to the fire. Only property. Maybe I lost an empty dream, too. No. The dream was incomplete. Lost and incomplete. For days, I was beside myself with fear. I waited to hear the news of a death. And when I would not hear of any, I created different versions of death stories in my head. Murder of our landlord. Witchcraft killing of Alan Pond — a white man, my father’s good friend — at the construction company. Asphyxiation of our neighbour’s noisy two-year-old son.
My imaginations felt good. True. Real. After all, people die of what they are afraid of. Our landlord, a plump man whose body was distorted by wrinkles, was always on edge. He disliked strangers coming into his compound. Some people said he had so much money and was afraid of being murdered for this. Ah, with his greying hair and sallow skin, he looked as good as dead. I wondered how he defied nature. Alan Pond, he laughed at my father’s stories about witchcraft and nocturnal, flying humans. Didn’t he know that evil people got entangled between worlds? He would hold his stomach and collapse into heavy loud laughter. To him, there was a thin line between witchery and fables. Or no line at all. And our neighbour’s son, he was always seen with polythene bags wrapped around his smallish head. His way of acting a superhero.
But such deaths never happened. A few weeks passed. I felt at ease. I stopped cowering behind my doors whenever I eavesdropped on my parents, waiting to hear the news of a death. One late Friday evening, bad news rapped on our front door: my father had been involved in a motor accident.
Oh. Did he —
The driver of the trailer that hit my father’s car died on the spot. Three persons were injured. One later died at the hospital. But my father survived. I visited him at the hospital. He was an eyesore, in a muddle. One of his arms was broken. And his left leg, incapacitated. Hours later at the hospital, an eyewitness would tell my mother to thank God that my father survived the accident. This eyewitness emphasized more religion — “thanksgiving to God” on my mother’s part — in giving his account. He said my father’s car went under the trailer. The trailer toppled and fell. The roof of my father’s car caved in. Passers-by hurried along, going about their occupied daily lives as if nothing had happened. Motorists plied the road like swarming bees. Nobody wanted to wash blood off their car seats. The ambulance never showed up; there was no fuel. A woman, rolling in her black SUV, offered to take my father to the hospital.
All the way from the hospital, my mother let tears gush from her eyes. As they streamed down, each small bead glittered in streaks of brilliant light. She would not stop shedding them. She wobbled from to room to room, touching and smelling my father’s things. His cassette player. His unwashed clothes. His new pack of body spray. She was unable to settle at a spot. I wanted to console her, to tell her everything would be okay. But a tremor filled my voice. Indeed, my voice failed me. I wept like a little child. I was to blame; it was my entire fault. I locked myself in my room, kicking at things. Swollen self-blame mixed with anger and loss. I cried for hours. My eyes grew peppery but I refused sleep.
Outside, night fell. My mother had taken my father’s meal to him at the hospital. He ate little, she complained. Her facials and motions revealed frailty. Side by side we sat on the sofa. Silence waxed and waxed. At last, the courage to speak, came. I told my mother that I was the cause of my father’s accident. She gaped, bewildered. I told her about the dreams. The empty dreams. I told her I wasn’t too sure, but that they started long early before Eze’s death. Her mouth was still held open. I told her about the kind of empty dream I had before Bonaventure’s death. But I never mentioned Ikuku. After saying all these, I watched her close her mouth. Her lips kissed her teeth, burrowing into them. Her tears came again. Silent. Heavy. She picked her handbag and fixed me with a puzzled, sombre look before retiring into her room.
Accidents happen out of many reasons.
Some deaths are no accidents.
But your father is alive, isn’t he?
He is. Much alive. And the driver who hit him?
Look. Dreams are false realities. They are unconnected with real worlds.
No, Doctor. Not all dreams.
Not all dreams. Dreams connote unintended realities. They have meanings. At least, that was what the pastor my mother first visited said. He said that a wandering spirit caused my empty dreams. This wandering spirit had wreaked, and would wreak, havoc. And I have no control over it. The spirit would ruin me, he said. My mother ate his words with oil, balmy, gullible. She paced this way and that, down one end of the church to the other. She clasped her hands, rubbing heat into them. At last, salvation. A prayer session was held for two weeks. I was left in the care of the pastor and his church. My mother did not visit. The prayers drove me almost out of my intact senses. The loud bells. Frenzied dances and singing. The whipping. And when the prayer session ended, after I could no longer recognise myself, my mother took me home.
Still, she was not satisfied. She needed verification. Certainty. We visited another pastor. Before the pastor would say a word, my mother told him everything. He looked at me, in rueful measures. I remember he said, “This thing will take one week to cure. Easy thing.” It was sad, almost degrading, that I was but a thing. Not a person. A thing. A spirit. After his one week of prayer, my mother took me to herbalists, prayer workshops, mountains, rivers. Humans are like that, never sure, insatiable. “It must go. This thing must go,” my mother said.
Well, most religions believe that dreams have rooted meanings.
Like my mother.
One thing is certain. Dreams are what they are. Sheer imaginations. You mustn’t, and don’t have to, believe in them. They don’t make you a bearer of mishaps.
No, Doctor. You are wrong.
Years, many years, came and went. The dreams stopped. My mother felt happy. My father overcame the burden of walking with a stick. Everything was normal again. I grew closer to the church and the church grew closer to me. My mood swings never returned. My world lit up with a light that oozed from within me. My family moved to our new home. And I left for America when I turned twenty.
In America I met Chinelo — a honey fair-skinned woman who would later be my light and day and accept to marry me. Chinelo was a student of the Chemistry department. I was in the Industrial Physics department. We met at a bookstore in Connecticut. Her love for poetry baffled me. Poetry, to me, was a genre for idlers who loved to create fantasies around themselves. But Chinelo and I shared something: a love for horror books. We had both read Dean Koontz and Jack Ketchum and Stephen King. We laughed and extended our discussion over dinner at an old-fashioned restaurant. I could not stop looking at her eyes, brown and almond-shaped. They held such furtive beauty, as if the glory of the whole universe was suffused in them. Later, she would tell me about her parents. Her father, a Nigerian, was married to an American woman, and they both lived in Nigeria. She was in America for college education, like me. She said she missed Nigeria — the heat, the food, her family. Three years after the time we first met, we would graduate from college, Chinelo and me planning our return to Nigeria.
During the period of our relationship, I never told her about the empty dreams. She didn’t have to know. Besides, I had stopped having those dreams. So they were as good as non-existent. In fact, memories of them had long been locked up and stowed away. I hoped they remained that way, forgotten. A few years after we returned to Nigeria, Chinelo began to have many bouts of fever. She was drenched in sweat even when in an air-conditioned room. Her weight loss became alarming. Her eyes sunk in their sockets, covered with streaks of red veins, and she felt tired often. I took her to private hospitals and clinics. I invited pastors and church leaders to our house. Doctors said they could not diagnose what was wrong with her. Pastors extorted money from me in the name of buying praying materials. I grew weary. Sad. Until one Saturday in late November when Chinelo’s parents visited, a hospital report was received. Chinelo had lymphoma. Hodgkin’s lymphoma. That night I had an empty dream. Like the empty dream I had before Bonaventure’s death.
Oh. She must have died of lymphoma. Surely. Not of some empty dream.
No, Doctor. I killed her.