My father used to say that whatever has night before its name can’t be trusted. I believe him. He has, after all, spent more days on earth than I. And it’s in living with this directive that I abstain from all things nocturnal: night classes, night parties, night vigils. No sir, thank you very much.
So, of course I’m immediately skeptical when my roomie, Mercy, asks that we visit the night market. She has her good reasons, sure. Six months into my national youth service in Benin City, and I soon understand the upside of living in a cheap town during service year: you get this golden chance to save large parts of your government allowance and end the service year with your bank account bulging—that’s, if you play your cards right. Saving loads off your daily upkeep is one of those cards, and shopping at the night market is the ace of the deck. Word is, everything there is awoof: around seventy-five percent less than the going rates. Just ask Wole, our corps liaison officer, who bought two sacks of avocados for only five-hundred naira from one Mallam who said he gets them at the night market.
The shrew in me comes out and asks the question no one’s asking, though: why doesn’t everybody shop there, then? Mercy gives me this look mothers give ten-year-olds who ask for iPads. This is her being a bargain hound, which is a snug fit into her avaricious self. Truth is, she doesn’t know, and neither does anyone who lives in our run-down corpers lodge. We could ask the Bini women who sell peeled oranges and roasted maize down the street, but we’re scared. They’ve already spit fire in our faces for speaking plenty oyinbo to them. Asking about this hush-hush stuff is inviting them to come claw our faces off.
Mercy posits, I reject, posit, reject. We continue this way until, somehow, it’s 7:45pm and I’m riding with her in a yellow-and-red public minibus down from the city centre to Uselu market with little memory of what convinced me. Mercy, dressed in jeans and a black top that contrasts her bleached skin but hides her long weave, sits by the window, engrossed in her phone’s WhatsApp. I’m squashed between her and a grimy mechanic, staring at my chiffon tunic and blue skirt and asking myself, one, why the hell I’m wearing a skirt, and two, if the spa-and-makeup training I plan to pay for after service year is worth this.
The bus spits us out at Mela Motel roundabout, and we hike down the road, seeking directions. From what we’ve heard, the night market takes place behind the stalls where the day market happens. That, in itself, triggers something else my father used to say. Nothing good comes out of backbenchers. The night market is a backbencher. How can anything good come of it?
Midway down our hike, the last cloud finally disappears and the sky becomes formless and void, no stars. The street lights don’t work, only the yellow bulbs left on in a few stalls light our path. The front rows of stalls have either emptied or are currently in the process of being emptied. Middle-aged women with faces lined by squalor, double wrappers and aprons tied to their waists, flip baskets over to signify close of business. The air stinks of crayfish, rotten meat, tomato water and goat shit. Farewell calls of okhionwie form a gloomy chorus behind the exodus of people walking the way opposite to us.
We drift from stall to stall, seeking an entrance, a walkway, an opening, anything that leads us somewhere other than here or inside. Problem is, I already know we won’t find it. If you’ve gone to enough Nigerian markets, you notice a pattern; there’s no back. There’s only front and inside. Asking someone to go to the back of a market is like asking them to look for a flying dog.
After a couple more paces, Mercy stops, shrugs and shakes her weave to-and-fro.
“Less go inside,” she says.
Now, I’m going to stop here and allow you to rant. Yes, I’m stupid. Don’t I know this is the market? The Market, for God’s sake. Inside every market is a maze, a crudely-designed slum-city with no map. You go inside without prior knowledge of how to navigate it, or without a guide, and consider yourself lost for the next two, three hours. If you’re lucky.
“No na,” I say without any real conviction at all. “We’ll just get lost. It’s already dark.”
Mercy is a real Igbo gal, thick one from Owerri. She doesn’t play with her cheap things.
“Nn’abegi,” she says. “We’re already here, we can’t be going back. Less go, you too fear.”
Into the maze we go. I keep glancing back at the entrance with a sort of longing, the light of the yellow bulbs paving way to the dim brightness of my eyes adjusting to the darkness under an approaching moon. The air wafts cooler, circles around and between my bare legs. I curse my skirt again, struggling to catch up with Mercy as she weaves between stall posts and tables, splashing in a couple of muddy puddles. I try not to imagine what might be in them—rotten tomatoes, spittle, urine, eew—and block out the images with thoughts of my soft mattress back at the lodge. Just thinking about how I could be lying in it right now, watching Devious Maids with the soothing warmth of roasted maize and African pear in my mouth, makes me want to cry. But I realize that once we find this market, I can get all the maize and African pear I need to last a good part of the year. Maybe something good could come out of this backbencher after all.
Mercy with her trousers is all chop-chop, weaving in and out of corridors. Soon, I might not be able to keep up with her.
“Madam!” I call. “Wait.”
She ‘s only a few yards ahead of me, and I’m all about catching up with her, when it happens.
Something that is not Mercy lumbers across my path and bumps into me in the darkness. Two of us fall to our buttocks in the mud. My palm grazes something slimy. I scream death inside.
“What’s this rubbish?” I say, lunging, breathing fire. “Why will you just be walking anyh—”
Then I stop. It’s an old man, struggling to rise in the mud. I can’t see his face well in the darkness, but his limbs are long and the shirt and knickers he’s wearing stopped being clothes a long time ago. His joints pop repeatedly as he tries to find the right position to support his weight.
The rest of my sentence retreats into my larynx and chokes me. I cough a bit. Mercy is back over in an instant, and the two of us quickly grab his upper arms.
“Sorry, epa,” we chorus. “Sorry, sir.”
The man mmhns and aahs his way through rising, before he is soon leaning on a nearby stall table, catching his breath. A bag which I guess he was carrying lies discarded. When I retrieve it, something heavy clunks about inside. I dust it and wonder how and why an old man would cart something so heavy at dusk. As I place it on the table, I catch a glimpse of his face then; tiny eyes, wrinkled, pained. Before I can see more features, the darkness sweeps across and it’s back to an outline.
He finally has time to look us over, and of course he immediately registers unease.
“Wetin una dey do here this night?” he asks. His voice quakes, but I dunno if it’s from anxiety or lack of physical strength.
“We dey find night market, sir,” Mercy answers. I busy myself with wiping my palm on a nearby post.
“Ekiason?” he asks. I can’t see his face, but I swear he’s wide-eyed. “Why?”
“We’re corps members, we want cheap stuff,” Mercy says flatly, as if that’s a perfectly sensible explanation.
The man grunts. “Who tell you of Ekiason? Shebi them tell you everything nia?”
Mercy and I glance at one another. “Ehm,” I stutter, “anything we need to know?”
He shakes his head. “That place no be for oyinbo girls like una.”
I glance again at Mercy, but she wrinkles her nose. I face him. “Why?”
“Many things,” he says. “Many things whey Uruhe don carry.” I can’t see much of his eyes, but the ensuing silence holds a wistfulness about it. The name he mentions strikes a chord, though I can’t seem to remember where I’ve heard it before.
“Uruhe?” Mercy says, then bursts out laughing. To me, she says, “One of those women down the street, yeah, warned her daughter the other day that Uruhe will catch her and steal her shadow if she doesn’t stop misbehaving.”
I can almost feel the pitiful smile on the man’s face when he says, “My son laugh like that too. Very stupid, just like you.” He gives the wistful look again, then stands upright, lugging the strap of the bag onto his shoulder. “Uruhe bless the earth. Na why everything there dey cheap. Plus, everybody dey follow their rules; once you enter there, you too must follow, otherwise . . . ” He tut-tuts.
All this stuff has me on edge. I can almost hear my father saying, It has night before its name. But, my spa training . . .
“Is that where you’re going?” I ask him.
He shrugs slowly. “I been dey there.” He regards the darkness for a while. “I don too stay long.”
“Point the road for us, epa,” Mercy says, impatience in her voice.
The man shakes his head again. “The road no be the same for everybody. Na only people whey dey find am truly truly, go see am. If you really believe and your mind clean, you go hear the music. If you hear the music, follow am.”
We strain our ears and listen. Listen hard. Sure enough, I hear the faint strains of a traditional tune, although the timbre is of an instrument I don’t recognise.
“Epa, I can hear th—”
The old man is gone.
“Where did he go?” I ask.
Mercy, still straining to hear the music, doesn’t answer me. For a moment, I consider not telling her I can hear it, but she obviously heard me say I can. The burden is on me now.
“This way,” I say resignedly, and lead in steps more unsure than before. Mercy, quick to the aroma of good bargains, is happy to have my assurance, and eggs me on. I listen and follow, turning here and there in the direction of the music, which grows louder, it seems, as we get closer to a tree towering overhead.
There is a sense of familiarity as I look at that tree more and more. Just before we emerge from our corridor into a clearing beyond, where the music is loudest, I remember why that name is familiar, and where I’ve seen this tree before. From a Google photo, when I sought more information about Bini culture and way of life, after finding out I was posted here. It was listed as an Uruhe tree, planted by Oba Ewuare in the fifteenth century to stand as a totem for Emotan, an honourable Bini woman who died in her role as Iyeki, mother of the market. Or, Iyeki, rule enforcer and market watchwoman.
We come out of the corridor and gasp.
It’s as if we’ve stepped into a roughed-up set from a 1570s Bini movie. The clearing is lit by flames large and small—kerosene wick lamps and fire burning in clay pots. The Uruhe looms in the middle of everything. Scents of mint drift from its leaves and mix with the assortment of produce on the ground; squashed citrus, wild onions, old sacks. Traditional Bini music booms from the tree’s centre as if pumped from loudspeakers, yet surprisingly, doesn’t even tickle our eardrums. I look around, searching for musicians, but find none. The music is hard to place; dark and sad, yet light and whimsical. The atmosphere is hot and loud, but not noisy, which is the first thing that strikes me.
We shuffle into the clearing. Around the tree, the traders arrange their wares in concentric circles, laying thatch baskets and wooden boxes in the sand. I look closer and notice that it’s all food of the earth. There is everything. Whole bunches of palm nuts as well as shed ones, yams as thick as the calves of Hercules, onions the size of pineapples, pineapples the size of watermelons, watermelons the size of planets. There are root crops, fruits, beans, vegetables, and all of them are five sizes up from the usual. Whatever it is; as long as it’s of the earth and you want it, Ekiason probably has it.
Of course Mercy wants it, and as soon as her bulbous eyes are done recognising everything, her feet take over. She tugs me and we slide into the aisles between traders. To a side are shabby wooden crates with three wheels, which serve as trollies. We pick one and roll away.
There are a few shoppers already making their way around, eyeing goods. The traders are mostly women. Most sit in the sand, some have tables or posts and props to hang their wares from, but that’s as much distinction as is between traders. They’re all old, all wear the same jaded expression, like they’ve been selling for centuries; and none of them speaks a word of English, pidgin or Bini.
Next to each display is a small calabash or basket. I see one of the shoppers squat at a tomato display, drop a couple of naira notes into the calabash, then empty two laid-out bowls into her crate. She bows at the trader, who bows back, and she continues along on her merry way while the trader busies herself with re-stocking the bowls from a nearby sack. Neither of them speaks a word during the process.
We catch the drift and follow suit, starting from the outer circle. Our first stop is a stand for my wonderful African pears, where we cart five large wraps. Mercy is about to ask how much it costs when something strikes me and I quickly put a hand over her mouth. I beckon to her to bring her ear to my lips.
“They don’t haggle here,” I whisper. “Remember what the man said about rules? I think these are the rules. No talking, no bargaining, nothing. Just select your goods, pay and go.”
“How will we know what to pay?” Mercy whispers back.
I consider it for a minute. “I think we’re supposed to pay what we believe is a fair price.”
I open my purse, select three-hundred naira and drop it in the seller’s calabash. The thin, wrinkled man nods to me, and I nod back.
“See?” I say as we move on. “Easy.”
We carry on this way, selecting oranges, cucumbers, maize, wheat flour, loads and loads of stuff. Each time, we pay a fair fee, and the decision to come to this market seems to pay off by the minute. At some point, I find myself shuffling my feet to the music. The words are strange and ancient, but no bother. I’m happy. I made the right choice. My father was wrong.
By the time we’re near the centre, closest to the tree, we’re almost out of cash. We round up our purchases by the pawpaw vendor before turning to regard our booty.
“Shet,” Mercy says.
Our load is just the proper size for a small giant to lift, but not for anyone or anything human-sized to attempt. We stand for a while, staring at it, realizing that the concentric circles actually lead down a slight slope, into the roots of the tree. Going back to the outer circle would be going uphill. Worse, we’re the last ones left at the market.
Mercy squats and asks the pawpaw seller: “Madam, can we get someone to—”
The wizened woman, a tie-and-dye cloak wrapped around her body and draped over her head, produces a palm from her cocoon and holds it up in front of Mercy’s face. The woman points upwards, to the Uruhe, and places the same finger on her lips. Then she proceeds to continue her blank stare into the distance.
“Ugh,” Mercy says. “We’ll roll it together. Less go.”
We grip the handles and tug. The wheels protest as we struggle uphill, the groans increasing as our knees tire. We round the first circle and the second. I no longer feel my elbows. This no longer feels like a victory.
“Let’s rest,” I tell Mercy, midway through the third circle. This is only half the journey, as I count six or seven circles. We stop and lean on the crates.
“We shouldn’t have bought so much,” I say. “Between here and the main road, we’ll collapse before we get a cab.” I think for a moment. “Maybe we should return some.”
“Never,” Mercy says. “What I bought with my own money?” She walks to the nearest stand. A small, old man is hidden away by heaps of tomatoes.
“Oga, abeg where I fit see person to help m—”
The man leaps to shush her violently, then points up at Uruhe, just like the other woman. Mercy is heaving from frustration, and she blurts back in defiance.
“Abegi!” She turns around, shouting above the music. “Rules, rules, and you people cannot even help somebody to carry load.” She kisses her teeth.
The reaction of the market is harmonized. The swiftness with which the traders rise as one is almost choreographed.
“Mercy, stop, stop,” I whisper quickly. “We might be breaking one of the ru—”
“Abegi!” She stomps back to the crate and starts to wheel it, not along the circles, but across them, between the traders. She’s gunning in a straight line for the corridor through which we entered, beyond the outer circle.
“Mercy!” I’m careful not to scream. “Stop.”
But of course, she barges through the displays with our crate. Mountains of well-arranged watermelons tumble and roll everywhere. She keeps pushing beyond the mayhem. The traders say nothing, staring calmly at their rolling goods. Mercy is a one-man juggernaut. She burrows her way and cuts the circle with the packed crate, heading for the corridor.
I want to follow her, but my feet are stubborn.
She breaks the outer circle in less than a minute. At the opening to the corridor, I notice a figure standing there, watching her approach. The shape with the slung bag is familiar—it’s the old man I bumped into.
His eyes are wide.
“Wetin you dey do?” he says. “Stop. Stop!”
Mercy keeps pushing, ignoring his warnings. He advances.
“Stop. Go back, go back.”
Mercy raises a hand and is ready to tell him off, when it happens.
She smacks right into a wall and falls to her buttocks.
Except, there’s no wall. The crate rolls forward and away. The old man is running down to her.
The traders back towards the fringes of the circle, giving way to something. I’m suddenly alone in the middle of the third row. I quickly move to Mercy and our old friend who is helping her up.
The man tries to lead her away from the circle, which isn’t happening. Something stronger than him pulls her back, though I see nothing but shadows flickering in the light of the disturbed flames.
I look down at my own feet and my shadow is there. I look around and see the angled shadows of baskets and spilled foods beside me.
I look back to Mercy. Her shadow is long. Long and taut, as if being pulled. I trace it, all the way to where it disappears underneath Uruhe’s roots.
“Oh God,” says the old man.
The music cuts short, and a drawn-out grating sound, a million forks scraping into marble, takes over. This one does pierce my eardrums.
I clamp my ears, but the old man doesn’t. He grabs Mercy and starts to pull.
It’s as if he knows, because immediately, Mercy is tugged from the opposite side by nothing. He lays his whole weight into it, but whatever it is is strong, so strong that soon Mercy’s feet are off the ground and she’s suspended a foot or two above air.
The traders stand unmoving, as if they’re not even there. The old man says something to me that I don’t hear. I uncover my ears.
“Cut am!” he says.
He’s gesturing to the discarded bag. I run to it, reach in and pull out a hatchet.
Whatever pulls Mercy exerts more force. It starts to rein her in, slowly. The grating intensifies; a million more forks on marble. The old man squats and pulls back. Mercy starts to slip from his grasp. She clings to him desperately.
“Cut am!” he says again.
I look around. Cut what?
The only thing I can think of is the tree’s roots, so I run back to the centre of the circle. Mercy and the man are being dragged along the ground now.
I lift the hatchet and hack.
The tree howls. And by that, I mean, the grating peaks into a chorus. Uruhe shudders and sheds leaves.
I hack at it again and again, mindlessly, until the roots start to give a colourless sap with an acrid smell. Mercy’s screams are mixed in with the grated howls to form a strange song. It reminds me that I once danced to the music of the same thing that now wants to eat my roommate.
This gives fuel to my arm. I lift and smash, lift and smash.
Suddenly, the tree shudders, and Mercy’s long shadow retreats to her feet. She tumbles over the man with a shriek. Both rise as quickly as they fell and scamper out of the circle, to the corridor. I’m right behind them, gaining, my heart leaping with fear and victory—
—until I slam into a wall and crumple to the ground.
As I rise, I feel it around my midriff; a huge hand squeezing tight and pulling me backward. My shadow stretches from beneath me into Uruhe’s roots. Without warning, it tugs sharply, and I crash on my belly and start to scrape along the ground.
Mercy has sped into the corridor and out of sight into the darkness beyond. It’s the old man who hears me, who stops and turns as I’m dragged under.
His eyes move from me to the hatchet, from me to the hatchet. His hesitation is like eternity, as he seems farther and farther away while I’m dragged. The flames dim, and darkness grow thicker, so much that it soon swallows him and everything around me until all I see is one simple flame of hope.
Then suddenly he is there, hatchet in both hands, and he lifts it and crashes, lift, crash. Tears glisten on his cheeks as he cuts and cries, as if he cuts his own self. I dig my fingers into the sand to break my movement.
I’m this close to the tree when, all of a sudden, the grip is gone.
I jump, and without as much as a glance backward, bolt for the corridor. I did track-and-field in secondary school, so I’m pretty sure of myself. Five seconds, I break the circle; nine, I’m at the corridor.
Only then do I realise the man hasn’t stopped hacking.
I turn around just when all of his shadow is under the roots, only his legs left. He has lifted the hatchet, and is ready to bring it down again when a violent tug drops him to his knees, and then his belly. The hatchet clanks.
That last moment, right before he is taken under, he looks at me. The tears paint a glistening curtain parallel to his nose, and I catch a proper glimpse of his eyes. They’re still tiny and wrinkled. But that thing I see in them before the lights wink out is not pain.
The market has seen everything. It must eat. It does not break its habits.
It’s these lines from Teju Cole’s Everyday Is For The Thief that haunt me for the next week, when a classic Benin City three-day-rainstorm provides the proper milieu for me to sit home and mope. I would go out and do something, anything to wipe away the experience, but I hear the storm is mad; uprooted trees, tossed electric poles, stolen roofs. There are times I think the skies weep for our old friend.
Following the market escapade, I have moved out of Mercy’s covetousness and disloyalty to a self-contained apartment off Textile Mill Road. It’s between buying a new mattress, painting the room and shopping for new sheets that these thoughts plague me.
I can only thank the rain; I can’t be sure I wouldn’t have gone back to the market, to see if somehow, anyhow, the old man was still alive.
For now, I settle for the old ways. I rifle through every available newspaper and scroll through all related news feeds, everyday. The old ways give me nothing.
I dream of him sometimes. Of that last look on his face. I imagine the Uruhe’s grating sounds are peals of laughter as it consumes its next feast. I see the traders disappear one-by-one, fizz-popping into oblivion right in front of my eyes. When I wake, I cannot tell which is memory and which is a product of my imagination.
During a chance TV viewing at a hair salon, while I’m in the middle of having my hair braided, I come upon a historical documentary on the local station. Uruhe is in the background, its roots spick and span and complete, as if no hatchet has ever touched them. The clearing around it is devoid of any sign of previous activity. It’s as if nothing has stepped in that place in years.
I shake the attendant’s hands off my head.
“Increase the volume,” I say.
She turns it up and resumes braiding. The reporter is interviewing a market stakeholder about the history of the tree. I listen intently as the man recites a litany of generations through which the tree has passed unharmed. The reporter, however, has no such patience. He cuts the man short.
“We,” he says, gesturing towards the TV viewership, “heard there’s a spirit in there that steals your shadow at night. Is this true?”
The man being interviewed, a stocky graying man, snickers, and says in Bini: “I don’t think a tree can eat people.” I read this off the subtitles.
The reporter nods. “They say it’s the spirit of Emotan in the tree that does it.”
The man displays his palms and says: “No one even comes here at night, so who can tell? The only person I know who does that is our one security guard. He comes each night and sits on that stump. We stopped paying him a long time ago, but he still comes.” The man pauses, thinks for a minute. “Though, thinking of it now, some people say he still comes because his own son was taken once and he’s waiting for the tree to give him back. I remember we talked to him about feeding false stories.” He displays his palms again. “You know how rumors spread, eh?”
The reporter isn’t satisfied. “This man, can we meet him?”
The man shrugs. “Ah, bad luck. He simply stopped coming a few days ago. Maybe he got tired of waiting.”
The camera pans to a nearby stump, which looks worn smooth from sitting. On it rests the hatchet, beaded water from the rainstorm glistening off it in the high noon sun, like the tears in the man’s eyes.
I bow my head, staring at my chafed hands. Arms that swayed to the music of the market that is and isn’t, fingers that dug the earth and held on, palms that will forever hold the blood of the old man in them.
Or hands that saved him; that gave to him, the thing he wanted most in this life.