The Deification of Agnes

Agnes had always feared what the people of the world did to those they deemed powerless. All she had were her boys, and for them, she strove all her life for power. To the world, money equated to power, but Agnes had always thought this opinion simplistic—that power, a concept so abstract, could be relegated to the physical confines of money. She thought love was power: the ability to give it with such completeness it empties you and fills another. And so she protected her boys with the conviction of her idea of power—love—until it eventually killed them.

She was born in a small community of farmers in Cotonou. Her father was an illustrious wine tapper who sold to wealthy chiefs and neighbouring communities. Her mother was his fourth wife in six. He was the breadwinner until he fell from a palm tree, breaking his neck, and the wives had to fend for themselves and their children. Although her mother took up trading outside the community, she soon fell ill, crushed underneath a chest pain that would not let her breathe.

Neighbours and relatives suggested to her mother that Agnes find a job. There were agents from Nigeria who visited the community frequently, searching for young girls for house-help jobs. And one day, Agnes’s aunt came with one of them, a strange woman who wore a bob wig and pleated skirt. They spoke with her mother for hours until she began crying, even though crying hurt her chest. Her aunt packed two clothes for her and handed her to the strange woman. Her mother turned to the wall as they left, her body heaving gently in the dark corner of the hut. Agnes was twelve.

The strange woman was named Eunice. She told Agnes she would work and send money home to her mother, as much as 5,000 naira. Agnes found herself living with an eccentric couple in a mansion she had to look after with the meticulousness of a butler. The husband was a bespectacled quiet man who spoke softly and sang while he tended to flowers in a small garden. The wife was a devout member of a catholic church. They had no children. 

Agnes woke at dawn and slept late. She attended church early on weekends to help the wife and the priests prepare for services. She enjoyed listening to the hymns and how sepulchral they made the church feel. But most days, she stayed home, cooked, and ran errands to deliver packages to church members. It was in those years she developed the attentiveness that would allow her to love her sons in small, numerous ways, that would allow her to rise from poverty to running a shop at Aleshinloye. But all would eventually be lost to a great deluge.

Her mother died four years after she left home. Eunice called the husband. It was raining, and the wife was stuck in church. He came to her in his quiet manner, his glasses in his breast pocket, the skin around his eyes heavy, and he delivered the news. As she cried, he sat with her and held her, promising to take care of her. Then he had his way with her. He claimed it was the way she sashayed without knowing what she was doing, the guilelessness of her body discovering itself and how much of her it could yet accommodate, the way she sang and her voice rose outside the kitchen window, up the awning, into the eaves, as if her voice was fire licking the sides of the building. He claimed he loved her, this quiet man who sang and tended to flowers.

She would not think of leaving—she had never considered that she could ‘leave’—until she found out she was pregnant. He pleaded. He threatened. He wanted her to abort it because he feared for his wife and her reputation in the church. Finally, he offered money. Agnes realised then that the problem with the rich is that they think money is the only problem for the poor. She felt disposable, that she had, in fact, been disposed of all her life, first by her father, who decided to die, and then by her mother, who turned her back to her as a stranger took her away.

That night, she packed a small bundle of clothing as her aunt did for her when she left home, and with a fiery longing she didn’t understand, Agnes got on a bus away from Lagos to Ibadan. The driver, a middle-aged man, was headed to the car park at Aleshinloye in Ibadan. When they got there, it became clear she was alone. He took her to his wife in a small home that reminded Agnes of her mother’s hut. The house had the comforting smell of firewood. But she was too afraid to sleep even though she could hear the couple snoring, certain that she was safe, at least for the night. She still clenched her fist around the hem of her bag in a panic until her knuckles burned. She still cried quietly.

Agnes let her thoughts wander like a butterfly until it fell on the calloused single chair in the apartment; it rose and landed on the window; then it flew outside the house into the night, up towards the brilliant moon that streaked its light into the room, and all the stars that surrounded it with love. Then her thoughts returned to the life within her, how she would love it like the moon loved the stars.

The couple took Agnes in. The man was a driver at the park in Aleshinloye market, and his wife, Iya Goolu, owned a stall where she sold cheap pieces of jewellery. They were an amiable pair who had earned the respect of many at the market. Agnes became Iya Goolu’s apprentice. She learned trade secrets quickly. She knew what made an earring or a bracelet gold and how to tell when the gold was counterfeit. She learned Hausa to negotiate with northerners at Sabo, where they bought some of their jewellery. And when the time came, the couple found her a cheap apartment close to the market.

By the time she gave birth—she was shocked they were twins—she already had her network of customers and a stall beside a large gutter that led to the neck of a major canal. She sold children’s clothes and flashy pieces of jewellery. Within two years, Agnes had a small wooden, five-by-five shop rigged atop the huge gutter. And in six years, she had extended that ramshackle into something larger than a kiosk. Although her shop remained on that gutter, and sometimes, when the rain was heavy, the gutter filled into the shop; and sometimes, she still had to borrow money from Iya Goolu to complete her boys’ school fees, Agnes was grateful.

The boys aged with the shop. She named them Aime and Adelard after her parents. Agnes put all the love she had kept hidden throughout her life in them. She loved them for all sorts of reasons—their doting reliance on her, the delight of speaking French with them, their clumsy mispronunciations, how relentless they were at correcting anyone who mispronounced their names, their little discoveries of new, useless information about being alive, and how much they resembled her and each other.

They were known as Agnes’s boys in the market. They were popular because they spoke French. They chased each other everywhere like lizards in the sun. They would run through the market with their mother’s voice calling at their heels. In the expanse of the market, they crossed bleached asphalts the colour of grey parrots. They ran into the market’s police station and touched the guns of distracted officers. They climbed into the belfry of the Anglican Church behind the station and rang its bell. The bishop, an old, balding Anambra man, would come to report them to their mother, and Agnes would apologise, palming the man’s hands with fruits and satin, saying, “Pele, pele, fada, they’re your boys.” Whenever he left, it would seem as if he had only come to visit and not report her mischievous twins. Although young and eligible, Agnes refrained from marriage, much to Iya Goolu’s displeasure. “A woman’s day sets quickly,” she’d say. The D.P.O from the market’s police station, a widower, had proposed marriage to her, promising to take care of her boys, but she’d refused, unconvinced by his nuptial platitudes. The boys were all that mattered, and she was not ready to share her affection for them with anyone else.

Everyone, in a way, considered the twins as theirs, too, because they knew where their mother started from and how hard she’d worked to arrive where she was with the boys. So while they were shocked about the news, it was not hard to overcome their surprise upon learning that Agnes slapped Oloolu for saying the boys would die in two days.

Oloolu is the king of masquerades in Ibadan. The city clears violently when he emerges, his followers unruly as a typhoon, a human skull affixed to his hip. The skull belonged to a woman. Scraps of skin, recently peeled off the skull, remain, and if one got close enough, the woman’s plaited hair could still be seen on it. Oloolu is a ferocious masquerade other masquerades fear, a masquerade men fear, upon whom no woman must ever set eyes. So when Agnes slapped Oloolu, everyone knew she was going to die.

He had stood before her shop in the boisterous market, drunk in the essence of the dead, and had commanded her to leave his presence. And when she refused, he cursed her six-year-old twins to die within a day. That they would be taken, floating high to the heavens, a lesson for all in Aleshinloye market to see. Those who knew Agnes in the market knew that her boys were untouchable. But Oloolu did not know Agnes.

After she slapped him, the clouds darkened. His followers mobbed her, and here was the bishop, summoned in time by Aime. And here was the D.P.O., called upon by Adelard. Peals of warning shots from the police, persistent and rhythmic as a church bell, were now ringing in the market. Oloolu and his followers were arrested. They were taken away and locked up in an abandoned annex of cells at the far end of the station. Rain began to fall.

But Agnes refused to abandon the day. She remained in her stall awaiting the death coming for her boys, whom she’d now sent to Iya Goolu’s shop in the market. Rain still, a deluge of it. Then the gutter beneath her stall filled as it sometimes did when the rain was heavy, and, either through spiritual malevolence or fate, the masquerade prevailed. The flood tore through underneath and grabbed Agnes by the leg. From that moment, events took such a dizzying turn that when what happened to the boys happened, it was so inevitable everyone wondered how they never saw it coming.

Nightfall found the boys restless. Iya Goolu had gathered a search party to look for their mother, and she had, in the meantime, sent them to stay at the police station with the D.P.O. They had no idea what had now taken their mother away. They still acted with the reckless abandon of any six-year-old child. They wandered away from the main building into all the askew places in the station; the small football field that sprouted weed inordinately; the luxurious car park of forsaken vehicles; the Himalayan cluster of used tyres. They chased after each other, playing ‘police and thief,’ taking turns to be police or thief. Behind the station, in the distance, the steeple of a church rose.

Their surroundings humored them long enough to have temporarily forgotten about their mother. And it was in this reverie that they found the old abandoned annex of cells at the far end of the station. Later, when Adelard was asked why they went into the block of cells, he would say something called to them. Inside, the rows of cells were as dark and hermetic as graves.

They heard the eerie sound of water dripping at a distance. Darkness swelled and collapsed around them. The occupants of these abandoned cells were Oloolu’s followers and the garb bearer, the ancestor’s pawn. All locked up and defeated in overcrowded cells. The residents of each cell laid close to their cell bars. Houseflies buzzed around the inmates as though they were faeces. Some of the inmates stared blankly, some mumbled. It was too dark for anyone to recognise the other. Or, if they did, they were too dispirited to care.

The last cell down the block was the largest. There was something unmoving but pulsing within it; someone shrouded inside the density of the cell’s darkness. It was in this cell the police kept Oloolu’s garb, folded into smooth corners. The ominous sound of dripping water rang from this cell. Deeper within it, something called to the boys. A voice arose, gruff and gloomy at its edges. When it spoke, occupants of the other cells began to shuffle, unsettled by its ominousness, unfamiliar with the ancient language they heard. They pushed themselves into the corners of their cells, but it was everywhere as if something malevolent plucked at the strings of the throat from which the voice came.

The prisoners, suddenly entranced, began to hum. The hum ricocheted around the cell walls and sharpened itself on the metal bars. It swirled and rose in a sepulchral echo. It stopped when the boys stood a few feet from the mouth of that last cell. They were close enough for what laid within it.

An arm shot out like a bullet. Too thin to be human. Its sinews bulged and squirmed like salted earthworms, yet no flesh welded them together. The arm pulled Aime to the cell and smashed his face against the bar. Adelard, suddenly disenchanted, ran away from his brother. Then the body-less arm pulled Aime through the bar. The boy screamed, but the hum resumed and rose to cover his voice within its swirl. Adelard, who went to call for help, was not quick enough. 

And now, the hand had doubled. The bars had parted. The hands pulled Adelard into the blackness of the cell. Then something happened. The humming stopped and the voice lowered. A face with lapis lazuli eyes manifested in the dark and stunned the boy into permanent silence. Looking back at him was his mother. Then the voice said softly,

“Mon cherie.”

And all was darkness. 

The rising sun was golden, and the clouds were a vista spread across it. The speeding police van sputtered like a chronic smoker. Everyone inside it was quiet except the radio, a worship song emanating from it. Everyone inside it was alive except Aime, dead in his brother’s lap, the generosity of morning wind washed over his corpse. A few policemen were in the vehicle with a bishop whose baldness was a tonsure. Oloolu’s garment, cradled like a corpse too, was in the laps of its bearer—who was now the prime suspect for Aime’s murder.

Someone had called the station. There was an “arabinrin” at the extreme of the Aleshinloye market. Certainly dead because the man said, “O ti ku fiin fiin.” Drowned by the sound of it. “Beeni, o mu omi yo ni.” And the corpse was obstructing traffic. “Omi ja juu le laarin titi ni. Beeni Sir, ko si eni t’ole b’omi ja.” And the only station in the market had been summoned to action. They knew it was Agnes. The man had added before ending the call, “Kotonu ni. Ehn, arabinrin Kotonu ohun ni.” So, a woman, deposited by flood from the previous day’s heavy rain, and from Cotonou.

The bishop was summoned. He would bless the mother and Aime’s corpses, and they would both be taken to the morgue. And if it turned out it wasn’t Agnes, he would bless both corpses nonetheless. The news spread through the market like a flood and lamentations returned with it. “O ma se o.” “Bo se wu oluwa nii s’ola.” Iya Goolu insisted she would believe no claims about her daughter’s death, but she still headed to the corpse with her husband. And back at the station, amidst “yessirs,” orders flew arbitrarily like arrows on a battlefield.

“At once!”

“Somebody get me that Ibo bishop from the church!”

“Ready the Toyota!”

“The corpse goes with us!”

“Not in the boot, you imbecile! With his brother!”

“And by all means, bring that masquerade bearer with us!”

A bishop, a pawn, police, Agnes’s boys—one dead, one alive—all cooped within the van like domestic birds. When they arrived at the scene, the sun was full in the sky. Although there were no stars, something about it glowed like the moon the night Agnes arrived in Ibadan. The street lamps on both sides of the road had dimmed like banquet candles. A knot of people had formed around the corpse. And there, in a pothole coffin, laid Agnes. Iya Goolu had arrived. Her headgear was gone, and so was her voice.

Before the world dampened her, Agnes always imagined how she would love a husband. How she would wield this power of love with such force that he would cede his unblemished affection to her without realising he had given up his power. But she stopped dreaming and she loved her little men as she would have loved a husband. And that surfeit of love led to her final act of ascension.

It was the bishop who noticed the corpse moving. The ambulance had arrived and the nurses had placed Agnes on one stretcher and Aime on another. The D.P.O., having handcuffed him, was beating the masquerade bearer. The small knot of people that had formed earlier had increased and tightened around the spectacle of death. Traders who had already displayed their wares left it to watch. The quotidian hold-up on the main road, worsened now by the ambulance and police van parked in the middle of the road, had reached a firm standstill. The routine dullness of the Aleshinloye market had become animated. It was then that Agnes’s body began to move.

Quietly at first, quiet enough for the bishop to doubt what he saw. Then the movement became more deliberate. Agnes’s eyes opened with the luminous glow of lapis lazuli. The bishop, now certain of what was happening, began to retreat, mumbling “Jesu Kristi” as he did. Others saw and they too retreated. The nurses and police officers, D.P.O included, ran away.

“Jesu Kristi, Jesu Kristi,” the bishop repeated, fervently making cross signs on himself.

Oloolu’s bearer, already beaten to ripe-mango softness, fell on his knees and bowed to Agnes. “Oloolu, baba mi. Oloolu, baba mi,” he chanted because, for him, she was an ancestor returned to either bless or curse the world. But Agnes returned only for one reason; two, actually.

She carried Aime’s corpse and nestled his head on her left shoulder. It looked like he was merely asleep and not dead. Then she turned to Adelard—whose eyes had now reddened with tears—and smiled, extending her right hand towards him. When he took the hand, the three of them began to ascend. Nothing to be done by anyone but to watch as the sun glowed behind her head like an apparition, and the breeze caught and billowed the hem of her loose wrapper.

They ascended higher into the morning until they reduced to a dot and people could no longer see them without squinting, the sun burning their eyes. Then, finally, everyone looked away from the sky, and at each other, feeling as if they’d seen something they knew but would never try to comprehend, conscious that what had happened could not have been anything but the greatest act of love: a mother returning to take her children from this dark world.


Photo by Bree Anne on Unsplash.

Olamide Àdìó
Olamide Àdìó has work in The Republic, Agbowo, Olongo Africa, and elsewhere. He writes from Ibadan.