At the age of five, Zahira died.
* * *
‘‘Zahira, Zahira, open your eyes, my love.’’
His voice, like a morning bird, has become a frequent occurrence for her lately; he’s always had that kind of effect on her, it's like she’s possessed by his very being.
“You and I, we are one, there can't be one without the other,” he always said.
She drags her lids up against their will, praying to catch a glimpse of the face that has seared itself in her very being, only to see the familiar patterns of her walls.
She struggles to walk to the bathroom, her mind on the dream she was pulled out of, when she stumbles upon her luggage lurking by the door. She had forgotten. No wonder she is dreaming of him today. She is going back to Rowwa city, and there is no running from the myriad of memories that chased her away in the first place. After Hamida’s message, she knew the siren call of her former home will not be left unheard anymore.
She is going home, and is absolutely terrified.
* * *
From a young age, Zahira knew she was special. She was born on a Friday at midnight, and her mama had gotten two days to gaze on the fruit of her agonizing labor. Then she smiled and finally slept as she couldn’t since giving birth. She never woke up. Papa had never forgiven her for it, and the same went for the daughter she left behind. Zahira had never blamed him. She found it hard to forgive as well. She swore to love him as Mama wasn’t able to; even when the hatred in his eyes burned a path down her spine, she would love him always. At least, that’s what she thought. Hindsight, they say, is 20/20.
Adam Lambert’s song Ghost Town is playing on the stereo, “Now I know my heart is a ghost town’’ – how ironic, she thinks. She has often wondered how her driver, Daniel, always seemed to know the right songs to play. In the three years he’s been driving her, his songs have always matched her mood for the day. Coincidence maybe, but she has a firm belief that he may be psychic. For some reason, she doesn’t feel her spirit being lifted at all by the rhythm of the music, everything seems numb to her, soulless. She sets her head on the headrest, closing her eyes, expecting some closure, but the sudden darkness evokes past memories, memories she doesn’t want to accept as hers, her inner demons coming to light.
* * *
When she was a child, she wished people could see that she loved her papa just the way he was. She wouldn't show that kind of affection even to her grandmother Inna, the woman who raised her and the only person who saved her from his wrath every time.
At the age of 8, Papa almost sent her to Mama.
She remembers the scorching sound of her grandmother’s cries. She could faintly hear her papa’s voice, Inna was crying and pleading with him. It had been two days already, two days of being locked up in a small storage room, deprived of food and water. “It is all for the good of the family,” he had said. “If not punished, she'll end up loose and bring shame on her family.”
Zahira had always been given an hour for her visits to her friend Hamida’s house. Two days earlier, had she known how serious he was about her punishment, she would not have stuck around for that extra plate of delicious bottom pot jollof rice Hamida’s mother made, or made her way to the hillside to enjoy the serene view of her favorite place in town. She definitely would not have followed the allure of Alhaji Abu’s ripe mangoes swaying from their perch like a particularly succulent temptress.
He grabbed her right hand as she stepped into the compound. For a moment, her heart stopped, fear racing through her blood. Kidnapped in my own papa’s house, she thought. She had opened her mouth to let out her characteristic scream that never failed to have Inna teleporting to her when he hit the back of her head. “Shut up, you useless girl!” he growled. Papa, it's just Papa, she thought as she sagged back like a puppet with cut strings. Her heart was still pounding inside her head. For a moment, she relished the feel of him, strong and rigid against her back. It was like a hug. Then his wide palms descended on her, and she knew nothing but pain.
It was her nonstop screaming that brought Inna out of her room; but that day, even Inna could not save her from him. “You will not feed her or open this door without my permission,” he stated; and just as he said, it was done.
By dusk, all her tears had dried up. She dozed off wondering whether Inna had picked up her remaining mangoes that were left scattered on the ground.
After 48 hours, he finally decided to end her punishment, but only when Inna threatened to take her own life. “You might be heartless, but I am still the woman that gave birth to you, so let her out. If not, I die, and I will make sure you are cursed forever before I go!” Those words were what saved Zahira that day.
But she couldn’t hold on any longer. Before Inna came to her rescue, she was already on the verge of passing out. The door was finally opened, her grandmother rushing in. She could feel the old woman's shaking hands on her frail body, trying to pick her up. Her papa’s retreating figure was the last thing she saw before the world went blank.
After a week of Inna’s care and treatment, she finally recuperated and was able to stand on her feet again. That day she swore to never, ever make her papa cross again. Had she only known that it would anger him that much, she would have left Sani and Ali alone when they snatched her mangoes and ran. She learnt a valuable lesson that day, justice had come at a steep price.
* * *
“Move out of the way, child!” The driver's voice echoes and brings her back to reality.
The long journey has finally come to an end. Upon entering the city, she tells Daniel to take her to her favorite spot. The route to the hilltop has been engraved in her memory since the last time she stopped to say goodbye. With her assistance, they reach their destination in little time.
The view from up the hill never seizes to amaze her. Every time she feels like crumbling. The flowing stream below washes all her worries away, then suddenly she feels like everything is going to be alright.
She closes her eyes whilst enjoying the sensation that brushes against her body like a breeze. Everything feels nostalgic, the scent of fresh green grass, the cool breeze, and Tahir. She can see him calling out to her, his wide smile reaching her eyes, and can't help but smile as she makes her way to him. It is just like the game of tag they used to play; their hands were merely inches apart, and then he was gone. She never once caught him, always wound up being the prey.
Zahira had been 18 when he came into her life. She had always dreamt that one day, her prince in shining armor would come for her. What she got instead was not a prince but Tahir, the man who taught her the meaning of true love at a time when she didn’t even know what love was. He was not at all what she imagined the love of her life to be like. He was so much more, too good for her.
It was a Saturday evening, and she was on her way home from the hillside, as usual. There was no indication that her life was about to change.
“Excuse me, I desperately need your help,” the stranger said while looking at her with an apologetic smile on his face. “It seems I’ve been walking in circles these past thirty minutes.”
He needed her? She couldn’t help but smile. “It’s okay, where are you looking for? I can help you,” she replied.
Based upon his description, she directed him to the house she understood belonged to Alhaji Abu, their neighbor. The stranger turned out to be very talkative. In just a few minutes, he had told her almost everything about himself – his name, where he came from, the reason for his visit, and who he was visiting. It turned out that Alhaji Abu was his uncle.
He just kept on talking as if he didn't know when to stop, but she didn't want him to, she liked his voice. It was deep and melodious, so she just kept on smiling as he talked. But she also knew she had better get going, or she would end up being late.
The way he looked at her made her at loss for words.
“I need to go home now,” she said while looking down, not wanting their eyes to meet. She'd never seen anything like it, they where brown but almost golden, complementing his golden-brown skin. She had always been complimented for her fair skin, but looking at his skin color made her jealous. He looked perfect.
“What’s your name?” he finally asked her. She looked up and answered him, and he repeated after her, “Zahira!” Then he added, “Let me drop you off at home, as a way of showing my gratitude.”
She couldn’t let him drop her off, considering her papa was home. She knew better than that.
The same evening, she told her grandmother all about their meeting. Later, she tossed and turned in bed wishing she had at least gotten his name.
The next day, her wish came true. It was “Tahir Buratai,” as he was named. Apparently, after meeting his uncle, all he could talk about was the kind girl that had helped him out. His uncle had then told him that the girl was definitely Malam Isa’s daughter Zahira. Suddenly, he stood in front of Zahira’s house, waiting to see her again. He did not care for propriety or culture, just wanted to talk to her, to hear her laugh again.
He was deep in thoughts when Zahira came out. She didn't want to come outside when a boy came to tell her of the stranger's arrival, but her grandmother insisted she come and hear him out. Not that she didn't want to see him, it simply made her feel uncomfortable.
She didn't know what to say to him. His eyes rendered her speechless, which she dreaded. To anyone who knew her, speechless was not a word typically used to describe her in any way. She disliked the effect he was having upon her, it was all so new and unfamiliar. But as soon as she stepped outside and saw him, he smiled, and for a moment the world stopped.
Tahir lived in the city but would come by every week just to see Zahira, whom he doted and adored. These talks always happened while her father was out, and Tahir’s uncle did not interfere. She’d never had anyone treat her the way he did, but she came to terms with it eventually, and started believing that even she deserved to be loved. Tahir gradually changed her perception of love itself.
With the amount of time they spent outside her house, she would come to learn a lot of things about him. He had the perfect life with a perfect family. He was the only son; his father had been a university professor until he retired, his mother a head nurse at a major hospital. His father wanted him to take up a job at the university, but Tahir liked the business world better, so he had ended up running his own real estate agency. The most important thing she learned though was that he liked her, genuinely liked her. That was a scarier thought than she had anticipated. Love can be brutal, that much she knew – like her father's love for his deceased wife, or her own love for her father. Tahir's love was just as intense, but sweet.
* * *
At the age of 10, she had solved the mystery of her papa’s hatred. She didn’t want to believe it, but deep down she always knew. The way he saw it, she had taken the love of his life away from him. Zahira would recall the tales Inna used to tell her of the love Papa and Mama used to share, a love so beautiful that people still whispered about it when faced with Papa’s unsmiling appearance.
She was just like her mama, they said: feisty, bold, and beautiful. Those qualities made all the men in town chase after her mother, including Papa. She had ignored him at first, but he was persistent, proving that he would always be around even if she kept pushing him away.
Zahira learnt from her parents' relationship that love is unpredictable. Someone or something always comes in between, similar to the monster in the bedtime stories Inna used to tell her every night; a monster that tore anything in its path. She had come to believe that in her papa’s eyes, she was that monster, the despicable evil monster, the one who snatched Papa’s love from him.
* * *
At 20, she was a beautiful bride, ready to start a new life away from home. She thought she had found a love like Papa’s – someone to live for, to die for.
Even today, Zahira cannot remember what really happened in those last precious seconds. It all happened so fast; one moment he was there, the next he was gone. She couldn’t believe it, things weren’t suppose to happen that way; they were supposed to live happily ever after as husband and wife. No, she was not supposed to lose him like Papa did his wife. This time was supposed to be different.
They had been wed that day. Tahir came to take his bride away, just as her papa had instructed him to do. But she couldn’t leave without saying goodbye to her favorite spot, so they headed to the hillside. They looked exactly like a perfectly painted portrait of a happy couple, hands entwined, the wonderful view, and smiles that could last forever.
If only he hadn’t let go of her hand that day, he would still be with her.
“Where are you running off to?” Zahira asked. “Come back!”
“Come catch me if you can!” The sound of his laughter echoed all over, and he had his usual boyish grin on his face.
It was their wedding day, after all. Passion was overflowing, and no one would back down from a challenge. She was close to winning, merely inches away from victory. Then suddenly, the roles were reversed, he tried to grab on to her hand instead. “Don’t try to fool me, I will not let you win today!” she said, oblivious to what was happening. And just like that, the earth gave way, and Tahir was gone.
* * *
Heads turned as she stepped into the open courtyard of her childhood home. Whispers rose in a cacophony, falling with the sighs of her name.
“What is the cursed child doing here, hasn’t she done enough already?”
For those who didn’t know her story, curiosity would keep eating them up until they finally gave in. “Who is the girl?” they whispered.
If she was lucky, the responder would answer by naming her as the ‘daughter and granddaughter of the household.’ Otherwise, she would be known as the unlucky cursed child and husband killer, the unfortunate girl that became a widow the same day she became a bride.
It had been three days since Tahir’s demise, but a very small part of her was hoping that it was all a ruse, just a big ruse planned by her grandmother to get her back home. After the incident on her wedding day, she couldn’t stay at her house any longer. Her papa didn’t take her in. Even when Inna insisted, he never allowed it, and Zahira was left stranded. She thought she hated him, believed herself capable of that.
We’ve both lost. Let's mourn now, and let the weapons fall, Zahira thought. But her papa’s heart was like burned coal, he refused to listen.
* * *
Tahir's parents had been the only thing that kept her afloat afterwards. They had reached out to her and dragged her out of the well of grief and fear that she had buried herself into without having Inna to pull her up.
All she ever had to do was make one phone call, and they had Daniel come and pick her up. They gave her a room and everything she might ever need, without her having to ask for anything. The three of them mourned together, sang sad songs together, held hands, and sometimes laughed tearfully about what a wonderful young man Tahir had been. Jovial, playful, adventurous, interested in other people, and yes – talkative.
She has managed to hold out for approximately five years. She always keeps to herself, busy with schoolwork. She is only two years away from completing her residency, and people have taken to calling her Dr Zahira already. The only problem is that her achievements and all the kindness and affection in the world cannot fill the void from having lost her love.
* * *
It has been seven days since Inna’s death. Everything seemingly has gone back to normal, her papa treating her like she doesn’t exist. But one thing that stands out is that he never tells her to leave, so maybe he has started seeing the good in her.
She awakes with a resolve, she is going to make everything right. She dresses up in her best clothes and makes her way to the hillside. Just as she expected, Tahir is waiting for her, but this time around she doesn’t let go of his hand; instead, they leave this world together hand in hand. It is just like killing two birds with one stone. In the end, everyone gets what they want.
This downfall has been going on since she was five. “I wish Zahira had died instead, I wish she had never been born,” said her papa while she was hiding under Inna’s dark and scary bed as a means to escape him after she had broken his phone.
She must have fallen asleep while hiding, but woke up lying on Inna’s bed. The next day, her grandmother asked whether Zahira overheard anything the previous night while hiding, and she answered no. Well, if the girl didn’t remember it, then it never happened. But it did happen! She died a long time ago, namely that night when she was killed by her papa.
At the age of 25, she has granted her papa his greatest wish: a life without his wife’s murderer.