On Monday you dressed in a barn red blouse. Tuesday you wore your cherished cherry red gown. It was a gift from your mother. She died on a Tuesday, and since then, the cherry red had become like an heirloom. You wore it on Tuesdays. On Wednesday, you were garbed in a blood red kimono. Thursday morning came to you with excitement. Your phone had rung while you were still in bed.
Obadiah snapped you from sleep. “Hello, Hannatu.”
You responded and yawned. “How did you sleep, dear?”
“We would go out in the evening. I would call you later.”
You held yourself from laughing over the phone. You let the excitement crawl over your skin like a train on a rail track.
Then you made a silent prayer. “God, let this one work. Let this relationship work.”
You sprang from bed and decided to wear what matched your mood. A rose red jumpsuit.
Friday morning was chilly. The harmattan wind howled through the tree branches. You clad yourself in a chili red cardigan.
Everyone in Government Girls High School knew red was your favourite colour, but none knew the reason. Knowledge can become so clichéd that it loses value, unless you know the reasons that sum up to what you know.
Bishara asked you at the end of a Biology class. “Teacher, why do you like red colour?”
You had just finished taking them “Genetics”. You harped on the pattern of blood group and genotype inheritance.
You took the marker and drew blue tracings on the board. You circled “SS” with red colour, turned to your students and warned with passion.
“Know your genotype. Sickle cell is preventable. Can you see how?”
The class erupted, “Yes.”
“Tomorrow, we shall commence the process of knowing our genotype during our biology practical class.”
You walked slowly to Bishara. She looked into your cheerful face. You smiled gleefully. She smiled too and her dimples puckered.
“Bish, I’m expecting a question on Genetics. Okay?”
The following class, you led the girls to the school clinic. The smell of Izal made you wished you had come with your handbag. A bottle of perfume Obadiah bought for you after the last outing was inside. The girls sat quietly at the reception. It was their practical class.
A young man in a ward coat bled each student into labeled bottles for genotype test. Then you returned into the classroom.
“This red liquid flowing in our veins is what it is whether you’re black, white, red or brown. It’s the common point for our humanity. Bishara, this is why the red colour would remain my favourite colour.”
Knowing the reasons behind what you know fuels understanding. But that’s not all to it. How you apply knowledge is imperative. It’s the wrong application of knowledge that makes monsters of people. If not, some people wouldn’t constitute themselves into terror, walked into a rice marshland and slitted farmers’ throats to push for a stop in western education. Because to them, western education is evil and stands forbidden.
Mairo was your colleague at work. She taught Mathematics and Further Mathematics. She had been pestering you to come to her church. You decided you would come this Sunday. It was the Mothers’ Day. One usher motioned you to pick a red or white tag.
You paid for the red and the usher tagged it to your chest.
Your eyes met with Mairo. She left her seat to sit beside you.
She smirked and asked, “Why red tag nao, Hanny?”
“Leave me joor.”
“Wahala for who no like red colour. You and this red colour. Nawa for you o.”
You let out a weak sigh. You thought it was the usual joke.
“Red colour is for those with living mothers, while white colour is for those with dead mothers. This is how we mark Mothers’ Day in our church.”
You buried your face in your Bible and scorned yourself.
“No, no, no.” Mairo protested. She dragged you to the usher. “Please, change it to white for her.”
The students had completed the first term’s examination and were preparing for the end-of-the-year activities. You had a choreography rehearsal with some of the girls late into the night. You released them to their dormitories before the lights out.
The religious militias had sneaked into the school. They found their way into the hostels and woke the girls from sleep. They forced them into silence and began to pack them into trucks.
You had lay in your bed and whispered the Lord’s Prayer before you remembered your red scarf. You had left it in the dining hall earlier in the evening. You thought of picking it in the morning, but your mind stuck on the scarf. You pulled your weary body from the bed, slipped your feet into the slippers and shoved the key into the door hole.
You’re about to turn the key when another voice within you persuaded you to wait till morning.
You returned to bed.
The militants were still loading the girls into their vehicles. Then electricity returned to the school. You rummaged around the bed for your handbag and searched it for your phone charger. You now remembered you didn’t remove it and your laptop charger from the sockets in the dining hall. You feared you would lose them by daybreak.
The crickets quieted down as you thrust the door open. A giant cricket leaped on the curtain. Its grotesque frame frightened you. You swirled the curtain to dislodge it and locked your door. You returned to sleep, but sleep refused to return to you. You tried to lure it. You plugged your ears with your ear phone and listened to Enya’s “May It Be”. Your phone blinked 10% battery charge. You sang along:
May it be the shadow’s call
Will fly away.
May it be your journey on
To light the day
When the night is overcome
You may rise to find the sun.
Your phone blinked 5% battery charge now. You closed the door of your room and made sure it was properly locked. You walked towards the dining hall, shining your torchlight on everything that moved. The cold wind caressed your legs and made you remember your red leggings.
As you inched towards the dormitory complex, whimpering cries pierced the silent night. The cries rode on the back of the cold wind, waxing louder as you walked.
A bright light blinded your eyes.
“Stop! If you move, you die!”
You froze. Warm urine traced the back of your leg.
They hushed you into a truck. You noted the insignia on the vehicle. It was the extremist sect. They put you in the middle of the circle of some of your schoolgirls. The girls whimpered like stolen puppies just discovered by their mother when they saw you.
Bishara spoke first, “Teacher, your face.”
You let your finger slithered over the side of your eye. You peeled clotted blood. You checked the flakes to be sure it was blood.
“Listen up, girls.” Your voice trembling, “We shall not die, but live.”
Now a certain kind of boldness and anger welled up inside your stomach. You gawked at the faces of each girl in the truck and said again, “We shall not die, but live.”
Fear crested their pale faces with anxiety. Ramlatu locked Tisbah in her palm and let her finger dragged the beads with weighted hesitation. She mumbled unknown words.
Bishara snuggled down like a chick in the rain. She sang your words like a penitent hymn into the gaping silence. “We shall not die, but live.”
You rushed and embraced Bishara. You allowed Ramlatu place her head on your lap. You rubbed their heads. Bishara continued with her hymn, her voice began to break into muffled cry. Tears rolled down your face. All the girls in the truck began to wail.
You heard someone from outside say, “Bismillahi” and suddenly hopped into the truck, interrupting the emotions. His uniform hung loosely on his thin frame. His eyeballs had receded deep into his sockets. A giant Tisbah dangled from his long neck and a chain of bullets was strapped across his chest. He dragged you away from the girls into an empty van.
You sank into the squeaking seat and began to mull over your impending doom. All your life replayed back in your mind. Your pasts and aspirations. Obadiah. The beautiful landscape of the postgraduate school on the university website. You could see your student’s portal. You remembered how you struggled before you decided on the choice of passport to upload. Your most beautiful passport was not the recent one you had. You wanted your passport to be recent. You wanted it beautiful too. Nothing else mattered to you now.
Ramlatu’s words when the thin man hopped into the truck to drag you away continued to ring in your head.
“Inna Lillahi, Inna Lillahi.”
You don’t know what it meant, but you’re familiar with its tragic connotation. You sighed.
“Such heavy words from the lips of a small girl.”
The Scriptural line began to echo back to you. “We shall not die, but live.” You started to own these words again. Your eyes started to make tears.
The trucks claimed the highway with glee. Bouts of gunshots went into the air. The van that carried you was in the rear. Silence brewed inside you. Then a rage. Ocean waves. Whirlwinds. Thunderstorms.
You bit your lip and bowed your head. Your hair fell freely over your face. You wondered why a country allows insurgency to fester, how Western education could become a sacrilege in a millennium and why humans kill for God.
The van reached the outskirts of the town and its tyres scurried on the untarred road. Your breath became hard.
After, you heard multiple sirens howling. Gun duels emerged suddenly. Your van began to sway. Thick waft of brown dust swirled into the sky. The trucks dissolved into the dust and out of your guarding eyes.
Shrapnel cut your face into ragged bruises. Your van halted suddenly and lessened down. Bullets had pierced the tyres. Then bullets poked holes into the chests of the two terrorists on your sides. The one on the right was the first to start jerking, fresh blood poured from his mouth and nose. You turned when you sighted red blood. Your elbow brushed the other man and he flopped down like a mannequin. Dead.
The driver opened the door to escape. Bullets welcomed him as he alighted.
You leaned forward to the beckon of a man in police uniform and a sharp ache gripped you in your tommy. You placed your sweaty palm over the area.
“Lord, don’t let it be a bullet wound.”
You checked your palm and it was cleaned of blood. No red stain. Red colour now terrified your soul. The policeman reached for you, collected you over his shoulder and assured you.
“You shall not die, you shall not die.”
Blood crawled over your face to the tip of your nose and paused till it formed a bead before falling on the back of the officer. You shifted your face from beaded blood as it formed brown clots over his uniform.
Everything had felt like a dream, like you were waiting in your bed in the staff quarters for the cockcrow to pull you from a nightmare.
You healed slowly in the Police hospital. The stitches on your face became less painful. You imagined how the scars would be. Would Obadiah like your face? Would you have keloids?
The hospital slowly wore the colours of Christmas. The decor people were still working the feel of Christmas into the ward when you left to recuperate fully at home.
The thoughts of these girls refused to leave your mind, although Obadiah had told you to focus on your health for now. The deadly terrorist group had claimed responsibility for the abduction. The leader of the group had released a video on YouTube threatening to kill the girls one by one till government released all their captured members. He swore by Allah.
One cold morning, on the eve of Christmas, you woke up with a weird nausea. Everywhere smelt old blood. You scrubbed your tongue with the toothbrush, lathered the paste on your tongue till it felt warm. You packed all your unused drugs out of the room. The nausea persisted. You began to distract yourself from the smell. You made your bed and swept the floor, searching for any strange thing. The nausea lingered like strong cologne. This smell of old blood. You picked your phone and tapped the little blue bird app.
“What’s trending on Twitter NG today sef?”
#BisharaJude was trending at number one.
Your heart stopped. The stale saliva gathered in your mouth just slipped into your throat.
Your heart began to flutter. You wanted to know what had happened to Bishara. Has she been found too? How did she escape? Your trembling finger unknowingly hit the hashtag.
@RiverChild_1 had tweeted, “What are you doing to secure the remaining schoolgirls, @PresidentNGR.”
“WTF! This can only happened in the zoo,” wrote @In_Biafra_I_Trust
@IamBisola wrote with a crying emoji, “Remained 52 girls!!! @BringBackourGirls @FeministFavour @BBC @CNN.”
You scrolled faster. A video popped up.
A girl stood in a deserted place. The wind blew the edge of her pink pinafore.
You zoomed the clip and she was Bishara.
A boy walked up to her. He was barely 17. He tied a red bandana over Bishara’s face and made her knell in the sand. He took several steps back, cocked his AK 47 and with chants of Allahu Akbar aimed bullets into her spine. Her head drooped over her chest and she slouched down on her side.
A bearded man who seemed like one of the top commanders of the sect spoke with a coarse voice.
“Nobody can stop us from doing Allah’s work. Your president thinks he’s still a Muslim. He has left Allah’s way. We are calling on him to repent now. We will keep killing these girls until our men in your prisons are released.”
Then some other militants came and wrapped Bishara up in a white cloth.
Hot tears trooped from your already wet eyes. You blew mucus into handkerchief.
You sat by yourself all the night.
Carol songs from a nearby church kept your company till it was midnight and fireworks began to thunder into the sky. You heard voices of people as they returned from Christmas Eve services.
“Happy Christmas, sir.”
“Same to you, my brother.”
“Merry Christmas, Mummy Racheal.”
The last conversation you heard kept you thinking.
“Do you know some schoolgirls are in the forest, unaware of the Christmas day?”
You gripped your pillow to your chest. “And Bishara? God!”
Your phone buzzed with several text messages. You picked your phone and read the first message. It was your bank’s Christmas greetings.
“Oya, wear one of your red clothes and let’s go for Christmas service. In the presence of God, there’s fullness of joy.”
Your elder sister whispered and hushed you to your wardrobe. You stared blankly at the wardrobe for minutes. You would then pick a red dress, smelt it and hung it back. They all smelt of blood. Like Bishara’s blood. Like the blood of the girl who may go down today.
You found a black kimono, a blue top and a black skirt.
Your cheerless soul seemed bared in the church.
You watched people beamed with smile and exchanged Christmas greetings. Children clad in new clothes. Some clutched plastic eyes glasses in their hands. Other children cry to their mothers for same glasses.
The choir sang “Joy to the World” in the most creative way you’ve never envisaged. Your eyes wandered round the auditorium as the song seeped into your soul. Green and red backdrop fell freely behind the pulpit. The side walls of the church had red and white folds of cloths. Your burden became lifted and your face lit with smile.
Your Reverend mounted the pulpit. Age has weakened his hoarse voice.
He began to preach.
“We’re eternally grateful to God for the gift of his Son, Jesus. We mark this generosity every 25th of December.” He continued, “The crux of the birth of Jesus cannot change: To save mankind from sin.”
He compared verses with verses from the Bible. He then stepped from the pulpit and limped towards the congregation. You followed his hands as he pointed to the decor on the side walls of the church.
“These colours you see have grave implications. The red signifies the blood of Jesus, shed on the cross for the atonement of sin. Because without the shedding of blood, there cannot be remission of sin. Children of God, the white implies purity. Let us be holy even as our Father in heaven is holy.”
Your eyes stayed on the colours. You dissolved into memories. You touched the scars on your face and that terrible night in the school broke your heart again. The anxieties you shared with those girls that night. Ramlatu’s voice. Bishara’s red blood lining the sand as they dragged her body in a white cloth to unknown grave. The red and white church decor. Your legs began to tremble. Then your body started to shake and a scream yielded itself from your dry throat.
“They shall not die, but live! The remaining schoolgirls! They shall live!”
Ushers took you to the church clinic. The sermon took a new turn.
“Did you see the horrible video, church?” The Reverend asked. “The red cloth on Bishara’s face and her lifeless body dragged in a white cloth. It could be any of our daughters.”
The congregation became solemn and heart-broken. People cried, prayed and cried.
Adesina Ajala is a Nigerian writer, poet and medical doctor. His works have appeared or forthcoming in Libretto, Parousia, Eboquills, The Quills, Featiler Rays, The Wild Word, Praxis, AFAS Review, Nantygreens, Ngiga Review, Arts Muse-Fair, Mbari, Brave Voices, Dark Lagos, Artmosterrific, Memento, Con-Scio, Wind & Water community chapbook and elsewhere. He was winner Shuzia Creative Writing Contest (4th edition) and two time winner, Fodio Data Stipend for Poetry. Twitter: @adesina_ajala.