The gurney was the vehicle that brought in the dead. Limp, silent and unresisting; the dead laid covered in blue rumpled sheets. Sometimes their flesh quivered in the careless abandon of death. The men that wheeled the gurneys to the room where the bodies were kept had little to say. In their blue, numbered work cloths, in the unhealthy darkness of their flesh and with tired yellow eyes, they presented a near picture of morbidness. At certain periods, a straggly crowd arrived with a hearse to take away an aged father, or a mother who died of brief illnesses, or a young son who was caught in fraternity violence at the university. All the bodies were said to be the same when taken for burial; ashen and stiff.
The morgue was all by itself at the back of the state general hospital. It was an enormous building that stood stricken by a mute graveness in a majestic drabness, as a weathered carton house in the golden glare of a fierce November sun. Voices now and then in conspiring whispers, instructions in unexcited softness, as the wheels of the old gurney creaked down corridors; corridors that reeked of disinfectant. Another corpse would be brought that day, the next day and the week after, and the gurney would creak along the disinfected corridors. Some of the dead were unknown, brought in from auto-crashes, dismembered or in bloodless wholeness. They had something in common; a helplessness that defied dignity.
Tao was the night attendant. He wore the blue numbered work cloth like the other men. His time at the morgue started in the evenings and ended in the mornings. When he started work, he had had superstitions that made fear come alive every night in shadows that jumped with the light of the florescent tube that lit the front of the building. Anything that would break the consistent chirping of the crickets at the start of his job would slither cold up his back and his heart would flutter wildly within him. Tao had been told by Baba Elemo, the old man that took the night shift with him, that men like him who watched over morgues met with witch-doctors who made them amulets to guard their consciousness against intimidation by phantoms. He soon came to find those days of his dread of apparitions gone, for he came face to face with his fear.
One cold night, in the vastness of a dark night that flickered with the lights of few vehicles in the distance, a shadow flitted across. A few metres from the florescent-lit veranda of the morgue, it moved solidly on the unpaved ground and then stopped. He thought his mind imagined it, but he wanted to be sure. He moved quickly and pointed the torchlight at the spot. The darkness shifted and exposed a solidness that was a human figure. It appeared that the swiftness of that pointing movement had fixed the figure onto the spot. Tao’s heart fluttered and then stopped. He stood slowly from the metal chair that he sat on, and moved towards it. By now his fear had been aggressively replaced by a numbed curiosity. The unearthliness of the figure struck his shocked consciousness with a gripping bewitchedness, ‘Who are you? What is your mission?’ There was no answer, but a silence that made the man think he was making inquiry of an illusory image. As he approached the figure; his feet, moving with the heaviness of trepidation, startled him with the slapping sounds of the flip-flops that he wore. The figure slowly turned to face him and he froze.
It was a woman. Her face was pale like it had been drained of blood, and her countenance was an apoplectic mask of purposeful determination. She had beckoned him closer and he had heard the seconds ticking into minutes into a dark dawn. The vision of terror was like the portraiture of a dream he once had, or it could have been that reality replicated itself in states of consciousness much like the static replay from a broken tape. The hour should not have been past two, but the figure appeared to be in a hurry. ‘I go to settle certain matters. I shall reward your silence upon my return.’ He had nodded, his lips failing to form words that could have indicated that he understood the reality that played out before him. He was rooted to the ground and his mouth had opened and closed. And then he had watched as the figure walked briskly away into the dark night.
The apparition was Rukayat, a fishwife during her life at the Oba Market. She had recounted how she didn’t see it, but had felt the crushing force, the grinding severity of the truck, heavy with yams running her into the hot asphalt. They had all gathered, their fingers interlocked and gripping their heads and staring at the dead and wailing in the wake of the quick brutishness with which a violent reality had unfolded and their attendant shock. She had stood and watched. Amongst them was Mama Sikira, the woman who had snapped her fingers at her three days before her death for taking her customers away. What did the dead bring from her journey? Money, money that had no use to the dead other than buying the silence and the allegiance of the night attendant. Tao saw more after that. ‘There is the curse of knowing what men should not,’ Baba Elemo says, looking at the young man who sits smiling in the metal chair, but knows it is the truth. Silence. The yellow tired eyes of the older man gazing on him with the sadness of experience. Tao feels he must settle the unease the truth brings to him, and he points to the incisions that lined the darkened skin of his wrists. ‘I have more here,’ Tao points to his mid-riff. Now, incisions were rubbed with human ash after they’ve been made, and were believed to offer the most effective protection against physical harm or spiritual malevolence.
Bodies. Some came in fresh. They were in bloodless wholeness and some hid the horror of their last experiences in the peaceful repose of their still composure. From gurneys to metal slabs, they were carried in the solitude of their eternal silence. Yet, just to the human ear that failed to hear the whispers from the other world.
Away from the morgue, Tao’s life was a loveless mess. His scandals of young girls who were about to step into the trap of his squalid den of a room littered from time to time with cigarette stubs and small bottles of locally brewed gin and the morbidness of being a mortuary man was enough to make the young women that he liked to ogle often tell him no, and hiss when he promised them love. The women who wiggled buttocks so large they trembled in fleshy deliciousness despite the stretch-marked thighs, from bum shorts to raunchy music at the seedy blue-lit hotel around the corner were quite expensive to keep. And so Tao went around containing the rise of his longing, he bore the rock-hardness of the insistence of his maleness. Every evening, when he went to the morgue, he felt the eyes on him. The eyes of the girl that sat at the veranda of her house, her hands breaking melon seeds from shells, the girl that hawked oranges in an old aluminum tray, he felt their acquired resentment, their second-hand judgement of him as the man in the blue numbered work cloth of the mortuary man.
There was a time he saw that the phantoms, bored from their usually protracted rest, sat in groups and gossiped about the world of the living and their part in it. They normally liked to talk about how their people got on and what news bothered them. Like the case of a young man who died of a ruptured appendix, he told the other younger dead how much he missed his girlfriend, how he hoped that she kept their memories where some young man contending for her heart would not reach. They felt forlorn only when they returned from visiting their families and find they had been forgotten. They sat in the state of being unclothed; their preternaturalness was lost with the consistence of acquaintance, even when they hardly moved in the slowness of human quickness. Tao’s fear of death no longer sat cold in him, it had become a vague feeling of excited thrill. He watched them and told of an approaching presence, when Baba Elemo rose from his drunken slumber in the metal chair. Soon it was decided that Baba Elemo should be afflicted with an ailing leg that should keep him home. Keep him enough from rising up from drunken slumbers to the disconcertion of self-entertaining otherworldliness.
One gusty evening, Tao made something close to a discovery. It wasn’t so much of a thing he didn’t know, but his mind now mulled and dwelled on it. The eruption of chemical sparks and sensory riots and the heavy palpitation in him to see a body so full even in its deadness to possess for him what living women held from him. He had been assigned to the new duty of watching bodies when they were brought before they were prepared for the cold chambers.
The body was of a woman that should have been in her mid-twenties. Her firm orbs rested in a yielding expanse on a chest that had a taut skin stretching thin over ribs that showed faintly. Her full thighs were slightly spread in an image that almost reminded one of the Vitruvian man. It was a sensuality that was advertised by death in the soulless distinction of lifelessness. There was no one to supervise the cleaning of the body. It was still warm just two hours after death. The water and detergent made the skin pliant beneath the gloved hands. And as he washed out the passage between the thighs that were joined by a hairless crotch, he felt his maleness bearing the naked invitation witness. He failed to see the body as it was: dead, unseeing, and vacant. What mattered was the pressure that bore down on his nature. Holding a leg behind the knee, he slowly parted the leg further from the other. His head pounded and he felt a warmth caressing his senses as the blood rushing to his head drowned out any opposing thought. His rock-hardness, rebelling against any coordinated thought was let out in a throbbing aggressiveness by an impatient hand that unzipped the fly in a buzzing second. He entered into the dead-fish moistness of the body and began to thrust languidly as the breasts, resting in a yielding expanse on the body’s chest, quivered in the unacknowledged pleasure of fleshly emptiness.
He didn’t feel the need for any atonement. He didn’t feel that he had desecrated the home of a soul and thus affronted the memory of another’s existence. He was dead to any sense of wrongness. Tao saw that the younger bodies of the female dead were the most luscious. He saw the bodies of women that in the vanity of appreciating their flesh would spurn him and his love and call him the mortuary man and warn him to stay away from them. Their bodies might be young, flesh firm and breasts pert, they could be all a mass of flesh in the width of hips as coming from the fullness of sexual maturation or they could be adolescents in their spindliness and in pubescent sexuality, they might be clammy and cold and impersonal in their reception of him into them. But they all held an intrigue for him in the way their passiveness yielded him pure pleasure. No one should know. Only the dead as they continually sat in growing circles in the dim-lit humming silence, bored from their protracted rest in groups and gossiping about the world of the living and their part in it.
The other men in their blue numbered work cloths didn’t notice him. They rarely observed that the night attendant whose duties now involved washing the dead, had on his face after he finished the washing, the kind of dreamy contentedness that men have on their faces when they had just had sex. Only Baba Elemo who knew the young man well, saw that he had withdrawn into a questionable solitude. Soon enough the old man, having washed his face in the water of the forbidden started to see the apparitions, as images of seeming hallucinations moving along the walls, carefully keeping in the shadows. They whispered as they moved along, some weeping softly not for their short-lived existence but for some others related to them who were suffering as a result of their departure. Baba Elemo was not afraid of apparitions nor whispering shadows for he had a deeper knowledge of the world and of the things without. He knew that the world that Tao had preferred to make his own was a world seeking to own.
If there was a thing that Tao failed to notice despite his frequent conversations with the ghosts, it was the disquieting preference that they held for him in their interactions and in the revelations that they made to him. He didn’t feel that he was edging closer to a certain kind of trouble with the way in which he had now become with the dead, bearing their secrets and the existential anomaly of their manifestations. He didn’t feel the hours of his desecrations as a slide towards the precipice. He was one with his desires.
A body was brought one uneventful evening. The word had been whispered around that she was a student of French Studies at the university some miles away. There had been claimed complications that had arisen from delay, either from the university health centre or from her, and she had been brought to the general hospital as an emergency. She had died from an aneurysm and was in the category of the bloodless dead. There was something about that body that made Tao itch to have a feel of it. If it weren’t for the educated youthfulness that he thought the body must have possessed, then it should have been the ample velvety feel of the flesh. He positioned the lifeless body in postures that he had seen in the adult magazines that he kept under his pillow at home, and mercilessly desecrated it.
The men in the blue numbered work cloths who came in the day and went in the evenings saw that the youngest of them who attended to the washing of the dead in the evenings and stayed the night, acted strangely in the way he continually smiled at no one in particular and seemed to cuddle the air and blew kisses at the wind, and they thought to call the doctors. The doctors stood around and conferred amongst themselves in a minute, and then they took him to the psychiatrist. The psychiatrist, a superstitious and a deliberate man turned to a blue numbered work cloth and asked a few questions, and then he shook his head and waved them all away.
Baba Elemo came to a morgue that had its florescent-lit veranda and its cricket chirping nights shed of Tao’s smiling face and furtive presence in the metal chair. He would hear the news in the morning of Tao’s failed mind as he made for home, and nod his head knowingly. What he would never know, however was how Tao dreamt of the university girl fondling his maleness, and begging him to love her forever and how he had promised her his heart at the height of his passion.