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"I Dreamt of Blood" by Itoro Bassey

If someone asks, "Are you with me?" then you say yes, or a-ha; something to show that you are with them, because this is how they know they haven’t been left to manage the present by themselves. If you were to ask most people, most people would say they rather not go it alone, they would rather have someone with them to help them cope with the chaos. And here, it’s a demand that you never put yourself outside of the present because it’s all one really has. The crows cawing in the distance, the man stopping traffic to open his trunk and sweep small clouds of dust out, the barefoot child cackling up the dirt road and you watching it all on top of your balcony contemplating whether or not you should jump off. This is the present, and if I can let myself admit it, I must say, it sucks.

Grandma doesn't like that I’ve been dreary like this for most of the month. When she sees me sitting with a blanket over my head watching downloaded movies on my laptop she pokes me through my shield asking, "Why are you in darkness, Tata?" The dark bags under her eyes pull her skin down, adding more texture to her face. I won’t answer her because I'm not sure if I'll end my vow to stay present. It’s because I’m not strong like you, ok? She snatches the blanket from my body.

"Go sit outside.” She says. “Let the air rejuvenate you. It is well."

I feel like she’s ripped me out of a womb but I don’t cry. Instead, I trudge out to the veranda and sit in the white plastic chair. I hear bristles brush against the tiles in a rhythmic swish-swish hum underneath me. The chair is coated in dust but I plop myself down and look through the metal bars. Papa drops his broom on the ground and limps to the men putting barbed wire around the fence. His name is Papa but he isn’t my father. He’s an elderly man who wears an old black newsboy cap that’s as worn as he is. His main job is to open and shut the gate, although he’s usually quite grumpy and never wants to actually get up to open or shut the gate. For a month he’s taken to sweeping one particular area in front of the balcony, going over it again and again while he tortures himself standing on his bum knee. He insists on being the one that sweeps and the one that bears the pain.

"Go get a ladder now!" He says to a boy in a ripped red and white wife beater. Back in the states that's what we'd call what the boy’s wearing, a wife beater. But here I think they would just call it a shirt. He can't be more than fifteen but he has muscles that are twice the size of my fist.

"You are very stupid! How you go bring men but no bring extra ladder? Are you stupid?" Papa’s developed a habit for shouting like a maniac, lately. He was once a gentle man who never spoke above a mumble. Daniel, the manager of the house, goes to see what the trouble is. He's also short but unlike Papa, he’s light on his feet. He’s fashionable too, wearing a fade.

"Go bring ladder, now." He says, coming to the old man’s defense.

But when one of the workers says it's 1000 naira to use a ladder from the house further up the dirt road, Daniel loses his calm and yells. He calls the boy an illiterate. When Daniel’s not yelling, or watching Papa’s back, he’s an apologetic mess, cornering me in the house whenever he can to say, “Ma, sorry for not being there. I had a lot to do that day.” He had been sent to Wuse market that day and no one could reach him because his phone was switched off. Grandma nearly drove him out of the compound with a shovel, and he got on his knees to beg for his job, his knees covered in specks of sand. “Daniel, it’s not your fault.” I said. “We’re all hurting.” But I wasn’t sure if I meant this, really. Had you answered your phone, Grandma would have yelled at you and it would have put her at ease. Everyone needs a punching bag when devastation hits. He had kept his head down as I spoke, and I had hoped I had reassured him.

The boy in the wife beater rubs the back of his head and walks up the dirt road to get the ladder. His long arms are like paddles propelling him forward. The other men, I believe there are three, continue. I imagine how it will look when they are done; the barbed wire curling above the gate like a snake.

"Tata, there's ogbonno and amala," Grandma says.

She walks over, barefoot, putting an arm over the curved rails to lean over. She likes taking off her sandals for comfort at times, this instance being one such moment.

"You should eat."

In the past week I have not eaten much, maybe I'm averaging one meal a day. I barely drink water, which means I keep peeling dead skin off my lips. I did eat biscuits yesterday though. Those Pure Bliss milk cookies are good no matter the heartache. Yesterday Grandma said she noticed my backside was going down. "Are you sure?" I said in disbelief. "Just a month and I'm already losing my yansh?" Grandma yanked me by the arm like I was a rag doll, ordering me to turn so she could assess my behind. "Yes o." She said, taking a good look. "Better eat your rice."

She's not so lighthearted today, and calls for Blessing to bring the food.

"Put the table in front of her. Right here." She motions to the lithe girl with the rainbow clogs where the tray must go. Blessing’s feet must have bricks in them, because she moves as if she’d rather be asleep. She likes to vanish in the house for hours, and no one bugs her because we know where she hides. It’s the spare room on the third floor of the house. The room where Dad stayed to get better and then where Mom stayed to cry. Each time the room was vacant, Grandma would order Blessing to clean it well. Now she stays there when she can, sitting on the floor playing a game on my old phone.

"Am I paying you to be Miss Slow Poke?" Grandma shouts.

Shouting is the usual for Grandma. Her stock and trade. She points a wrinkled finger to the food that has just been set down, slicing her arm in my direction like a karate chop, she gives her command. “Eat.”

I look at the ogbonno with the piece of Titus poking out. It looks like a bowl of brown snot. I tear off the amala and scoop soup with it, letting the goop coat my fingers. Grandma grunts in approval and walks away. Blessing watches, rolling her eyes like she can’t be bothered. She’s been given to rolling her eyes lately. “Aunty, this life no go kill me,” she said this yesterday morning while making my bed. This is when I told her she better be careful with her attitude. That if she wasn’t careful Grandma would kill her. I mean really kill her. I warned her that Grandma’s love could easily teeter into rage. The girl straightened the bed sheet, tucking the cloth under the bed. “Aunty, like I said. This life no go kill me.” She then stood with one arm by her side and the other arm raised to point to the black and blue bruise circling her right eye. When it was fresh it looked like someone had painted purple and red on her face. I averted my gaze, unable to look. She now watches me as I chew the fish, swallowing the sludge in my mouth. “Aunty, if you don’t eat, save for me. Dis food sweet, well well.” She cooked the meal herself and can eat her way through any grief. She walks away, leaving me to myself.

The boy in the wife beater walks down the road carrying the ladder with another man. Papa stands up from his chair under the roof of the tiny shed that sits behind the gate and begins shouting, telling the workers to move faster, to hurry, to stop wasting time, which doesn’t make sense because all we have is time. Daniel paces the perimeter to ensure the men putting in the barbed wire do a good job. We agreed that the barbed wire should be high enough to keep unwanted persons out, especially those who could climb walls made of cracked brick and carry themselves up and over a barricade.


Grandpa had wanted the fence wrapped in barbed wire for more than a decade, but we never got around to it. He said it was bad luck to build the family house on an incline, said Dad should have built the compound on flat land so those living above us couldn’t peer down and see what we had. “Those boys that live on top of us are getting bigger. Youth are cruel when they’re hungry. And the country’s getting worse, sha. We’re naked here. They’re seeing our buttocks and inside our thighs.” That was Grandpa, crude until his death. I’d visit every year with my parents during the Christmas holiday and the families who lived on the hills above us were always there, living in what looked to be tin boxes with dirty white buckets lined across their makeshift houses. From what I recall, all the women in the area were mothers, the fathers were few, and most of the children were boys, except for one or two girls.

Occasionally, I’d give one of the children a small bag of peanuts wrapped in plastic on my way to buy data with Grandma. I’ve always been good with faces, and I knew who each child belonged to. The one child I especially enjoyed giving peanuts to never smiled much, always staring at me quizzically when we walked by. He appeared curious about life which endeared me to him. He’d snatch the peanuts from my hand and hide behind his mother, poking his head out from her leg to observe me from a safe distance. When he got tired I’d watch his mother wrap fabric to tie him on her back. He had to be about three years old, and I was about twelve. Grandma said she knew most of the mothers in the area, and those mothers and their families kept to themselves, save for the times they walked or ran on the dirt road and gave their greetings.

“Stop giving them things,” Grandpa said, scolding us whenever we got back. “Do they look like dogs you give biscuits to when you are feeling nice? They are human. Humans with needs. See, eh? This house we live in makes the mouth water. You let them come close, one day they won’t hesitate to come closer.” Grandma would wave him off, defiantly. “Shut up your mouth. God’s watching over this house.” He’d grumble to the tv while he sat on the couch shaking his head.

The house had been there before I was born. When I was younger I felt tiny compared to the house which appeared to be like a large and sprawling giant. I always had to jump to sit on the furniture as I could never reach it. But as I got older, the house started to look different. It needed painting, and the cushions of the couch I used to break my back to get on had deep grooves in them and were no longer so comfortable to sit on. It was too large to maintain. But Dad loved to boast about how he was the only son who could buy a family house. He would boast that even his oldest brother couldn’t do that, and Mom would scold him for showing off, said his brother could feel his arrogance and was probably trying to find a way to put him in his place.

When we went to see…We ended up traveling to see Grandma in February because we were too busy to fly during the holiday. There had been reports of people dying from a strange virus that had started in China and was now spreading to other countries. Grandma said it was the white man’s disease and that it wouldn’t hit Nigeria. She said this to my Dad to protest his insistence that she stay indoors and keep away from crowded areas, especially the markets. But Grandma, as old as she was, loved the markets and since no one was really there to watch her, she did as she liked. That’s when Dad said we should get one-way tickets to see how things went when we got there. Getting a one-way ticket seemed final somehow, and I always appreciated the feeling of getting a round-trip ticket, knowing there was proof that I could always go back, but I saw Dad’s concern and put my own concerns to rest. When things got worse, Grandma wanted us to fly back to Maryland, but I had just told Dad about a dream where I saw blood dripping from the metal bars of the balcony and he said, “We’re staying.” Grandma begged for Dad to put everyone on a plane, but he said it was better to stay and burn white prayer candles. “You have to watch your health,” he said, “And if we leave, you’ll be alone. Everyone else is in a different state.” Grandma protested, said “Nothing will kill me, I’m fine,” but when she saw Dad wouldn’t budge she changed her tactic. “Send your pikin home, then. The country is getting worse. This soft girl won’t last. What does she know about this life past festival season?” She pulled her chair closer to me, giving me a once over. “I’m staying put.” I said, matching her stare down with my own. She shook a wrinkled finger at my nose. “No. You don’t understand.” She said, trying to talk to my Dad to make the final call. But I, having had the dream of blood didn’t flinch, “I’m not leaving.” I said. And then I said nothing more because I knew she was right. Dad, who was never at ease if he didn’t have Grandma’s approval, tried his best to appeal to her. “If we leave,” he said, “we’ll be turning in one problem for what could be a more dangerous one.” But Grandma, being the wisest of us all asked, “What could be more dangerous than death?”

Mom, our resident skeptic, was never one to indulge my dreams. It’s not that she wasn’t a believer, it was more that she had adopted the logic of the West. I must see it to believe it. If it wasn’t yet seen then the supernatural could be rebuked or thwarted for another time. She ran her hands through my braids, probably to comfort herself more than me, “Tata’s always had these dreams. They’ve never been dangerous. Let’s not worry.” That was mother, never interjecting herself in her mother-in-law and husband’s spats. She rubbed my hand with hers and I admired how smooth hers were. She looked at my father. “We’ll stay. I wouldn’t want to be without you all at a time like this.” Dad put his hands behind his head and leaned back in the chair. Two pit stains in perfect ovals had darkened his gray shirt. His arms that were once solid now jiggled in some areas. He had first seen Mom at a Catholic church in Maryland, when she was more solid herself. Dad, perhaps recalling those days, took one hand from behind his head to tap her hand while he turned his gaze away from her. He was always cavalier in his affection, but after forty years of marriage she never seemed to mind.

“We thought Ebola was bad, but this, I don’t know. A virus that constricts the lungs? I tell you, not my cup of tea.” He said, ending his sentence with a tsk tsk to emphasize his disdain. He was watching CNN, the BBC, and Arise as much as he watched the televangelist channels, reciting the numbers of the dead and the gruesome details of people who had coughed themselves to death in overcrowded hospitals. “I hate it myself but it’s best to stay calm. See how things work out. God always finds a way.” Mom said this, but she didn’t sound as certain as she usually did. Grandma, disagreeing with Mom, stood to go to the kitchen though everyone knew she had no real work there. These two disagreed on many things, and when one was in disagreement the other would walk away. On her way to the kitchen Grandma spoke loud enough for us to hear before the door shut behind her. “This Covid no go kill this old woman. I’ll survive it, sha. But this Covid -- hear me well -- it will kill. It’ll beat the lungs purple and blue.”

Mom flashed a glare at the kitchen door. Dad looked to Mom and fixed his gaze, letting his hand rest on top of hers. He titled his head back and whistled, maintaining some levity.

“Ah! I thought everyone was saying 2020 would be humanity’s best year. Kai! What a year to retire, eh?” He laughed well that day, and we joined him, thinking it wouldn’t catch us. He died a month later, complained that a snake wrapped itself around his lungs and that there was nothing he could do about it.


The month after Dad died robbers had entered the compound. They climbed over the wall, one by one, jumping from a hill. Not one of them broke a bone, which made me wonder what they were made out of. It was four of them I think, but Grandma says she knows they were five.

Mom was sleeping and I didn’t want to wake her. They scurried about the compound, two of them running to where the generator was in the back, and the other two running to get inside the house. Grandma stood on the balcony. “Get out!” She said, screaming. “May God punish you!” Papa was chasing one boy in a red hoodie with a shovel, aiming the blade at his face. The boy grinned as the old man jabbed the weapon at his heart. “I’ll beat you. Beat you well.” Papa said, adamant about the matter, and if you had seen his face, you may have believed he could have won. He lunged the blade to strike, but the boy stuck his leg out tripping the old man who fell forward on his knees, rolled over on his back, and yelped. The boys at the back of the house were talking, don’t ask me how I heard them, but one said the generator was too big to carry. Grandma’s shouts turned to screeching, a sound that mimicked the birds who crowed wildly when the sun was out. Mom stood on the balcony behind me, screaming. She wasn’t a yeller, so her voice began to croak. She had woken up from her sleep. “Tata, get out of there. Do you hear me? Run!”

I was outside, unable to move, but I could watch and hear everything. The quiet and calculated chatter of the robbers, Grandma’s screeching mixing with the cawing birds, the clanging of pots and chairs coming from the house. I could even feel Papa’s pain too in one knee. The boy in the hoodie walked towards me and another boy followed, rushing ahead to grab my shoulder. Mom and Grandma argued. Can’t you hear Blessing fighting them in the kitchen, if you go down you won’t make it outside. Don’t tell me what to do old woman, they’ll hurt her. You can’t go, she’s in God’s hands. I’ve lost a husband, what more? Papa tried to move towards me, sliding on his back, doing his best to protest the oncoming assault. The noises were fast becoming one, and Mom’s words came out in jagged bits. Don’t touch her. If you do, blood. If you do, blood. I was sure the boy in the red was a boy I had seen. His once pudgy face harsher and more defined than before. I closed my eyes when another hand grabbed my shoulder. When I heard a large thud and Grandma’s screeching no longer sounded like a bird crowing, but became the exact noise of a crowing bird, my eyes opened. Horror swept the face of the boy in red. The other boy who was a bit taller spoke, maintaining some calm. “Get out.” He must have clued the rest of them to flee, as they climbed up the wall, carrying a battery, a Jerry can, lights, containers of cassava, garri, and a 24-pack of toilet roll. They also took rice, all the rice. When I turned around I saw a body splayed out on the tiles, arms and legs spread out like a star. Grandma stood on the balcony flailing her fists, yelping like Papa. She’d go on to say my mother made a sacrifice. That her heart gave out before the fall. God’s mercy, she’d call it. And when I asked what happened to Blessing, she told me that Blessing made her sacrifice too. “But you,” Grandma said, looking weaker than before. “Your sacrifice starts now. You’re an orphan. You have to focus yourself, now. That’s the only thing that can be done.”


A man comes with a medium sized pail filled with cement to seal in the cracks between the bricks. He’s somewhere in age between the boy in the wife beater and Papa, not too old, not too young. I sit on the balcony, watching Papa follow the locksmith like a shadow, his neck craning over the poor man’s shoulder. Daniel has gone to get something from town, “My phone is on, ma.” He says, “I’ll be quick.” I gave Blessing the rest of the amala and ogbonno, knowing she’d appreciate it more than I could. Grandma doesn’t like this about me, she says it’s because my parents never raised me to appreciate the small things, but she says that now I must learn. When the birds stop their noise Grandma walks to me, barefoot. She rests her hand on my shoulder.

“Still out here, hmm?” She asks, content that I have stayed outside. I nod. “Yea.”

We listen to Papa who’s outside the wall, knowing that though we can’t see him, he is yelling at the man sealing the bricks. “Pack in the cement well!” he orders. Grandma laughs a little, patting my shoulder before she walks inside the house. “I’m going to rest.” She doesn’t enter the house until I answer her. Daniel runs up the road carrying a black nylon and he enters the gate. He waves up at me. “Ma, I’m back” he says, hurrying to get the words out. “I’m here.” I give him a wave and cross my legs, looking out to the hills. There, I hear children laughing and squabbling, unwilling to contain their noise. I think this moment is a nice one, but then I spot a few of them who have ran from behind a tree and now see me. A shorter kid whispers to a taller kid and points to the men putting the barbed wire in. They watch and give me a proper greeting while I consider the time we have left.

Itoro Bassey is a Nigerian-American writer, journalist, and educator. She has received writing fellowships from the Vermont Studio Center, the San Francisco Writers Grotto, and The Edward Albee Foundation, among others. Some of her popular pieces of writing include Running, Anti-Blackness and the African Immigrant, and A Visitor in My Homelands. She has just debuted her first novel, Faith, which follows several generations of Nigerian women grappling with migration, ancestry, and spirituality. She was living in Kenya and Nigeria for five years before relocating to Washington DC to work at the BBC as a producer and journalist.


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