Rag Day by David Okigbo
Ebuka was awoken by the putrid odour of rat flesh. He struggled to sit up on the concrete floor he laid on but cried out at the sharp pain that griped his ankles.
He was in chains, dressed in moth-eaten clothes, in the middle of nowhere, not having the faintest idea how he got there.
He touched his aching temples, hoping he could rub some memories of prior hours back into his head. He wondered why whoever had left him there, left his hands untied.
Everything around him was a blur and the migraine that throbbed his skull wasn’t helping either. He tried to study his environment, looking for clues that could help him remember.
The room was quite spacious consisting of an additional extension that was sealed with huge metal padlocks. The securely fastened steel door made him slightly curious about the abomination it was meant to conceal. The larger part of the room, where he was kept hostage, was just as filthy as it smelled.
The floor was covered in wood shavings, grass and any kind of clutter he could think of. It looked like it had not been cleaned for months, giving Ebuka the thought that whoever must own this place was very far from godly. The unpainted walls were stained like a vile tapestry of different shades of red.
Ebuka’s mind drifted in horror at the thought of where the red colour could come from and the odd objects scattered all over the room increased his suspicion. They consisted of a piece of red cloth laid at a corner in the room, worthless artifacts of different shapes and sizes carved in the most abstract representation of human anatomy from wood, iron and ivory.
There was also a white cloth underneath, holding the weight of these abominations of art. The room was a typical shrine for the occultic and the thought of the kind of rituals that went on in this place compelled him to invoke the sign of the cross.
He stared deeply at a rusty clock on the wall, ticking at a snail’s pace in spite of him. It was almost mid night when the rags on his back began to itch profusely. He must have been here for hours because as he dug deeper into his mind, all he could remember was the light of day shining on his face.
He decided to try to sit again, painfully succeeding in his second attempt. He shut his eyes trying to piece together the images dispersed into different parts of his mind and almost like a dream, his memories slowly became clearer.
He remembered the smell of cinnamon, curry and basil flitting through the open air into his nasal receptacles. He remembered the hurly burly of activities that overtook the atmosphere as people engaged in all sorts of profitable transactions all around him. He could still feel the sting of their judging gaze as he walked about on the open street, lost, confused and still dressed in rags.
Then, he remembered the white van that parked violently in front of him, bringing his meandering to a halt. He could still see the words,” National Psychiatric Intervention (NPI), Ekiti State chapter” painted on the walls of the vehicle. Some men in suits and lab coats alighted it and brutishly captured and left him in the roomy trunk as they drove away.
“Sir, I’m telling you the truth. I’m not mad,” he nagged the one sitting the closest to him.
“Shut up,” the man yelled, “That’s what they all say, till they’re causing a disturbance in the market place.”
Ebuka realized it now, one of the onlookers at the market must’ve informed them of his presence. But his reasons for being there and why he was dressed like a lunatic was still very unclear to him.
“Help!” Ebuka heard a piercing squeal, jolting him from his deep flashback.
A young man, also dressed in rags, who was probably in his early twenties, was the source of the noise. He was also in chains but unlike Ebuka, his wrists were bound tightly with jet black electric cables.
“Hi,” Ebuka whispered gaining his attention, “My name is Ebuka Ihemelandu. I’m a National Youth Corps member,”
The man listened with an attention that surprised Ebuka, but he didn’t give it much thought.
“I saw you from over here and I couldn’t help but think they got you too the same way they got me.”
He raised his bruised legs for effect but the other man didn’t twitch a reaction.
“I think if we work together, you could go back to your family and I’ll be home in time for my birthday and passing out parade.”
There was a really thick silence as the other man looked distracted, contemplating a thought.
“Hmm, I’ve heard what you have to say,” the man finally spoke to Ebuka’s relief, “But I have some questions for you.”
“What do you want to know?”
“Well, I was just thinking, is there God?”
“What?” Ebuka was utterly speechless, rapidly breathing through his chagrin.
“I mean if there was, bleaches would be edible, rats won’t make so much babies and dogs wouldn’t lead people. You know?” He said, still keeping the serious face he had effortlessly maintained the whole time.
“What the hell are you talking about?” Ebuka yelled, regretting saying anything in the first place.
The man began to laugh hysterically and continued thinking out loud about bleaches and rats. Ebuka soon realized the man was probably insane but the idea of him trying to develop an escape plan with a mad man made him feel like the lunatic.
They were both adorned in the same bedraggled outfit and they were both bound by chains. Who could really tell the difference?
That was something he had never thought about till now. He had always thought there was a telling quality to insanity. Something that you notice on the outer surface that made you immediately aware of one’s mental state. But what if there wasn’t.
What if someone out there had a job, a family, million-dollar properties and most of all clean clothes, but was still missing a few nuts in his head. Would people take notice then? They probably wouldn’t.
The people in the marketplace and the men who kidnapped him thought he was out of his mind not because they knew him intimately, temperaments and all. But because of the way he looked. If the man sitting beside him were to wear a suit and tie and say he was a teacher, parents would leave their children in his care without batting a single lash.
Maybe not everyone we think is mad, really is and not everyone we think is sane should be allowed to walk on our streets. It was an epiphany that he had to be insane himself to realize.
As he deliberated within himself, he began to hear male voices coming from outside. They sounded like dangerous men but Ebuka couldn’t make out a word of what they were saying because it was mostly said in their native lingua.
He became petrified, wanting to act immediately but he couldn’t think of a plan. He honestly wished his friend, Peter was here. He was the one good at making plans.
Peter! That was the last piece of the puzzle Ebuka had failed to solve all night. Peter was the reason why he wore rags in public. He remembered waking up in the two-bedroom apartment they both shared when Peter invited him for a send-off party.
He seriously had second thoughts when he was informed that it was a rag themed party and everyone there would be wearing torn and dirty clothes just like rag day in school.
After much persuasion from his roommate on the importance of the night, he finally agreed. That was how they were both walking to the venue together with some friends, like they did during school rag day, when he lost sight of them in the market and got lost.
His phone battery had died and so his only option was to find his way back home. He knew Peter would be worried sick by now. If he could manage to live another hour, maybe he’d be found.
The front door of the room flew open as four men barged in carrying knives and other forms of weaponry. If Ebuka thought they sounded dangerous, staring at them now, he was sure they were. They didn’t look like the men in lab coats that had kidnapped him anymore.
They were all shirtless with scary looking black insignia drawn on their faces and most parts of their bodies. They wore a red linen band on their heads and their trousers were black with red stains Ebuka couldn’t make out.
“Hello sir,” Ebuka said as confident as his fear could allow, he felt he had to explain to them that it was just rag day not that he is mad, “I think there must have been some misunderstanding. See, I’m not ma….”
He was violently interrupted by a slap to his cheek from one of the men.
“Next time, you only speak when you are spoken to,” the youngest of them warned,
Everyone in the room laughed at his predicament including the mad man, which didn’t surprise Ebuka at all.
One of the men brought out a bunch of keys and opened the smaller room for all four to go in. After about a minute or two, the biggest one of them came out and picked the mad man up and took him inside without too much of a struggle.
Ebuka felt pity for the man and for himself also. It was like their fate had been signed and nothing could save them from untimely death now.
He soon began to tear up bitterly not because he was afraid to die but because of the kind of shameful end he was condemned to. Dying on the night before his birthday, with no family or friend by his side, dressed in itchy rags all because of trying to imitate rag day. He wondered how his life had gotten to this point.
After some time, the screams of pain, agony and the sound of metal chopping wood soon died down ushering in a terrible silence that was more dreadful than the noise. Then the man came out of the room again, this time covered in a liquid Ebuka could only guess was human blood.
The man walked to where he sat and carried him up on his shoulder without unlocking the chains. Ebuka struggled with all his might to escape the tight grip the man had on him, all to no avail.”
“Time of death, twelve thirty-five,” he found himself thinking aloud as he stared at the old rusty clock, giving up on life itself,“Happy Birthday, Ebuka Ihemelandu.”
Ebuka was shocked at the sight he beheld. The place he had once thought was the room of death was decorated with colourful balloons and ribbons. A banner that read “HAPPY BIRTHDAY/PASSING OUT PARADE EBUKA” hung in the middle of the room, big and high enough for everyone to see.
A large chocolate cake sat on a centre table, dripping of colour and flavour with the knife of one of the kidnappers stabbed into it.
Ebuka was more surprised when he saw Peter and some other friends still wearing the rags he had last seen them in.
“What is going on?” he asked with a confused look as the man undid his chains.
“Happy Birthday Ebuka,” Peter said, handing him a glass. “It’s your surprise party, planned it myself.”
“Wait! You mean to tell me none of that was real?”
“Yes, everyone was in on the act.”
“Sorry I slapped you, dude,” the youngest man said “I get caught up in the character while I’m method acting.”
“Please, don’t be mad,” Peter begged, remorsefully.
“Trust me, I’ve had my fair share today,” He said coyly, slowly sipping his wine as if not sure it was real.
Although it was an odd surprise, he was glad the experience was over. “So, what are we waiting for, the cake won’t eat itself.”
Other stories by David Okigbo