Art by Victoria Udondian
The Building was a small town on a small island, a world between worlds, a halfway house. The small town was a building––a twenty-one-story tower that boasted of the Retired Colonel’s quarters and office, a police station, and military post, the post office. The building also housed a chapel, a bar/entertainment center, a video rental shop, an indoor playground, health clinic, grocery store, café, mini-mart, pharmacy, an elementary school, a childcare center, and laundromat. There was an indoor farm to cater to the basic food needs of the town, vegetables, and fruits. The grocery store was stocked with supplies shipped in from Eden. Electricity was connected to the electrical grid powered by a nuclear generator offshore.
Eden, which was about seventy miles away, was the closest landfall to the island whilst the old world was one hundred and twenty miles to the east of the Island. People still inhabited the old world––people who once conquered lands, colonized territories, and took pride in their civilization but were now trapped in hellscapes of rising floods, blanket heat, and fogs of noxious air. Sometimes, the wind would blow clouds of gray from the old world across the Mediterranean Sea, and lightweight ash would travel long distances to settle on our coast. School excursions would be scheduled during those times. Mr. Achieng, the head teacher of Thomas Sankara Elementary, would see that the children wore their little respiratory masks and cute little hooded overalls. Each outfit was designed with patterns such as flowers, Hello Kitty, Mickey Mouse, and Ninja Turtles to give the exercise an atmosphere of fun. Make it fun and educative, the Retired Colonel had instructed, so nursery rhymes would boom out through the Public Address System as they marched out of the building in a single line, holding hands. Songs like “Once I Caught a Fish Alive” would blare through:
One, two, three, four, five
Once I caught a fish alive
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten
Then I let it go again
Why did you let it go?
Because it bit my finger so
Which finger did it bite?
This little finger on my right
“So many of us married our cousins or someone closely related. Some of us seemed to recall the Retired Colonel saying it was important to keep the gene pool unpolluted. After all, we survived the apocalypse; our race built the paradise called Eden on the same continent called Africa, upon which we were exploited for hundreds of years... We flourished because humanity began with our race, and it would only end if we allowed it.”
The building was built up in the center of an old military base pulled down during the Great Unification and the green revolution that transformed Eden’s fortunes. The first inhabitants were mostly veterans of the Great Unification War and their families. The story of how ours came to be was simple. After the war, some of the veterans wanted neither the tranquil prosperity of Eden nor the ruins of the old world. So when their desire coincided with Eden’s plans to building space-efficient towns in the new world, the Building was constructed as a trial run.
The first generation of occupants was free to pick their mates, but as the years rolled by, the courting pool became increasingly smaller even though the population increased. As a remedy, rules were imposed based on stratus, and matters of love rested on the governing council’s approval. The council approved the “familial” decree within a decade, selecting mates amongst cousins and siblings.
So many of us married our cousins or someone closely related. Some of us seemed to recall the Retired Colonel saying it was important to keep the gene pool unpolluted. After all, we survived the apocalypse; our race built the paradise called Eden on the same continent called Africa, upon which we were exploited for hundreds of years. Our leaders turned motherland to a place of refuge, where people of African origin from all over the world returned. We cleared the debt we owed the IMF and the Chinese Communist Party. We flourished because humanity began with our race, and it would only end if we allowed it.
We became the template for the establishment of space-efficient, cost-effective “pod” towns. The word on the street was that we were on their TV ads in Eden as the future of communal living. We were told our town was proof that our way of life was sustainable even though we had nothing to compare it to. The world was losing its resources they said and we were the hope of the future. Once in a while journalists and reality-show cameras came to our island. They followed our lives, our parents’ lives, our grandparents’ lives. Even though we were enclosed we were exposed for all of Eden to see.
The building functioned on the three-tier system. The occupants of the first tier––guards, servers, grocery workers, teachers––used the stairs which serviced the first few floors. The first tier also housed most of the public amenities. The Island doctor, the pharmacist, and the chief facilities manager occupied the second tier of the building serviced by an old elevator. The third tier housed apartments by council members and the Retired Colonel’s quarters and office.
We never questioned the tier system, at least not publicly. We were raised and, in turn, raised our children to accept and even appreciate what we had. We were not like the citizens of the old world trying to escape their wretched continent. We had our little paradise on this Island. We held little parades outside the building. Our boys played soccer under the blue sky. We went about our business and were okay, or at least that was what we believed until the waves spat a Caucasian body up unto our shores.
It happened during one of the occasional Thomas Sankara Elementary beach excursions. The body lay face down, his pale limbs contorted, his legs close to the lapping waves. Mr. Achieng was delivering his somber speech when it appeared, so he promptly ended the activity and proceeded to lead the students back to the building, but it was too late. The children saw the body. They witnessed a harsh sound come from his throat as he coughed up water and gasped for breath, crawling in the wet sand. Soon, the coast guards arrived, donning encapsulated suits and gloves before taking the stranger in. Soon, we heard that the Colonel temporarily prohibited journalists and cameras from our Island.
The women had to deal with their children who were traumatized by the incident. We blamed the head teacher and the coast guards. More so, many of us did not like that a stranger was in the building. What if the stranger was diseased or radioactive? Were they going to send him back? We knew it would not stop at just one—more migrants would wash up our shores. Then what would happen to our beloved Island? Caucasians could not be trusted. The voices raised in opposition to the stranger’s presence grew when after two weeks he was not deported but rather transferred to police custody. We mostly kept the complaints amongst ourselves but still it was unprecedented. We began questioning the things we previously discounted, like why this stranger was the first man found alive on our shores. Surely, he must not have been the first person to survive the seas and land on our Island. The obvious answer was that the guards sent them back as soon as they arrived, before anyone saw them. But Ikenna, who worked at the grocery store had a different theory. He said the guards would have gotten rid of the body if the children had not seen that he was alive. We were not clear what he meant by getting rid of the body or maybe we pretended not to be. Why would we think about our guards or the Retired Colonel that way? These honorable men worked hard to keep us safe, to keep our Island safe.
We allowed the tug of our daily lives to distract us from the stranger in our midst. The fact that he was locked away helped––out of sight, out of mind. But then the stranger began enjoying the boon of occasional liberty from the cell––he was spotted in our grocery store and bar and café. Those who first sighted him said he had ankle bracelets on. He was tall and he had black hair and blue eyes. He greeted people and offered smiles to everyone he ran into as though trying to impress us. We tried to move as far as we could from him. Surely, the Retired Colonel must have signed off on this? If so, why? We were obviously not happy with this new development but none of us had reached a boiling point yet. A small number of us even saw the bright side to this situation. Maybe it wasn’t bad to have Caucasians amongst us after all. If the Retired Colonel thought it was a good idea then it must be. It was not likely that we would accept him, but we could at least not be hostile, some of us reckoned. So, a few of us waved at him when he passed or said hello, but we kept our distance. One of us asked for his name–––he went by Thomas. Our peaceable howbeit uncomfortable coexistence with Thomas continued until the unthinkable happened, plunging our harmonious little town into turmoil.
Ikenna, the grocery worker, fell to his death from the top of the building. Some of us wondered how he got up there although we reckoned he probably had access to some parts of the third-tier levels as a grocery worker–––sometimes a chopper flew onto the top of the building from Eden with special produce for the Retired Colonel.
Ikenna fell in broad daylight for people to see even though no one saw him contemplate his mortality. Some of those who were there said they heard a scream and a thud with a splattering sound. It happened too fast for them to see the body drop from the sky. More so, it was an unexpected tragedy. Maybe once in a year someone died of sickness or old age, but accidents were rare on the Island. The building had no balconies and there was nothing on the Island to pose any hazard to its inhabitants.
A few of us witnessed the gore that was Ikenna’s body––head crushed, limbs twisted in odd angles, mouth agape in a rictus of eternal agony. A few of us gathered around the corpse screaming hysterically, some running around aimlessly trying to get help. The guards came and cleared the corpse away but not before ordering everyone to go into the building. The Retired Colonel addressed us through the Public Address System that evening to assure us that despite the unfortunate incident, everything was under control. He said that plans had been made to secure all entries in the building. He then declared a work-free day of mourning and said that he would, in consultation with the family, announce the funeral for our grocery worker.
We mourned but we did not forget. Our fears were not allayed. We remembered what Ikenna said about getting rid of the people who tried to come here. Did someone try to silence him? We also blamed the stranger for bringing ill fortune to our Island. We were told he was locked in the cell when it happened but that didn’t really matter to us. Our town was peaceful and safe before he got here. We kept an eye on the stranger. Someone threw a cabbage leaf at Thomas at the grocery store, another spat in his face in the hallway and told him to go back to the old world. We kept our children away from him. When Thomas stopped leaving the cell we wondered if the Retired Colonel was taking sides, which only served to compound our suspicion. No one had ever questioned the Retired Colonel’s leadership because there had never been any reason to do that. Many of us grew up on this Island with the Colonel at the helm. He was like a father to us as he never got married or bore children of his own. He was the father of the building. Would a father do anything to harm his children? The Retired Colonel who was once deployed to the old world as a commander during Operation Noah’s Ark, an effort to bring Africans back to their land after the Great Unification. The Retired Colonel who fought in the anti-unification war in Eden and got shot in the ass. How dare we question a veteran of great repute who lost everything precious to him to make us and our families safe.
The women of the town visited Ikenna’s house to offer their condolence and help his grief-stricken wife and three daughters with the funeral arrangements. We laid Ikenna to rest at the old burial site outside the building amongst the rocks.
Danladi Mukhtar, who worked at the docks accused his wife, who was also his cousin, of having an affair with the Caucasian simply because she talked to him. Of course, no one really thought that to be true. Thomas was not a free man so how could he possibly do anything, and Danladi was a paranoid drunkard given to violent outbursts. After the accusation, he was heard talking ill of his wife while out and inebriated at the bar, calling her a white-lover. Soon after that, neighbors heard screams and cries from the couple’s apartment. Some of us filed a complaint at the police station and officers paid him a visit for questioning. Things changed after that, but Danladi never stopped being suspicious of his wife. He later discovered, upon investigation, that even though his wife was not having an affair with Thomas, she was carrying on with Mr. Achieng, the head teacher. We knew because he told all who cared to listen at the bar while intoxicated. We learnt that he went home briefly that night, then made his way to the head teacher’s house, stabbing him in the chest with a kitchen knife. The knife missed Achieng’s heart only by a few inches but he lost so much blood. The town clinic could not save him, so the Retired Colonel ordered for him to be airlifted to Eden for emergency surgery. Danladi was arrested and was locked up next to Thomas where he spewed more profanities.
This incident filled us with alarm, and it became clear to us all that it was time for Thomas to leave our Island. The Retired Colonel once again took to the PA system to urge us to stay calm. He said Danladi would be sent to Eden to stand trial. He concluded his address by declaring that guards would now patrol the floors and conduct routine home inspections to restore civility to our town. We had dutifully obeyed the laws of the Island and never saw them as an infringement on our personal rights, but this was different. This was an invasion of our privacy, a restriction of what freedom we had left and all for what? A bloody Caucasian? We wanted our peaceful lives back. Thomas was the problem––Danladi was the devil we knew and poor Ikenna had a big mouth but so what? Thomas could be a spy from the old world bent on destroying our way of life.
A group gathered to express our concerns in the form of a carefully worded letter to the governing council in hopes that they would convince the Retired Colonel to change course. In response, Mathias Ncube, the council secretary, gathered the group for a meeting in his quarters, served them wine.
Ncube had an array of mementos and grainy photographs hanging in his living room. There was a portrait of Ncube’s grandfather clinking glasses with a couple of Caucasians in a paneled ballroom, there was one with his father, slender and nervous, posing with the Eiffel Tower behind him, and a portrait of him shaking hands with the great President Traore, Eden’s Head of State and Commander-in-Chief. The Governor Council, as with a few of us, had people who still held on to the nostalgic past of neocolonial masters passed down through stories. We never saw anything wrong with it but things were different now.
“I know things have been a little tense lately. We have also been concerned about what’s happening in our peaceful town,” he said.
“Why is it so hard to drive this stranger out of our land?” one of them said and the rest of them concurred.
“We are obligated under the laws of the Island to render medical assistance to any refugee who washes up our shores, and get them processed before deportation––”
“He recovered after a week, and we do not need weeks to process one person,” another interjected.
“No, you interrupted me. I’d appreciate it if you don’t do that again.” he said, pausing for effect. Ncube plowed ahead.
“We had the gentleman processed but the Colonel instructed us not to send him back yet, but not to worry. To restore calm, the Colonel will give new orders for him to be sent back to the old world by the end of the week.”
At the announcement, the group pounded out an applause in absolute delight.
We all felt a burden lifted when Thomas left, a burden we didn’t even know was there. Finally, things would go back to what used to be, back to holding our parades. Our children would go back to marching to the shore in cute little hooded overalls to touch ashes from the old world.
Things did go back to normal in the sense that normalcy was restored but we acquired new anxieties. We worried what happened might repeat itself. Someone began to clamor for new restrictive laws, others were passive about enacting laws but were concerned all the same. A few of us gathered in front of the building with placards. HELP! OUR CHILDREN ARE UNSAFE IN THEIR OWN LAND, one read. NO CONTAMINATION, NO CAUCASIANS, another read. The group went out every afternoon and stayed till the sun went down. The group soon petered out. Soon, we let ourselves believe there was nothing wrong with our leaders or our laws. A problem showed up and they solved it before it got out of hand. Nothing more to it.
Two weeks after Thomas left, Mensah took his usual two-day ferry to Eden. We wrote things on paper for him as we always did. He did not return after three days, then another day passed. When he did not show up after a week, we started asking questions. We got nothing from the council members and the Retired Colonel did not address us, which struck us as odd, so some of us investigated the matter. We asked the dockworkers. We tried to question Mensah’s family, but we were surprised to find out that they had been taken off of the Island. That was when we learnt that Mensah’s ferry was attacked by pirates from the old world, and no one made it. Our beloved Mensah was gone, but why did they cover it up? What else were they covering up?
The protesting group returned but this time it grew, admitting more of us. We brought our children with us. We brought our old and tired.
We hoisted the speakers high so our grievances could be heard by the powers that be. We asked why the Colonel addressed us mostly through the PA system, we asked why he rarely ever interacted with his own constituents. What father does that to his children? One of us dared him to come out of his hole, calling him a rat. Shocked gasps tore through the rest of us. Calling the Colonel a rat was a bridge too far. We couldn’t unring the bell. Thirty minutes later, it was announced that Colonel would make an appearance.
More guards showed up, fanning out through the area before the elevator took the Retired Colonel down from the top of the building. Everywhere grew silent when he arrived in the company of his aides, leaning on a stick for support as he walked. He wore an ash-colored caftan and sandals. In that moment, we put our grievances aside and simply stood in awe of his simple but regal presence. Some of us had been privileged to be in his presence a few times and his effect on us had been the same. Our father was here now. Everything would be alright. He stood in the middle of the crowd and coughed delicately before speaking.
“The news of our beloved Mensah’s passing came as a shock to us all….” he said and the person who called him a rat, a bespectacled individual, flung profanities at the Retired Colonel. Attention heaped on him, and a guard approached him, urging him to keep quiet. He did not stop cursing. The Retired Colonel was whisked away. The guard pounced on the heckler. Hooking one hand into the man’s trousers, the guard slapped him with the other hand. His glasses flew off, and he staggered but did not fall—the guard kept a firm grip on him. He stared at the guard in dazed silence until a second slap stirred him into action and he lifted a balled fist in retaliation. The guard was quick to launch another attack and, with a single swift movement, swept the man to the ground with his right leg. The man’s mouth flew open and he landed with a loud thud, his fist flailing. The soldier landed a flurry of punches. He slapped, punched, and cursed the man as he dragged him on the ground. The man, the collar of his dust-covered shirt twisted around his neck, pleaded for mercy. Another fellow summoned the courage to intervene, attacking the guard with his bare hands.
A shot cracked loudly, then another. The smell of gunpowder filled the air. For a few seconds, silence fell over the arena as we checked that we hadn’t been hit. Then we ran for our lives. We ran in every direction, clutching our heads in our hands, screaming in terror. The bespectacled fellow now lay dead, felled by a bullet. His mouth hung open, and blood flowed from the back of his head across the asphalt, gathering into a little bulging pool beside him before trickling on. Two of us got caught in the crossfire.
Ships docked on our shores carrying heavy machinery for demolition, some to ferry us off the Island. We were given two hours to get ready the morning it was announced we would leave, but we knew it was going to happen. Word had gotten out about the collapse of our pod so Eden trying to contain the fallout. Revolutionary Guards from Eden had come to escort the Retired Colonel off the Island after the deaths and a dusk-to-dawn curfew was imposed on us. Rumors about what really happened with Thomas got out after the tragedy. There were whispers that the Retired Colonel in fact knew Thomas—they had met when Colonel was Commander during Operation Noah’s Ark and they had fallen in love. The Colonel, who was ten years older than Thomas, left after his assignment ended and they stayed apart for many years, each presuming the other dead. Word eventually got to Thomas that Colonel was on the Island, and he made the treacherous journey across the sea to be with him. We did not know what to make of the rumors, but they didn’t matter to us anyway. We lost everything. We lost all we had ever known.
We hurriedly packed our lives into as much luggage as we could carry. The corpses were placed in caskets and loaded into the ships. Revolutionary Guards combed through the floors and drove people out as bulldozers and mechanical excavators revved up outside the building where the tragedy happened. Amid the chaos, the PA system came on and "Once I Caught a Fish Alive” crackled out. Did someone mistakenly turn it on, or had the system broken? The music did not bring us joy this time, it only brought pain. There was no excitement only sadness.
One, two, three, four, five
Once I caught a fish alive
Six, seven, eight, nine, ten
Then I let it go again
Why did you let it go?
Because it bit my finger so
Which finger did it bite?
This little finger on my right
Our children were the first to be led out of the building but they did not come out in an orderly manner. They did not prance to the rhythm of the music. They made their way to the docks with fear and confusion in their eyes. This broke our hearts beyond what we could imagine. On the ferry, our sorrows pooled into rivers of grief. One of us broke down in tears, then another, then more of us. We lifted our heads, our wails going up to the sky. Weren’t we supposed to have hope? Eden was in our future. Hadn’t we dreamt many times of dwelling in the land flowing with milk and honey? Many of us looked back as the ferry sailed away from the island. We watched as our home succumbed to the force of wrecking balls and excavators until it became nothing but a distant rubble.
Samuel Kọ́láwọlé was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared in AGNI, Georgia Review, Harvard Review, The Hopkins Review, Gulf Coast, and Washington Square Review, amongst other literary journals.
His fiction has been supported with fellowships, residencies, and scholarships from the Norman Mailer Center, University of Iowa’s International Writing Program, Columbus State University’s Carson McCullers Center for Writers and Musicians, Clarion West Writers Workshop, Wellstone Center in the Redwoods, and Island Institute.
Kọ́láwọlé studied at the University of Ibadan and holds an MA in Creative Writing with distinction from Rhodes University, South Africa. A graduate of the MFA in Writing and Publishing at Vermont College of Fine Arts, he returned to VCFA to join the faculty of the low-residency MFA program. He is completing his PhD at Georgia State University, and will be joining the English Department at Penn State University as a tenure-track Assistant Professor of Fiction in fall 2022. His novel is forthcoming from Amistad/Harper Collins.
Victoria Udondian received a BA in painting from the University of Uyo, Nigeria, an MFA from Columbia University, and attended Skowhegan School of Painting & Sculpture. Her work has been exhibited at venues that include the inaugural Nigerian Pavilion at the 56th Venice Biennial; Fisher Landau Center for Art, NY; Children’s Museum of Manhattan; National Museum Lagos and Lokoja; and Whitworth Gallery, Manchester. She has completed residencies at Instituto Sacatar, Bahia; MASS MoCA; Fine Arts Work Center, Provincetown; Fondazione di Venezia, Venice; and Bag Factory Studios, Johannesburg. She lives and works in Lagos and New York.