Imade and Osaro were identical twins. They were born in the middle of March, on a night that was unbearably hot. The starless evening had a deep darkness that blocked the streetlights, as though a thick harmattan haze had descended upon the city. As Imade entered the world a minute before Osaro, a wave of shock spread across the delivery room as the doctor and nurses stared at the newborns. Covered in a thick layer of amniotic fluid, the medics looked in astonishment at the twins lying silently, holding each other’s hands. It was a symbol of the bond between the twins: one that was formed in the womb and would last over the years.
Their parents were poor: so poor that it took their father three months to pay the hospital bill to get the twins discharged from the hospital. As they finally settled in at home in Makoko – Lagos city’s floating slum – for the first night, the light drizzle became a torrential downpour and their ground floor hovel was overrun with dark water from the filthy lagoon. As their sparse belongings floated– bobbing up and down in the water – Imade and Osaro’s parents stood on the bed, holding the babies in their arms. As the hours passed and the torrential rain turned into a light drizzle, the twins never once cried. It was as though from an early age – they understood that this was a world that would not care for their cries.
Years passed and the boys grew. As they approached their eighth birthday they were a sight to behold. Taller than most children their age, they especially stood out for their complexion. Unlike their parents who were dark-skinned, the twins were albinos with coarse, blonde hair and piercing red eyes. Perhaps it was because of this, as well as their quiet demeanor, that other children in Makoko grew afraid of them.
Imade and Osaro saw the dead all around them. Everywhere they went, the spirits of followed them. They looked like people, albeit translucent, and they shimmered as though there was a fierce heat coursing through them. At times the twins would watch these spirits in awe as they morphed into fiery orbs that moved with supersonic speed. Although at first Imade and Osaro would stare in fascination as the dead spirits mingled with the human universe – sometimes protecting people from dangerous falls or car crashes, and at other times pushing people to their deaths – they gradually grew accustomed to them and they learned to communicate telepathically with the spirits.
Even though they welcomed their abilities to be at one with the dead, they dreaded seeing some of the spirits. These were the fiery red spirits who always roared in anger as they metamorphosed into orbs. They were envious of the living and they did their best to harm humans and hasten their death. Imade and Osaro avoided them – pretending not to see them – afraid that if they made eye contact, these cruel spirits would harm to them. They developed a code between them: anytime they saw the evil dead, they would whisper “ayakata”. Once the words left their lips, they looked away and focused, with the utmost strength, on the living.
Yet there were the kind spirits whom they loved. They were the dead that radiated happiness: they laughed and played pranks with each other. They would occasionally sit by Imade and Osaro and teach them, in rapt silence, the ways of the living. There was one spirit which always followed them. She had long white hair which fell to her knees and her eyes looked like glittering diamonds. She always wore a white gown with a blue sash and had the habit of exploding into a silver orb in order to make Imade and Osaro laugh.
The twins always raced each other home after the school day was over. As they ran, the dead floated with them. They made bets on who would win and the twins loved to surprise them. The twins would decide beforehand who would lose and they made sure that the result was always different from what most of the dead had predicted. They dead had no idea they were being tricked and Imade and Osaro had no idea that their landlord, perched at the top floor of the floating apartment, was always watching them. The twins were a strange lot and the landlord had decided to decipher what it was about them that didn’t sit right with him.
One sunny Tuesday afternoon, when the heat enveloped Makoko like a thick blanket, Imade and Osaro raced towards their apartment, their feet drumming the wooden bridge that floated precariously above the lagoon. The twins ran and laughed as the dead cheered them on. They bounded towards the entrance of the three-story apartment in which they lived, ignorant of the eyes that peered down on them from the top balcony. As they arrived at their front door, they slowed down for breath – panting and staring at each other. They heard the spirits clap as Osaro has beat Imade by just a few seconds.
Their father was usually at home, waiting for them. He left once they had their dinner to come back late at night. Imade and Osaro stood by the door and just when Osaro held the knob to push it open, they heard angry voices floating from within. It was their father and mother arguing, once again, about money. They listened silently as their mother pleaded with their father to join her in the market selling tomatoes and peppers. He was having none of it, arguing that he does not want to trade as he is a qualified blacksmith, not a market woman. In frustration, she called him what he had become – a thief – and he railed at her. The twins stood outside the door listening as the remaining dead stared at them. Most of the spirits had grown bored and left, but the white haired spirit was still there with them. She watched them sadly, as their parent’s argument grew louder.
The mother of the twins told their father that she had seen him at Sabo bus stop the night before, and she watched him and his four friends deftly pick-pocketing people as they waited for their bus. Their father hotly denied her accusation. He pounded on the wooden coffee table as he warned their mother not to ever accuse him of stealing again. He quickly stood up and before the twins had a chance to scurry away – he opened the door and froze, staring at them in surprise.
They quickly greeted him and shuffled in past him. He mumbled a response before storming out, disappearing into the bright light of the afternoon. They found their mother sitting on the bed weeping. Imade and Osaro sat at either side of her and gently hugged her. They understood poverty. They knew that their mother made very little from her trade and they understood how apprehensive she got when the time came to pay rent. They knew what it felt like to be so hungry that their knees buckled and their breathing became labored.
It was at that moment, sitting by their mother, that they both decided to ask the white-haired spirit for help. As their mother lay on the bed, the twins stepped outside and mentally spoke to the dead woman. She listened as they asked her for help. She had told them that she had no power to give wealth but she explained that being poor did not mean having to die poor. As she spoke to their minds, different colours flashed across her translucent face and she told them that if they held hope for tomorrow, then their fortunes would change. She slowly morphed into an orb before floating away.
Later that night, the twins fell asleep on the floor holding hands. Although it was a cool night, they were profusely sweating as their faces strained in anxiety. For the first time in a long while, their father did not return home that night.
The next morning was like any other morning. Their mother woke them up at five to get ready for school. They dressed hurriedly and ate the akara and pap breakfast, before making their way to school.
As soon as school was over, and the afternoon bell rang, Imade and Osaro raced home. The dead spirits raced with them as usual, cheering them on. The landlord stood on the balcony of the top floor and waited to see the familiar sight of their return home. As he watched them approach, his eyes grew wide. At first, he could not make out what it was he was seeing. There were streaks of light which slowly turned human. Yet these people seemed translucent as they floated, trailing the twins.
He trembled as he watched them, stupefied. He saw the white haired woman flowing alongside the boys and his heart began to pound. He couldn’t believe what he was seeing. His cigarette fell from his lips as he stepped away from his window in shock.
The twins’ father and his four friends had executed their largest heist yet. After securing guns from the black market a few days earlier, that night they marched into one of Lagos’ largest banks. At gunpoint, they coaxed the sleepy guards into calling and tricking the bank manager to make an emergency trip to the headquarters. When the manager arrived and he was met by the bandits – who still held the security men at gunpoint – he quickly agreed to cooperate with them. He swiftly disabled the security passwords and let them into the bank. As the gang members watched over the fearful security guards at gunpoint, the bank manager took the twins’ father to the bank’s vault and showed him where the large bags to carry the cash in were stowed away.
Satisfied the manager had shown him the source of the loot – the twins’ father took him back to where his friends were and shot him dead. His friends followed suit and shot the guards. They followed him back to the vault and one by one, filled as many bags as they could carry out of the bank. They quickly left under the cover of the night and escaped to a cemetery which was several miles away.
The gang could not believe their luck. They teased each other as they brought out their flashlights and as the father of the twins began opening his bag to count how much money he had successfully stolen, they heard voices floating out from nearby graves. They grew quiet and listened, drawing their guns close in case they needed to use them again. The voices sailed over the cemetery, growing louder and drawing closer to the five men. It was the voice of a woman and a man in conversation.
“I have to bring back as many souls as you this time around. You know how mad Satan was with me after our last operation,” the woman said.
“I understand. We will share the souls equally,” the man agreed.
“Good. You will take all the female souls and I will take the male souls.”
“What about the thieves who are sharing their loot at the other side of this fence? They are all men – how do we share their souls? Which ones do you want to kill first?”
“We will kill them as we killed those bandits the other night. There are five so let’s focus on two each and whoever kills the last one – that’s their soul,” the woman ordered.
The men let out a loud cry as they scattered in different directions. They abandoned their sacks of money and dropped their guns, running as they screamed at the top of their lungs. Some ran into the churches they passed on their way, while the father of the twins ran non-stop in the direction of Makoko. He ran tirelessly, cold sweat running down his back. His lungs were burning and his legs ached. Yet he could not stop as each time his pace slowed, cold fingers clawed at him.
“I will not die today,” he repeated over again as he ran. After running for what felt like hours, he finally approached the lagoon. Jumping onto the wooden bridge, he ran towards the floating building where his family was. The squat structure bobbed in the dark, yet he did not slow down. As he drew close to his front door – he noticed a light was still on and the door was ajar. He entered and stopped suddenly, gasping for air. The landlord glared at him as he watched him enter.
“You all must leave this place this very night!” he barked. The father of the twins looked at the man in shock. He turned, still breathing heavily, to their bed in the corner and noticed for the first time his wife huddled in the corner, holding their children close to her as they all watched him.
“Your family is full of demons!” the landlord shouted. “Your wife is a witch! Your sons are wizards! If only I had known that I was renting my room to the devil himself.”
“Excuse me sir,” the father of the twins gasped as his breathing slowed down. “I… am not sure why you are so angry. Please explain to me whatever it is that is upsetting you. I am sure we can work it out.”
“Your twins are running around with spirits,” the landlord retorted. “I saw it today - I almost fainted!”
“Spirits?” The father of the twins looked confused.
“Yes, I saw spirits around your sons. I have heard so many things whispered about you all around here but I did not want to believe it. Yet today, my fears were confirmed.”
The twins’ father stepped forward towards the man, his hands clasped as if pleading. The landlord took a step back – afraid that he would get the same curse if he stood too close to the man. He reached into his pocket and brought out a wad of money, stretching it out to the man. “Here is a refund for six months of your rent. Go and pay it to whoever you can find that will be happy to rent his house to witches and children of spirits.”
As the twins’ father slowly sank to his knees, he begun weeping. He agreed to leave – but pleaded with the man that they depart in the daytime. As he wept, the mother of the twins felt a deep love develop inside her. It was as though his visible pain for his family had reawakened emotions in her that had been lost a long time ago.
The landlord’s harsh demeanour softened as he watched his tenant weep. “Ok, you can leave tomorrow…” he finally said. “But I want you all out in the morning.”
The woman stood up and thanked him, and they adamantly promised that they would leave promptly. As the landlord left the hovel, the twins watched their parents embrace each other for the first time in months.
“I am so sorry,” their father wept as he held his wife. “I am done with stealing. Tomorrow we will start afresh. Things will not be the same again.”
The twins sat on the bed watching their parents. When they heard their names whispered to them through the cool breeze, they turned in unison and standing by the edge of the bed was the dead woman with the long white hair. She smiled at them and nodded at their parents, as they embraced – unaware of her presence. Imade and Osaro smiled back as their red eyes twinkled. For the first time in their lives, the twins spoke out loud to the spirit: “thank you.”