A Ball of Thread
Editor’s note: This short story was longlisted for
the 2015 Writivism Short Story Competition.
The door trembled on rusty hinges as it burst
open with a crash, causing pieces of clay to scatter on the floor. Cries of
terror rang out in the dark, as the girls scampered to a corner of the room. They
huddled together, hearts thumping, eyes wide with fear. The light from the
torch swept across the room in a staggered movement before resting on the
girls. Abu’s tall, slim frame filled the doorway. He held a black jacket in his
hand. Lamin stood behind him, his shirt stretched against his stomach. Isa
cowered in the shadows outside the door, wiping his eyes with a rag. He was
about thirteen years, gawky, and the skin of his forearms was lacerated with
“You,” Abu said, pulling Laraba forward. ”Wear this.” His
voice was high-pitched and his eyes glinted with menace in his heavily bearded
“What is it?” she asked, looking intently at the jacket.
Then, she started to tremble. She screamed and ran towards the door. With a
speed that belied his size, Lamin blocked her path, while Abu encircled her
neck with his arm.
“You’re going to do the work of Allah. You’ll be a martyr
afterwards,” Abu said.
Laraba sank her teeth into his arm and bit down with all her
might. He screamed in agony, whirled her around and slapped her. She fell to
the ground, stunned, but, like a cornered animal, she sprang up and kicked at
his stomach. He tried to grab her leg but she jabbed her fingers at his eyes.
He turned away swiftly, but not before her nails raked his cheeks, drawing
shrieked. “You God-forsaken animal!”
The men over-powered her and pulled the heavy jacket over
her head. It was made of a thick, coarse fabric and had no sleeves. Its front was
covered with pockets from which small cylinders protruded, each one linked to
the next by an intricate connection of wires.
“Sons of shaitan!” She hurled her rage at them. “Your
descendants are cursed.”
They tried to push her forward but she dug her feet into the
floor. They had to drag her backwards, her heels scraping the rough floor, and
bundle her into the truck. She kept on screaming and pounding on the windows
with her fists, her voice fading away, as the truck drove into the night.
The girls settled down for the night. Animals rustled in the
surrounding shrubs and dry grass. In the rafters, bats and insects foraged for
food. Mosquitoes, bloated with blood and humming mournfully, swarmed about the
room. Crickets called out to each other, their shrill chi-chi-chi-ing sounding
like taunts. Soon, they were all asleep, except Safinatu.
She got up and eased the door open. It creaked. She paused,
her heart pounding. Nobody stirred. She stepped into the cool air, pulled her
skirt above her knees and tip-toed away from the hut. Then she started to run,
blades of grass slashing her legs and arms, the ground stony under her feet.
She couldn’t see ahead, but she kept on moving, heaving her heavy-built frame
forward. She heard a faint shout. “Dear God, please help me,” she mouthed,
tears blinding her vision. Then, she felt a stab of pain in her left ankle. She
stumbled and fell. The voices and footsteps were inches away. A ray of light
cut through the darkness and rested on her. She tried to stand up, but Abu
flung himself on her, while Lamin and Isa pinned her legs to the ground.
“Take your dirty hands off me,” she shouted, her voice
piercing the still night.
The three men hauled her back to the room, where the other
girls stood in a corner, their silhouettes stiff with tension. She spat at Abu
and he slapped her. The impact caused her head to jerk sharply to the side. She
screamed and cupped her burning cheek in her palm. Tears filled her eyes but
she willed them not to fall. He took the front of her blouse in his hands and
pulled. The worn fabric split down the front, exposing her breasts. She
recoiled and wrapped her arms around her chest but he grabbed the back of the blouse
and ripped it off her, before tearing her skirt away. Then, he asked Isa to
burn her clothes and all the mats. He also instructed them not to step out of
the room till further notice.
“Let me see if you can run away without clothes,” he said as
he stormed out of the room.
The days melted into each other; listless days whose rhythm
was broken only when Isa served food. But the miserly, tasteless meals brought
no consolation. Sadness swirled around the room. It mingled with the smell of
unwashed bodies and mouths. It clung to the air like fragrance. The girls lay
in brooding silence, engrossed in their own dismal ruminations. The gentle
rapping of knuckles on the door startled them. Rohilla got up and opened the
door. It was Isa.
“Good morning. Master wants to see you,” he said.
Rohilla was slim and light-skinned. Her oval face was framed
by long, thick hair plaited backwards, setting off her delicate features. She
wiped her face with the edge of her wrapper, smoothed her hair with her palms,
and stepped outside. The others exchanged knowing looks.
whispered fiercely. “How can she be intimate with that monster?”
“Oh, Safi, don’t call her a harlot,” Hassana said.
They were surprised when Isa returned a few minutes later,
clutching some mats to his chest, while Rohilla came behind him, bearing two
tablets of soap and some wrappers. She ignored their curious stares. “Last week
I pleaded with him to forgive us, and look,” she held out the wrappers. “But I
must warn you all,” she continued, “he has instructed me to report any
suspicious movement, and I’ll obey him, I swear.”
“It is obvious you are special,” Safinatu said, pointing a
finger in Rohilla’s face. Rebecca saw a fight brewing and threw herself in
between the two of them. She held on to Safinatu, who strained to break free,
her fingers clawing the air in front of Rohilla’s face.
“Will you stop it, you two? What type of madness is this?”
Hassana said, her gentle voice both a command and a plea.
Safinatu stormed outside, swearing to deal with Rohilla. She
sat on a log, tears stinging her eyes and running down her face. She heard her
father’s voice. It was calm, but firm. My
daughter, never allow any situation to discourage you. Always remain strong and focused. She remembered
the occasion. Her JAMB score hadn’t met the cut-off mark for Medicine and, for
weeks, she had moped about the house, refusing to eat or talk. Her father had
advised her to take the entrance examinations into the School of Nursing
instead. On the day of the exams, while the invigilators were collecting the
answer sheets, three trucks had roared into the venue and gun-wielding men had burst
into the classrooms. They had bundled her and some other girls into their
trucks and driven away from town. Safinatu squeezed her eyes shut. She didn’t
want to remember...
For the rest of the morning the girls took their baths and
washed their clothes. When Rohilla was busy in the cooking area, Safinatu went
inside the hut. She inserted the tip of her small finger inside a hole in the
wall and brought out a soft round object - pieces of thread rolled tightly into
a ball. She separated the pieces and counted them. Then she broke off a piece
of thread from her plaited hair, twisted it around the ball, and stuffed it
back inside the hole.
Outside, Hassana was sitting on the log, while Rebecca stood
behind her, parting her hair in sections and weaving it in corn rows. Safinatu
walked over to them, glancing at Isa, who sat at a distance, watching them
warily. “The last person to leave here should take my ball of thread with her,”
she said in a whisper.
“How many pieces of thread do you have now?” Rebecca asked.
“Eighty seven,” Safinatu replied.
“Oh God!” Rebecca said. Her eyes clouded with tears as she
remembered her son, Silas. She had never told the other girls about him; that
his father had been killed by insurgents, and life had become a struggle for
both of them afterwards. In her quest to make a fresh start, she had decided to
take the Nursing exams. She willed her thoughts back to the present. Hassana
was reminding her to put a parting in the middle of her hair. She had once said
she wore her hair that way to remember her fiancé, Idris.
Abu’s dark-green truck roared towards the hut, a cloud of
dust ballooning behind it. It screeched to a stop and he came out, brandishing
a gun. The girls stood at attention, while Isa ran over to him.
“Where is Lamin?” Abu asked, looking around.
“Master, he went out shortly after you drove away,” Isa
“Dabo,” Abu said,
the muscles in his jaws pulsating, his eyes darting about. “The government
soldiers have arrested some of our fighters and are advancing this way. If they
pick him up, it will compromise my position.”
He sat down on the log and told the girls they were leaving
the camp soon. They looked at each other. Hope flared in their hearts but their
smiles were hesitant. At that moment, Lamin appeared from the side of the hut,
panting and sweating, his stomach heaving up and down.
“Where have you been?” Abu shrieked in rage and stood up.
Lamin halted in his tracks and looked around. “I went to buy
foodstuff,” he stammered.
You went away without my permission?” Abu shouted. “And where
is the food stuff you went to buy?”
“I did not see any beans,” Lamin said, averting his eyes.
“And you couldn’t buy something else? What are you up to?” Abu
asked, raising his gun and pointing it at Lamin’s chest.
Instinctively, Lamin stepped back and raised his hands, a
look of surprise in his eyes. Abu pulled the trigger. Gunshots shattered the
silence and echoed around the vast, empty landscape. The blasts shredded
Lamin’s chest into pieces of flesh and gore. Blood spurted into the air. His
knees buckled, he swayed like a drunk and fell backwards with a heavy thud.
The girls screamed in horror, clinging to each another.
Sated, Abu stroked his crotch and smiled as he watched Lamin
twitch and jerk until life ebbed out of him. He turned to the girls and said,
“Let this be a lesson to all of you. I would rather kill you than have you
expose me.” He cleared his throat and coughed out a big glob of phlegm. Then he
blew his nose with his fingers and wiped them on the log.
“Throw this idiot away,” he said.
Isa came forward, his face a mask of fear, his hands
trembling. The girls gave him a hand and they dragged Lamin’s mangled body into
the forest, leaving a trail of blood.
They came for Hassana two days later.
It was time for Salat
al-Fajr, and she had been praying in a corner of the room, her legs folded
under her, her voice rising and falling in the dark. Abu stood in the doorway
and asked her to step forward. She walked towards him, as though she had been
waiting for that moment. Her steps only faltered when she had to re-tie her brightly
coloured wrapper. He pulled the vest over her head, watching her closely,
surprised at her acquiescence. Then, with her head bowed and her lips moving in
prayer, she stepped outside without a backward glance.
Dawn announced itself through the tiny window of the hut.
Safinatu and Rebecca sat in sullen silence. They heard Rohilla’s animated voice
as she chatted with Abu.
“Shhh…I hear a vehicle approaching,” Safinatu said, hurrying
over to the hole in the wall. She brought out the ball of thread and tied it in
a tip of her wrapper. The engine stopped and they heard Abu exchange greetings
with some men - As-Salaam-Alaikum,
“I have heard one of those voices before,” Safinatu
whispered to Rebecca, her brows creased with concentration. “That night we were
brought here, he was one of those who came to take the other girls away. He was
very tall and had burns all over his face. Don’t you remember?”
The door swung open and Abu barged in with four strange men
dressed in military fatigues. He beckoned to the girls and Rebecca reached for
Safinatu. They held on to each other but the man with the scarred face pulled
them apart. “Didn’t you hear him?” he rasped and pushed them outside. Rohilla watched
them drive away, a look of smugness on her face.
“They’re taking them to the training camp at Gwoza. We can
use them as fighters, especially that stubborn one,” Abu said. “The three of us
will leave tonight.”
The darkness around the camp was broken by the dim light
from Abu’s torch.
Isa sat in the truck, eating while Abu sat on the log and
smoked. Rohilla watched him from the cooking area where she washed up pots and
plates. Abu called out to her and she walked over to him, smiling, and asked if
he wanted more food. He studied her face for a few seconds, before telling her
to go and get dressed.
Her smile brightened. Her eyes widened.
“Thank God,” she exclaimed and ran into the room she had
shared with the other girls. Sleeping mats were strewn about and some clothes
lay in a pile on the floor. A pair of slippers lay beside the door. It looked
like Hassana’s. She dressed up hurriedly and rushed towards the door where she
bumped into Abu at the doorway. He thrust a black jacket at her and told her to
wear it. She stared at him, incredulous. Then her eyes clouded with tears. Her
mouth and chin started to quiver and a sob rose up in her throat. She
suppressed it and clung to hope.
“Please have mercy on me,” she said and fell on her knees,
“Shut your mouth. You are not better than the other girls.”
“But you said you liked me. You promised I’d return to my
parents and I gave myself to you,” she said, looking up at him, tears rolling
down her cheeks.
He burst out laughing, revealing a perfect set of teeth.
Then, as abruptly as it had started, his laughter stopped.
“I like you, but you will not return to your parents. It is
better to do the work of Allah and, one day, you will meet them in Jannah.”
He pushed her outside and shut the door behind them.
remember to attend the event on the 8th of March, at the Women’s
Development Center, Abuja, to mark International Women’s Day. Our guest speakers
will be Dr. Safinatu Hamza and Mrs. Rebecca Kwanashe. Ten years ago, these
women were among hundreds of girls who were abducted and held in terrorists’
camps before being rescued by government soldiers. Today, these amazing women
have rebuilt their lives and become role models in our society. Come and hear their
stories of survival, hope and finally, freedom.”
Her hands trembled as she turned off the radio and locked up
the shop. Safinatu…Rebecca... Shame
washed over her. She stepped into the
street and the sudden gust of wind blew her shawl off her head, revealing the
scars that deformed most of her face. A passer-by stared at her and she quickly
gathered the shawl around her.
“I have to travel to Abuja,” Rohilla murmured to herself as
she walked home. “I have to meet Safinatu and Rebecca again.”
Vivian U. Ogbonna is an interior decorator
who lives and works in Lajos and Abuja, Nigeria. She studied English Language
at the University of Nigeria Nsukka. She loves the written word and hopes to be
a published author in the future.