On the 4th of December, 2016, Professor of Medical microbiology, Akinyẹle Òjó, died of a rare case of bone cancer. It was an expected death. He had been bedridden for almost three months before then. His wife and two children were at his bedside when he gave up the ghost.
As Òjó stared at his wife and two children from his deathbed, they seemed impossibly tall. He started to feel the pain that had crumbled him for the past three years waft away. It flowed out like okra from a pot. He smiled and his wife held his hand. He had only a small amount of energy left, which he now expended by squeezing his wife’s hand. She smiled at him. Then, she bent over from her healthy world to kiss him. Before her lips could touch his skin, a hole appeared in the centre of his vision. It was not a black hole but a white one.
A year ago, Òjó had researched the afterlife. That was the first time he felt strongly that his life was melting away. He had been careful enough to make sure his wife never found out. She had been very optimistic about his health. He studied a lot of journals about the near death experience and came across the white light theory. It was barely understood, but some believed it was a final global search the brain does in a quest to find an experience comparable to death. To some, it was just an effect of the blood rush to the brain during those final moments. Some even claimed it was a firework. There was a lot of debate concerning what it truly was. The only thing everyone agreed on was; it always happened. Whatever the white light was, Òjó was now experiencing it.
The white light grew across his vision and enveloped his wife, his children, and the darkly lit room from which his breathless body would soon be carried out by mortuary attendants. The white light swallowed the only world he had known since he was born to Alaake Asán in the Olomololaye Agbebi’s hut in late 1976.
A few moments later the white light began to dim. Òjó waited for the light to fade into the darkness of oblivion, but it did not happen. Instead, he found himself in an office building. He looked around at the creamy white walls and brown tiles.
‘Am I dreaming?’ he thought.
He took inventory of himself. He was still in his favourite Mickey Mouse pyjamas which he died in. He was barefoot. His pale skin had been revitalized. He couldn’t find a trace of the cancer that had eaten into his body all these while. He was back to his normal weight; 70 kilograms, and was a little big bellied. He smiled at the feeling. He took a deep breath and exhaled. Waited a full five seconds. No painful cough? He smiled wider. A feeling of relief washed over him.
He thought again of where he was. There was nothing to give him a hint. There were no windows. There were no decorations. There was nothing. He thought of purgatory. A building with peeling paint and scruffy tiles could very well act as purgatory, but only if it went on forever. This one ended ten meters away at a door with the name:
Human Resource Manager.’
He sighed and turned back. There was another door there. But on that door was a sign with the red block printed letters: LOCKED. He had only one option left. He walked over to the first door and knocked.
He went in.
‘Hello,’ he said to the man on the red rug. The walls in here were white as well. The man was dark and had three long tribal marks.
‘Hello too,’ the man responded with a deeply accentuated Yoruba voice. ‘Ade, right?’
‘Alright.’ He held on to the toilet’s door handle and stood up. He was very tall, maybe about 6 feet 4 inches. He wore three red neck beads that rivalled his blue suit lapels. He was also barefoot. He walked over to the large desk and sat in the chair. The table was littered with stacks of white and pink folders. He began to search the drawers.
Òjó turned away from him to a notice board on the wall. It contained many pinned pictures. Some of women dancing in olden attires. Some of men, hunting. Some of kings and masquerades. Some of white men and slaves.
He looked more closely at a picture and recognized the man who was attending to him. He was in the kings’ picture. There were four men in the picture. They all wore colourful attires and accessories. There was also a small inscription at the top of the picture. Òjó moved closer until his pointed nose touched the glass.
‘Anger Is A Choice. From left to right: Cain, brother of Abel; Nabal, husband of Abigail; Haman, chief adviser to Ahaserus, king of Persia; and Ṣàngó, third Aláàfin Of Òyó.’
He looked back at the man. He was still searching for the file.
Òjó looked at another picture, at a woman who looked very familiar. Too familiar. She had the same pointed nose as he, fair skinned, pitch black hair. She had a thin smile. He mouthed the words; ‘My mother,’ and steamed up the glass panel a little. He looked more closely at the picture, at the small inscription at the edge. It read ‘1934.’ He suddenly felt dizzy. Of course, this was his mother dressed in traditional aṣọ òkè.
But there were two problems with it.
One: his mother was Igbo, and never owned a Yoruba attire in her sixthy-three years of life. And two: in 1934, sure, his mother would’ve been born, but she would have been a six year old child. Not this full grown woman who displayed a dazzling figure and eight inches of her caramel laps.
His previous sense of relief suddenly dissipated into dislocation, and then confusion. He turned back at the man who was now tearing away at the document stacks on the floor beside his table. The HRM, but HR to which company. ‘Where am I?’
The man looked up and smiled. ‘Just don’t think about it too much. It can be very disturbing. When I first got here, I wanted to kill myself again. I had no powers and everything was different.’ He sighed. ‘See,’ he pointed to the florescent light. ‘Can you imagine that? How did they put the power of the sun inside there. And it’s not fire oo.’
Òjó stared at the man for a moment before asking ‘Who are you?’
‘Ahh!’ He straightened up in the chair and smoothened his jacket. ‘I am Ṣàngó Lagiri. Oba koso koso. Akata yeriyeri. Alaafin Oyo Ti ko ṣẹ dojú kọ. Ahh!’ He beat his chest then continued. ‘Onina loju. Oníná lenu. Ọba mejilelọgbọn. Ọkọ Ọya. Ọkọ Ọba. Ọkọ Ọṣun. Èmi tí …’
‘Okay, okay, okay. I get it,’ Òjó interrupted. ‘You’re the Ṣàngó deity.’
‘Yes,’ he replied.
‘So, what are you doing here?’
Ṣàngó sighed. ‘I don’t know. I was sent here after I died.’
‘Who sent you here?’ Òjó asked. ‘Who runs this place.’
‘I don’t know that as well. They only communicate through that,’ he said, pointing to the phone at the corner of the room. ‘I think it is a spirit just like the one I used to send messages when I was on Earth.’
‘Okay,’ Ojo said, smiling. ‘It’s a phone.’
‘What did you call it?’
‘Just like that? What kind of a god has no oríkì?’
‘It is not a god,’ Òjó said. He rubbed his bald head and thought of how to explain a technological advancement to a man that lived before the wooden table was invented. ‘It is a medium.’
‘Ahh,’ he smiled, ‘just like a servant?’
‘Yes. You send it errands and it delivers them.’
‘Hmm. Okay Ade.’
‘Ahh, sorry. I keep thinking of one troublesome boy that just went through. You’re Òjó.’ He stroked his clean shaven chin. ‘I think I saw your file. It should be on the table.’ He turned to the table and began to search. ‘Òjó. Òjó. Òjó.’
Òjó stared at him and recalled the article he had read at the bottom of the giant axe at the Kalahari museum. It allegedly belonged to this man who tore away at mountains of folders. It read ‘Ṣàngó is the most powerful and most feared deity in the orishá pantheon. Don’t forget his anger too.’
How was the most powerful oriṣa pantheon a receptionist?
‘Do you know I can hear your thoughts?’ Ṣàngó said without lifting his head.
‘Ohh, really?’ Òjó replied. ‘So, what happened to all the anger?’ He asked in his mind, trying to test if he could truly hear his thoughts.
‘Well, when you spend about …’ He paused for a moment then continued, ‘…so long without needing anything. You learn good English and also the value of the only thing I have here; people interaction.’
Òjó stared at the man for a moment and sighed. He pointed to the door.
‘No. That’s where people go.’
‘I don’t know anything, and I have found your file.’ He left the chair and sat on the floor beside the door where he originally was. He spread out the blue file between his long legs.
‘Yes,’ Òjó affirmed.
‘Professor of Medical microbiology. Husband to Olamide Tanimo. Peace score: 67.0. Generosity: 88.6. Faith: 29.9. Love: 60.9. Obedience: 90.0.’ Ṣàngó paused and smiled. ‘Average score: 67.28, passed. Access Granted.’
‘Access to where?’
‘Here’s your ticket.’ Ṣàngó extended a blue slip of paper. Òjó bent over and collected it. ‘You’ve been invited.’
‘That way.’ Ṣàngó said, stretching his hand across the door. He pointed to a small slit in the door. ‘Your ticket goes there.’
Òjó walked over to the door, exasperated. He had so many questions but this man had none of the answers. The only option he had was to do everything he was asked. He inserted the blue paper into the slip and waited. Nothing. He looked at Ṣàngó who sat on the floor smiling. ‘Nothing’s happening.’
‘Ahh.’ Ṣàngó said. He looked at the card and asked, ‘Did you insert it all the way?’
‘Let me try again.’ Ojó said. He removed the paper and pushed it all the way in. There was a click, then the door pulled the paper in like an ATM machine. ‘I think it’s working already.’
‘Congratulations.’ Ṣàngó said as the door began to make several clicks. It continued until it was a steady staccato.
The door opened slowly and a blinding light spilled from the other side. Ṣàngó stood and opened the door wider.
‘You can go in,’ he said, motioning with an open palm.
Òjó walked into the light. It felt like an elevator. He squinted but could see nothing except bright light. He looked back but there was nothing there. The door through which he had come in had disappeared. He suddenly felt lighter. Lighter and lighter. Soon, he couldn’t feel his feet under him. He couldn’t feel the weight of his hands by his side. He couldn’t feel his worries tugging at the back of his mind. He felt weightless like a piece of cotton, like a puff of powdery milk. He didn’t feel anything apart from the knowledge that he existed. He smiled. ‘This is beautiful,’ he heard himself say.
He took in slow breaths and started to feel himself fall asleep for the first time in what felt like weeks.
‘Welcome to Club E,’ he faintly heard a female monotonous voice say. ‘E equals eternity. Welcome once again.’ He smiled again and fell into a deep sleep.
JONATHAN AYENI is a Lagos born microbiologist with a knack for thrillers. His work recently appeared in The Light anthology curated and edited by Stephen Alabi. He is a lover of Dan Brown and Asa.