Pipeline Parents find little pink shoes at the gate between Pipeline Estate and Ezechi Estate. They squint at the dense forest of knotted trees and leafless shrubs that stretch thin like fingers behind the gate, the piece of land where Ezechi Estate begins. They look out for anything strange sifting through the trees. The pink shoes lie in the dirt as if their owner merely slipped them off to tiptoe and pluck the berries leaning in through the bars of the gate. The parents pass the shoes round, running calloused and smooth hands on them as if they were rubbing the forehead of their sick child, as if they were patting bed sheets to see if their baby’s body still swelled beneath them.
Something comes for children with high fevers. Something comes for children that cough deep into their lungs, perhaps scraping flesh. Something comes for children that stool ribbons of blood. The thing slithers in when rooms are quieter; when a parent, fatigued by caregiving, dozes on a chair by the bed or slips out of the sick child’s room to gulp some fresh air.
Joanna is the fourth child. A plump cheery three-year-old. Her parents scream and scream.
The pink shoes at the boundary gate belong to Joanna when Joanna’s father comes. A rapid greyness seems to have spread through the man’s hair. He stares at the shoes and then gathers them to his chest as he would a baby, his baby. Pain flits across his face in waves, muscles twitching. The parents discover other things littered in crannies of the estate: Solomon’s talking teddy, the one he always cuddled to his chest, Adaora’s bib, and Bebe’s beaded bracelets. The police arrives and jots in their notebooks. They seal off the exit gates and mark it off-limits for parents and older children. No tree-climbing. No mango hunts. The curfew begins at 7 pm. But that is all the police offer. They do not stick around for long enough.
The first child that went missing was Adaora, an eighteen-month-old baby. While the search for Adaora lasted, her mother kept wondering if she had paused touching her child’s feet that afternoon and maybe glanced at her phone, if the gap created by her pause, by her looking away, was wide enough to accommodate the whole incident.
There is a story about a midwife who job-hunted for years and, while waiting for the best opportunity, became a family nurse for about fifteen families living on the same street. She sourced medications from pharmaceutical stores. She assisted with home births and treated jaundiced babies. From peering into a child’s eyes, she saw high fevers and convulsions sprouting. The midwife became everything for these families: Nurse, doctor, pharmacist. Her name went into emergency contacts, the go-to person for nearly every medical case. They owed her money sometimes, but her relationship with these families had burgeoned into what couldn’t have been anything else but friendship.
Is there a trend to the disappearances of our children? Pipeline Parents ask in a weekly meeting they launched since the second child disappeared. Our Adaora was ill. My Bebe was ill too. Even Joanna! Solomon too! Parents start cramming their children’s mouths with paracetamol when they complain of slight headaches. Yet the thing coming for them knows the house where a child’s health has been altered, even if slightly. It knows where there is a flu, and where poxes might break out.
The fifth child vanishes. Kaobimdi. Then the sixth. Denzel. Missing-Child posters colour the walls of houses in the estate and beyond. The security men at the entrance of the estate become stricter. No visitors before 6 am or 6 pm. Then they downscale it to, No visitors to Pipeline Estate. Ask the person you are visiting to meet you at the gate.
Fear crawls out of parents and twists them into unrecognizable forms. They shrink in size from worrying. Working parents quit their jobs to watch their children. They glue radios to their ears, listening for possible announcements of Lost-and-Found. They buy door alarms and bells, anything that would go off if an unwelcome guest stops by. Some buy animal traps, which end up hurting them and their children. The security cameras always capture something emergent. It moves and bursts into variant colours. Sometimes, a feathery flash of light, or a budding yawn that never becomes.
The thing comes for Bunkem, a five-year-old battling pneumonia. While Bunkem’s mother massages Bunkem’s thimble feet with Shea butter and measures out her child’s antibiotics in cups, she senses a baying wind battering the walls. Her body pricks with goosebumps. She wheels around, and the medicine cup slips from her hold. Something stands before her in a navy blue scrub. It is filled out, the outline of a female body clearly visible. But no hands or legs or a head emerge from the outfit. A pair of clogs move underneath. They fall in step with the figure. No feet. Bunkem’s mother, repulsed beyond words, has an almost irresistible urge to run. But the figure bends over her daughter in a protective, almost possessive manner, as if thrusting the child’s real mother out of the picture. It takes Bunkem’s mother a moment to realize that this is the thing swallowing the children of the estate. The black dot tainting families, taking Adaora, Solomon, Bebe, Joanna and others. She lurches at the bed, grabbing the intimation of Bunkem’s body about to flatten to nothing. Only Bunkem’s torso is left. Her limbs have melted into the figure’s invisible grip. Bunkem’s mother calks the gap with her body, screaming her child’s name. She calls forth the pain of childbearing, the knife cuts that went as deep as three layers of skin. She leans on it as a fort to reclaim her child. Bunkem’s body rematerializes in parts. Waist. Thighs. Knees scarred from playing. Legs. The figure makes a gurgling sound that seems to sweep away whole rooms molecule by molecule. Then it melts out through the door.
The story grows legs by morning. Pipeline Parents gather at Bunkem’s front door to listen to Bunkem’s mother narrate the ordeal and to see the rescued child.
“I saw death with my eyes last night, I am telling you.”
“Did you say it had no face?” Mummy Oge quizzes.
“The body stopped at the neck. After that, nothing! No hands! No legs!”
“And it wore shoes?”
“A pair of clogs moved under her feet.”
“How is Bunkem?”
“She is a little shaken, but fine.”
“I can’t believe you grabbed your child back from that demon. I marvel at your strength.”
Pipeline Parents frequent Bunkem’s house in the days that follow, partly in solidarity, partly to check if something might go wrong with the child. But Bunkem revels in great health, and what everyone finds more surprising is that the pneumonia disappeared.
In the story about the midwife, she had a lover and a toddler. Sometimes, she brought the child to her home services, strapped to her back while she worked. But that was all anyone knew about her. There were grainy stories about the town she was born in and the schools she might have attended. But what everyone cared about was her deft hands wielding syringes and her heart-shaped stainless bowls holding a child’s daily dosage. Nobody cared if she caught a cold or struggled with migraines. If her eyes reddened from infections or a tumor stuck out from her throat, stifling her breathing while she bent to attend to children, nobody noticed.
The nightmares that come to the children of Pipeline Estate contain a dreidel of a woman. Most children wake up screaming the same words. Look at her here! Look at here there! She touches our foreheads with a damp towel! Then she comes closer, closer, smiling, smiling.
The first families to vacate the estate are those who lost children. It feels a little too late. Maybe we should have left a long time ago, they say. Some other tenants start vacating their flats too, relinquishing the remainder of the rents. Some of the Pipeline Parents are not able to leave because their houses are their permanent homes. They erected the wood and cement walls with their hands. They know how deep the windows sat on their frames. The houses hold their secrets and small comforts. Instead of leaving, these parents dig and dig, working hard to unravel why a child-hungry spirit stalks the estate.
Another child, Gilbert, almost evaporates under his father’s watch. The thing comes so suddenly and Gilbert’s body nearly sinks into nothingness before his father catches a remnant of him. Gilbert now slouches when he walks or sits, as if the tussle between the thing and his father stretched him to his elastic limits.
The midwife’s tumor enlarged in a matter of weeks and clogged her throat. The discomfort spread to every part of her. The hospitals she went to advised a surgery. She visited the families where she treated children and asked for financial help. They only promised and promised. The families called her after some time, anxious to know when she would get back to work. Their children were purging. Fevers had returned. Clinical treatments were too expensive. None of them asked after her health or how she managed the surgery costs. When she reminded them, they said, Get well soon and come back to work. The calls trickled down to nothing. None of the parents came to see her. She kept wishing they would come. They were the only friends she had.
A new story unsettles everyone in the estate. Some of the children recognize the figure haunting their dreams. People pool from every corner the next morning, including those who’d vacated the estate. They gather at the estate’s open market in the hour when the sellers haven’t come.
“Who did you say you saw?”
“I saw Nurse.”
“It was Nurse.”
Some Pipeline Parents doubt the story. It seems, to them, like an easy escape from the situation. Some other parents remember Nurse fleetingly – the light-skinned woman who saved them great expenses by bringing them medicines at home, who later fell sick and died.
“It does not matter what we believe,” Gilbert’s father says, “we have a problem, and we must either solve it or run away like the others.”
Bunkem’s mother butts in, “Who says running away resolves it? I was calling Eby, my former tenant, to ask her for the balance of the rent she owed me, and she said she lost her little boy.” Gasps fill the air. Anxiety needles Pipeline Parents.
“Could it be from the new place she moved to?”
“No. It’s from here. She woke up two mornings ago, and the child was gone.”
The news prompts the parents to take action. They vote to call Pastor John, who works at the Triumphant Ministry, a church famed for exorcism and ghost trapping. One of the parents who attends the church volunteer to make arrangements with the pastor.
The surgery expanded the landscapes of the midwife’s mind. The countless pints of drip and blood could not revive her. She stopped seeing her lover and the daughter whom she loved more than life. One day, she woke up without her body in a different place. But her thoughts still blinked with unanswered requests from the families she worked for. She drifted to the street, where her essence lay. She healed the children and took them with her for close monitoring.
The wait for the pastor stretches into weeks. Children continue to dream. At night, parents battle sleep to watch their little ones. A black dot, like an all-seeing eye, observes them. They feel it at the napes of their necks. It does not glow in the dark. It is just there. A child or two return from an errand, screaming. They saw a nurse’s outfit rippling in the breeze. One day, Joanna’s parents, while returning from work, accost a woman, who looked like a nurse, holding a little girl. Their car’s headlights trap the image for a moment, and it fizzles away.
Pipeline Parents visit the Triumphant Church to remind the pastor that they had lost eight children in total and that losing one more child would be too fatal.
The pastor pads on the rain-specked grass at the boundary gate where Joanna’s shoes were found. His pleated forehead is lines made permanent from frowning. He prays, and his words get lost in the strong wind rolling clouds across the sky.
“Is everyone here?” he asks.
The Pipeline Parents are not complete. But everyone here is those concerned enough to be: parents whom the nurse worked for, parents whose children see the nurse in their dreams, parents who had lost a child or nearly lost one to the nurse. The losses and fear of loss bead them in that moment, cramping all of them into one image.
One of the young men who accompanied the pastor heap dried mustard-coloured wood together, pours in some kerosene, and starts a fire.
“She died four months ago,” the pastor says, and fire crackles as if the voice fuels it. “Your children are alive. But they are lodged in the middle of something. What is that thing that I see? Yes? Make yourself known! I see it now. They are in a nest made of fibre. This nest keeps them warm. So, they are safe, and you will get them back!”
“How can they be safe? How can she be safe?” Joanna’s father cries out and sinks to his knees. He imagines his child being taken into a maw, rebirthed into something she is not. Might she come back as the two-year-old she was, or will the months of her absence build new skins on her? Safe is Joanna’s warm bed and her IPad. Safe is her sachet of cereals lying in their kitchen cabinet.
The wood burns, and the pastor pours in dry leaves and stones of incense to stoke the fire. The smoke rises into the air alongside the pastor’s chants: Show her! Free the children! Kill her! Free the children! Mutilate her! Free the children! The pastor flips the knife he’s holding over and over like a coin, like one experienced with its use. Will he drive the blade into the ghost’s heart, ending its second life? Will the children descend like floating balloons? Some of the parents wonder.
The midwife did not plan to keep the children for a long time. She planned to return each one after they were healed, but their chatter evoked images of places lost to her. How supple they were! How beautiful! She wove a thicker wall around them, spinning a community that would never be attacked by headaches or hookworms or fevers. She was helping their parents as she always had.
As the fire fattens up, the Pipeline Parents feel a presence, like the angry squint of an eye roused from sleep. The pastor and his assistants chant, and the fireballs into a large fist, and the presence grows. There is pinched laughter as if the owner of the voice has a blocked air pipe. Gilbert’s father has a prickling in his toes. He nudges Joanna’s mother, who stands closest to him.
“Maybe we should leave things as they are?” he whispers. But the woman does not look at him. The rest of the parents are seized by a spectacle in the sky. Mama Bunkem chants alongside the pastor’s assistants as the moonlight pierces the trail of smoke. Something falls into the fire and springs to life. It weaves slowly through all stages of human development until everyone perceives the woman, her face widened in awe. Pipeline Parents, except Mama Bunkem, scuttle some distance away when the woman appears in the fire.
The pastor explains the woman’s second death to her in a calm tone that surprises Pipeline Parents. “Those children are not yours. We will set all of them free and make sure you never come back again.”
The parents remember the nurse in her scrubs, her auburn hair extension that danced at her back. The woman in the fire is dressed in a scrub, but she is red-hot like coal and bears little resemblance to the nurse. Her mouth breathes sparks. The assembly prays while the pastor slants the knife, ready to fling it at the sponge-shaped tongues of fire that glow at the woman’s neck.
The pastor targets the weapon suddenly at the woman. There is a feeble whistle of the air. The boundary gate and the walls around them ripple like an image portrayed on the surface of water. The fire dies. The world vanishes in the new darkness.
The midwife or nurse or doctor knew that she was being pulled into a place of death. So, she thickened herself, tripled her skin where there was a need to. The fire they made crafted her from the scratch, evoking memories she had long tossed away. She saw the Pipeline Parents and remembered how they betrayed her, and they were working hard to betray her twice. The knife slammed at her throat and severed things she would need to replace. The assault spurred her into an animal. She began to fight.
The Pipeline Parents try to find their way home in the darkness. Torches do not switch on. But the parents know where the pathway leading to the boundary gate pours into the main road. It takes a few walking metres to reach the road. They grope for each other as they walk. They try to hold hands. They try to make small talk, something unrelated to the events of the night. The pastor and his assistants are far behind, gathering their tools.
The pastor’s assistants pierce the night with their screams. All three voices. Too uniform. Like a choir’s chorus. The Pipeline Parents glance behind them. The only thing to see is the pitch-black night. They break into a run and keep colliding into each other and into walls. The straight road is no longer straight. The walls slant off their course and close up around them. They circle and zigzag, but a wall or a falling body meets them at each turn.
The entire Pipeline community gathers at the boundary gate the next morning. They find blood stains and the four pairs of shoes containing the pastor’s feet and his assistants’ feet. They find some details of the Pipeline Parents. There are kerchiefs and purses and bibles. There are bottles of olive oil and church pamphlets from the Triumphant Church. There are pictures and shoes and toys that belonged to the missing children. Perhaps the first gifts they wanted to offer their babies the moment they returned from the other world. They do not find the parents who are trapped in the belly of the road, whose hands forever scrabble for an opening.