It was six o’clock in the morning and my portrait had woken up.
Usually I don’t let myself be taken in by the shriveled portrait-drawers on the streets of Abuja, but the drawer looked about my age, and so handsome, and I couldn’t help it. It was only two nairas, anyway. So I sat for him, while Mama bought rice and raw murre bird in street markets of Abuja, Nigeria, and let him sketch me.
He was terrible at it.
I brought the paper home, propped it up against the big calabash bowl beside the door, and vowed to burn it in the morning. I woke to the yuhina birds singing in the baobab outside my window, sat up, and stared at… something definitely not me.
It was green. With a huge chin. The lips and nose were pretty accurate, but the eyes—they were only half drawn, to start, like the sketcher had thought there was another piece of paper underneath, but there wasn’t. They looked like they belonged to someone who would steal your soul and eat it in front of you. And I was not that kind of person.
“Hujambo,” I greeted it.
The eyes swiveled around and winked at me.
“Hujambo,” it said in my voice.
I stood up, picked up the piece of paper, and wadded it into a ball.
“Yee-ow!” it shrieked. “Unfold me! Owch! Unfold me!”
I didn't answer, just dropped it on the ground, kicked it into a corner, and curled up on my bed, staring at it. It didn't move; the demon thing didn't seem to be able to do anything besides talk. I wrapped my arms around my knees and listed to it yell and complain.
I watched it for about two minutes. Curiosity killed the cat, I thought, before shrugging and going over to the ball of paper. I leaned over it and whispered: “Hujambo.”
“Unfold me right now, Furaha!” it screamed.
“No,” I said, more confidently now. “You’re a demon, that’s what you are. The dirty drawing bastard put a demon on my face. He owes me two naira. And I told him my name! And he told you!”
“No, no!” the ball of paper said. It sounded just like me. I unfolded it and held it up in front of my not-green face.
“That’s better,” it snapped, “but now I look old and ugly. Oh wait, I was already ugly, because you are, Furaha.”
“That’s unkind, pepo,” I said sternly. “You watch it, little demon, or I’ll crumple you up again and then burn you.”
“Yeah?” the pepo said. “I dare you to. My paper won’t crinkle up and die; you’ll feel the flames on your pretty skin, your toes roasting, your hair shriveling up into smoke…”
“What are you?” I demanded. “A devil? A demon? A pepo? Are you trying to steal my soul?”
“You can call me Macho ya Kukatwa,” the paper said smugly.
“I heard you thinking it.”
“I really am going to burn you.”
“No, you won’t. I can see you thinking it.”
“Shut up. I have to dress.” I turned Macho ya Kukatwa down on the floor and pulled my long shirt over my head.
“You’re fat, Furaha,” the picture said.
“I am not.” I pulled on my trousers and isiagu shirt, brushed my braids off my shoulders, and wrapped them in a white scarf. Then I picked the paper up.
“You are. I can hear your mother thinking it.”
“Shut up!” I said angrily.
“Hurry up,” Macho ya Kukatwa said. “Your bread-and-eggs are ready. And Mama has made moi moi, too.”
“Yum,” I said without thinking. “I mean, be quiet. Don’t you read my thoughts. Or Mama’s.”
The picture rolled its cut-off eyes. The irises disappeared beyond the edge of the paper and returned. I shivered watching it. You’re creepy, I thought as a test. The picture demon glared at me but said nothing.
The sun outside was already hot and gaining strength, even a quarter past six in the morning, and shone down in layers onto the baobab’s limbs in the center of the courtyard.
“What’s this?” the paper said.
“Oho,” I said cheerily, folding it up and shoving it into my trouser pocket. “Miss Smartypants doesn’t know? Miss Demon doesn’t know?”
“I’m not a demon,” Macho ya Kukatwa said, a hint of irritation showing through. “Just a kiroho. The sketcher I hear you thinking about was trying to give the pretty young Furaha city girl a demon, but he didn’t know what he was doing.”
“Clearly,” I muttered. “It’s disappointing to be haunted by a normal weak spirit. A real demon would be much more exciting.”
“I am not weak,” Macho ya Kukatwa snapped. It cleared its throat and repeated, “What’s this place?”
“It’s my home. It’s a compound,” I told her, jogging a little in the courtyard. My stomach rumbled. “We’re just outside Abuja so it’s nice and peaceful. We share it with five other families; we’re the most crowded on the block,” I said proudly. “Mama shares the kitchen with five other mamas, but she makes the best food. A family from Abuja hired her for catering, even.”
“I hear you thinking about that moi moi,” Macho ya Kukatwa said slyly.
I cleared my throat loudly and walked through the shade the baobab threw, toward the kitchen door. I could smell something delicious wafting from that door, something spiced and salty, nicely browned on one side, broiled on the other, turning slowly on the spit, dripping juices…
“Would you hurry up and just eat something?” Macho ya Kukatwa shouted suddenly from my pocket. “I can hear your stomach rumbling and your head leaking thoughts about roasted birds.”
“Mmhm,” I said, closing my eyes. “Roasted murre bird, mm. Spicy, crinkly, charbroiled over baobab wood… ”
“Gross,” the paper said. “That thing once had wings and a pumping heart and you’d dig your teeth in its flesh.”
“Mm,” I said again, pausing outside the aromatic kitchen door. “It’s an awful shame you can’t eat delicious murre bird…”
The kiroho was silent for a minute. I could almost feel it weighing decisions, honor versus hunger. I leaned against the mud walls, listening to the clatter of plates and hot pans inside, the roar of the ovens heating up, the mothers and uncles talking cheerfully. My mouth watered. Breakfast was my favorite part of the day. And today was a day free from school, a weekend. And I had a kiroho in my pocket.
“You could draw me one,” Macho ya Kukatwa then said, her voice smaller.
“Is that… a note of hope?” I said snidely. “Maybe… hunger?”
“Humph. I guess so. Just get a pencil, won’t you?”
The moi moi batch that morning wasn’t that good, but ever since then, I keep Macho ya Kukatwa taped beside my bed, next to a lead-colored murre bird roasted with garlic and suya spice. And each morning as the sun rises over Abuja, she tells me what Mama’s made for breakfast.