It’s a morning his mat sucks him in as he longs for it to glue him to its rubbery skin. The sun is up, sharing the sky with a pale moon. Tranquility is breaking: honks from afar puncture daylight, the birds sing through the leaves of the guava and the wooden windows, another unfamiliar song. Elo dabs the corner of his eye and glues rheum to the tip of his pinky. He tries to ignore his aching head and reaches for his radio. He selects a channel that fits the moment, the air; Lucky Dube sings One Love, a song so well done no stiff foot resists. What music does to him is like counsel that wins a war. He is able to forgo the questions jarring his six-year-old mind.
Papi always had to go early to his job at the National Postal Service. Before leaving, he places everything Elo needs around him so he gets to them easily. His slippers, always, at the foot of his bed. His food on the right, and his change of clothes on the left. Elo knows its morning when those honks begin and he calls for Papi and realises he’s gone. Sometimes, on better days, he wakes from a disturbing dream and isn’t able to sleep again. He cogitates on whatever his mind gives, the table clock ticking loudly, his father’s unbearable loud snore filling the gaps in between. Such days, he’s able to bid Papi farewell, he tells him what kind of biscuits to get for him and what song he heard on the radio that he’d love to own.
He becomes morose, increasingly conscious of how lonely it gets with Papi’s smell away. And he cries, anticipating the patter of Papi’s feet at eventide, aware of his steps, his feet touching the ground for no more than a second, swift, but as tenderly as the butterfly. Then Elo reaches for Papi’s hand at the door knowing his requests are in the cellophane bag with Papi, snatching it first before hugging him.
Again, he finds a lightweight paper, too large for a regular book, in Papi’s other hand. Papi says it’s one of the dailies. “Which one is it, Papi?”
“Eastern Observer. Want to check it out?”
“Papi. Thank you. The cabin biscuits swell up. Not sweet again.”
“Oh, sorry. Let me have it. I’ll get you two tomorrow, you hear?”
“Thank you Papi. Observer!” Elo responds, to an exciting, ritualistic moment, the papers at his fingertips. His interest grows, he wants to hear Papi speak. His smooth reading, his timely pauses, telling him the meaning of new words.
“Okay. The mainstream issues of The Eastern Observer are, one, Nigeria’s Independence; two, the creation of five states—two for the north and three for the south; and three, er, the Nigerian Police Force is recruiting. Four, they’ve found crude oil in commercial quantity in Warri. Boy, guess?”
“What, Papi?” his face slants at an angle of interest.
“The Queen of England visits Nigeria for the first time. It’s soon. Very soon.”
“Woah. She’s white and very beautiful, right? Do we go to see her, Papi?”
“Er, why not? She’ll be addressing our new country at the stadium and I do not plan to miss. Only a very few people get to see the English Queen in their lifetime.”
“Papi, what’s her name?”
His amble to the inner room is interrupted, so he picks the papers again, slowly reading the name to Elo, himself curious of the request, because he, too, hadn’t thought of it. He breaks the first name into its syllables, a breath at a time, careful not to mispronounce r as l and l as r: “E-li-za-beth the Second.”
Elo’s enthusiasm quickens. He is ecstatic and fantasises what Queen Elizabeth-the-second looks like. He is going to tell Papi that he must get him a white shirt and a pair of white shorts. White, he understands from Papi, is a special colour. The colour of light. He is sure she’ll be dressed in white as well. He was going to stand out and then wave his hands at her, violently, until she noticed him in the crowd.
Elo knows his father has come home with a strange person today. He thinks it’s his mother. Does she finally remember her first child? Papi says she travelled and shall one day return. Was it today the stars picked to bring his mother home?
Papi doesn’t come in through the front door but the stranger does. She’s used a strong cologne and it affects Elo’s breath, but he doesn’t show it. However affecting her smell, he loves the way it announces her newness in their house. But when he feels her sit, he believes it’s the right time to call, wariness in his tone, “Papi?” But Papi doesn’t reply, nowhere in the room. A rapid swell of speculation occupies his mind. A chill washes over him. The stranger says hello but he doesn’t reply. It’s a young girl’s voice? Who’s she? Then Papi enters.
“Elo. Have you met Chukwuamaka? She’s your cousin. Her mother is my elder sister; the first born of our family.”
Elo’s face shows relief, he rises abruptly from his chair next to a window, where he loves how the buzz of returning school children filters into his room and displaces the radio that begins to bore him, ad nauseam, with a clinical drum. He moves towards her and is somehow aware of her smile and raises a hand to her face. She takes his hand in hers and embraces him.
“Ehen. Elo, your cousin sister Chukwuamaka will be staying with us. She’ll be with you while I’m away at work, that’s after she returns from school, of course. I want both of you to become good friends. She’ll be teaching you some of what they teach her in school, yunno, here and there. You people should enjoy yourselves. You can even stroll out now she’s around, o?
“Ehen! Chukwuamaka, put down your bag. Enter the room,” he points to a door with a blind of dropping beadwork. “Just after you get in, you’ll see bitter kola inside one plate on a table, bring two for me. Take one if you eat them, Elo doesn’t. Na oyinbo pikin.”
As Chukwuamaka runs his errand, Papi delivers Elo’s cellophane to him, rubbing his temple. He fulfils his promise; in it is two of Elo’s requested cabin biscuits—one extra for the bad one of yesterday. But beyond the delight of receiving his regular biscuits, Elo is pleased by the idea of someone being around during the day, timely even, and begun thinking on how to go about making friends of the kids from out his favourite window. He’ll once again leave the prison of the house he sits in all day. Some two years ago, Papi took strolls with him, daily, everywhere; but never did anymore. He guesses Chukwuamaka is his age mate but she’s two years older. He doesn’t ask.
It’s a moonlit night. Nigeria’s independence brings a new air to her citizens. Although, a fair number of English people still hold positions in the public service. Papi said the new chairman of the Postal Service is an Igbo man, a man of the soil. He’s happy, pride in his throaty voice. Elo thinks Chukwuamaka will talk politics like his father does but she has no idea who Nigeria’s prime minister is. So anytime they discuss, he’s non-stop, enjoying himself, talking, for an ear now present to hear his once silent musings.
Chukwuamaka returns with a thin slice of cake her mother has given her for Elo. He discerns the smell of cake and sniffs it, jerks his head back and smiles to himself.
“Thank you, Nne.”
“Can I call you Amaka?”
“Yes. It’s what everybody calls me in Owerri.”
There’s a lengthening silence between them while low music plays on his radio. It’s a traditional Igbo music. Polyrhythmic drumming. Screaming singers. A pulsing chorus. Chukwuamaka breaks into a feet dance—and as the tempo builds, into an enchanting, fluid body movement, her feet electrical as the drumming, hands slicing the air in rhythm, making a boastful impression. Elo can’t see her but he feels her impeccable dancing. He joins her; his moves are poor, but he enjoys himself.
Every other night, there is the radio’s music, after he tells her what his father recently told him of the newly independent Nigeria. And as if she didn’t hear him the previous day, he reminds her again of the queen’s visit in the coming weeks; tells her what he was going to put on, something new, making his tale a somewhat improved version of yesterday’s. So it goes until they’re sleepy and return inside the house with the mat on which they sat on rolled up. They say goodnight to each other and finally join the ritual of a tropical nightfall—crickets crunching on whatever they feed on with menacing loudness, and frogs ceaselessly croaking a romantic chant that lures no beauty.
“What is today’s date, Amaka? I don’t want my daddy to forget to carry me to see the queen.”
“Thirteenth. May. Nineteen Nigh . . .”
He doesn’t let her complete it, his heart thumping with excitement.
“Woah. It’s today. Please, bring me my white shirt and knickers on-top my daddy’s box. My daddy should come and pick me anytime.”
She admires his accent, how he says my daddy with pride, his voice abundant like his cheeks. He doesn’t speak Igbo like Amaka, but he understands a good deal. She gets him his clothes and he fits into them like serpents in their new skins, elegant, more aware of the air around him. He’ll sport his new kicks before Amaka; a white, Aba made. NIKE is misspelt as NIFE. Again, she thinks him a charming boy and wishes she owns a pair of shoes like his.
“It’s three p.m.,” the radio presenter announces. Elo immediately turns it off, frustrated already.
He grows apprehensive and perceives in every wind the eventual arrival of Papi. But it isn’t, at any time, him. An hour passes. Two, passes. It is five p.m. and apparently any public meeting of today’s kind must be meeting its end. Papi doesn’t come home to take him to see the queen. He is heartbroken, taking off his clothes, roughening the smooth, unbroken crease of them, and shoes, flinging them in frustration, livid. He cries without care, stamping his feet repeatedly. Amaka holds him still, she doesn’t think of it in that moment, but if she intends to calm him, she does.
“Papi lied. He didn’t come to get me . . .” Elo recites the accusations, how he has done in the past when his Papi disappointed, while Amaka exonerates Papi with several reasons.
Papi returns home late. Well past eight p.m. Elo is asleep on his mat in the porch, while Amaka shepherds over him, driving sleep from her eyes. Elo turns in his sleep but doesn’t awaken, so Papi is free tonight of Elo’s provocation in its heat.
“Bring him inside in one hour. Make sure he pees o! Kedu.”
Amaka nods and mutters, “Odimma. Nno, Uncle.” She curtseys, her face to the floor.
“O” he responds, passively, knackered from a typical postman’s day.
She knows she won’t withhold herself from sleeping much longer, so when she suspects Uncle Dede is asleep, she makes Elo stand to pee, directing his pimpim, watching him as he wets the earth in no simple pattern. She stares steadily at it and smirks; she’ll put it in remembrance to make a jest of it the following day.
Six Years Later
“Do we go to the new park today to swing or we should go and catch frog fish?” Chukwuamaka asks, holding each option with her open palms.
Elo replies, “The two. I can’t choose. I want both of ’em. It’s been long we went to catch frog fish na.”
“Hmm. Yunno we can catch the frog fish tomorrow? Yunno we must be fast before Papi comes back, osiso,” she says.
“Noooo. We can do the two joor. Catching the frog fishes won’t take that long na.”
“Okay. Let’s start going.” She breathes a sigh, weak from nothing but the human stressor Elo is, with his joyless, trivial, unending arguments.
It’s a custom route so he doesn’t need her assistance to guide him. With him is a closed jar of water; and she, hands gloved in nylon, firmly knotted at her wrist. She knows tadpoles don’t bite but her fears do not agree, not when she’s doing this against her will.
The first time Elo forced her to catch them for him, she had a very amusing nightmare that night where she was a tadpole and other tadpoles tried to eat her. When she mentioned it to him, he dismissed it, calling it a nonsensical, girly nightmare. Nonsensical, a new word Papi mentioned to him from one of the papers. She regretted telling him frog babies looked like fishes or telling him that her brothers back in Owerri kept them.
Halfway to the stagnant water, he asks her to fetch him a nail to pierce the lid of his jar.
“Amaka, gimme nail.”
He doesn’t let her help him in making the opening. He makes it perfectly, sucking on his lower lip avidly. They carry on with their escapade.
“Hehehehe,” he giggles, his hands tickled by the swift, frantic gliding of the tadpoles in his jar.
It’s nearly sunset at the park, breezy under the many oaks, almond and aged palm trees; a shallow carpet of fallen leaves beneath them.
Elo guffaws as he hears Amaka shrieks, she swinging like a pendulum afraid to break from its pivot. “Girls get so scared. Hahaha.”
It’s his turn. Amaka doesn’t let him swing as safely as he does. She tells him to grip hard, even though he’s unwilling and she pushes aggressively, dare-deviling him for what he’s so careful about. It goes on well but shortly, he loses grip and lands on his back, his head on the grassy earth. It’s not a dangerous landing and he whines quietly. Amaka quickly kneels next to him.
“Elo. I’m sorry. Why did you remove your hand na?”
He doesn’t respond, continuing his moanful whining.
She’s afraid. He’s injured on both elbows but they’re not serious injuries. She watches him yell as the park nurse attends to the trauma and she cries too. Going home, she clasps his hand as if the rushing winds would snatch him from her and cause another accident.
It’s going to rain so they hurry. But she can’t hurry a sightless boy, so she resigns to his pace. He still has his jar with him and nothing must happen to his frog fishes. They get home drenched, happy about it though the plasters on Elo’s wounds are wet and coming off.
She notices her dress stained with thick redness and she’s scared. She tells Elo but he can’t help her. She bathes to stop the flow but the blood doesn’t stop flowing. She wears no panties, blood trickles down her thighs, offensively tickling her. She hurries to a neighbour’s kitchen where she finds a woman she seeks. She’s afraid that she’ll die, revealing her dress, the blood stains on it. The woman, relaxed, smiles knowingly. She talks with Amaka and the latter becomes aware that this is womanhood, not a countdown to death.
Elo faces outside through the window. He needs Amaka to tell him if there’s still light in the sky or if at all the brightness of day is extinguished, and particularly what the kids outside are gleeful about. She saunters in with a new dress, overly conscious of her gait, how blood mustn’t seep through the pad between her thighs and stain the dress.
“Chukwuamaka, come,” Elo calls her.
He hears her come, but slowly, he calls again to make her hurry. “Amaka . . .”
But she doesn’t let him finish, intruding his speech, pointing to the ash sky broken by a rainbow.
“How does it look like? Papi have told me about it before.”
She takes his right hand, travelling the air before them, she traces the arc of the rainbow and describes how colourful it is. He waits at the window until Amaka tells him the rainbow has disappeared. He wishes he saw it but he’s pleased knowing it’s up there anyway.
Papi opens the front door, sharply.
“Papi, oyoyo,” Elo cries as he hugs his father. But Papi seems uneager today for his welcome, his hands akimbo, and his eyes wandering, as though he’s misplaced something he urgently has need of. From his blank thoughtfulness he commands, “Chukwuamaka, help me pack Elo’s things together. Pack your own, too,” and then sighs.
“Papi, where are we going?” Elo asks.
“We’re going to Lagos. Did I tell you there was a coup?”
Elo shakes his head. His Papi continues, his breathing a tense activity. “There was another one just two days ago. It’ll lead to a war, my bet. Our people will suffer; they’re already killing us in the north. I think in Lagos we’ll be safe. I’m not sure when we’re leaving but it is soon. Anytime.”
Two days after, close gunshots wake Papi up. He trembles in panic, never been this shaken and unsettled since Ada left him after birthing their son. She was betrothed to him but her love, a selfish gift, had long ago been presented to another. She may have given him an heir but after her disappearance, he lost a fraction of himself. But he believed a day will come when she’ll return for her boy, if not for him.
Gunshots this frequent, close and afar off, was a warning that every extended day posed danger. Papi picks the crusts lined around his eyes as he goes into the sitting room to wake the children from their sleep, to sum up packing their bags. A surprise welcomes him; he finds them in only underclothes, bodies drawn to each other. His eyes bulges, more in surprise than shock but a surprise that transitions to shock.
“Amaka. Jesus! What is the meaning of this one, kwanu? Is this what you’ve been doing with my boy?”
She jumps to her feet, bewildered, scratching her scalp even though it does not itch. He hits her face fiercely; it blinds her for a few dazed seconds. Cautiously, a second time and, hesitantly, a third time. Elo stirs. Aware of Amaka’s judgment slaps, he scrambles to his chair and sits, folding his knees to his torso. He doesn’t know what to expect, hurt or mercy, knowing the air is already tense.
“Alu!” Papi shouts, looking into Amaka’s eyes.
“Osiso. Oya, pack up. We’re going to the park. You’re going back to Owerri.”
Chukwuamaka weeps; she’s grieved she’ll miss Elo, and with their little secret out, she’s more terrified her mother will hear of what Uncle Dede is mad about and kill her. She bends over to pick her bag and her tears drop on it; she pities herself. She heads out of the house, Papi on her trail. Outside, he drags her behind him like a thief. She’s afraid it’s too early. It’s not yet five a.m.
On Elo’s radio, General Odumegwu Ojukwu, a Sandhurst trained soldier, lover of Shakespeare, giver of fine speeches, addresses the densely Igbo-populated southeast of how they must all support and fight for Biafran sovereignty.
Outside, Elo senses hurry in the streets. A throng of people moving. Repeatedly, he hears gunshots from behind the house. Then, Papi returns, tears in his eyes that the blind child can’t see. Elo wants to ask about Chukwuamaka but he is frightened, both by Papi’s wrath and the present air of conflict, within and outside, so he hugs his father and swallows his question.
It is not the moment for a long embrace and Papi breaks from Elo’s grip, going in and out of the inner room several times and, finally handing Elo a bag, they set out. The journey to Lagos is difficult: Papi loses Elo thrice in the tide of moving people; twice, he escapes being forced to join the Igbo military.
They join a Yoruba driver who is first unwilling to have them, but Papi can speak Yoruba.
“Ejoor, tori Olorun. My brother, abeg, help us. No be Lagos you dey go? My brother, God no go mek you see bad eh, ejoor.”
The man hesitates but later enjoins them to his truck. The backseat is full so they manage in the trunk. Along the way, there are more checkpoints until Delta, from where the road becomes less manned by camouflaged men alert for war.
Lagos’s atmosphere is like nothing in the southeast—no tenseness whatsoever, or fear. People roam carefree, going about their business. But Elo has not witnessed a place with more discord and noise. It made him restless.
“Papi, where are we going?”
“Elo, this is not a time for questions. Inugo? Keep walking. There’s no time.”
It’s an insipid life for Elo and he feels the vacancy Amaka’s absence creates more than the strangeness of the new home his father has provided. His last moments with her stick with him; it makes every memory of her nostalgic: from her first perfume to her letting him put his hand inside her panties and all the strong feeling that accompanied it. He knows one day, when his radio says the war has met its end, he’d leave, obstinate to whatever would be Papi’s contradiction.
On his radio, a woman broadcasts in pidgin.
“My kontri people. Good afternoon. Di civil war wey Oga Gowon govment bin say police go use two weeks handle na im don enter one year dey go so. For southeast dead body scatter for ground everywhere. News from International Red Cross people talk say pikin dem dey malnorish dey die plenti plenti. Most of dem don carry kwashiorkor and na salt fish dem dey try distribute giv dem. Dis war don too jaga jaga dis kontri. We suppose stop dis fight now o. UN predict say millions na im go die if di war kontinu as e dey go. If you see di pictures wey newspaper carry ehn, you go know say e don do mek dem find compromise . . .”
Elo fears for his cousin who he thinks the war may have visited.
One year since they moved, Papi has become a more taciturn man. He barely talks about anything, to anyone, but himself, unintelligibly. He sleeps. And when he’s not sleeping, he smokes till he does. Elo is afraid of him, both of his newfound likeness of him and of losing him. Papi coughs heavily often and simply doesn’t care anymore, for his life or for his son’s.
“Brother, I’m blind, please, gimme money. God bless you,” Elo repeats to every passerby, his palms open, as he guides himself with a stick. He has left to fend for himself and believes he can save money enough to take him to Owerri where Amaka is.
The war has ended. Biafra’s sun sets in the horizon. Elo is ready to go. He’s sixteen now. He’s not following an old lust, only hopeful to meet his cousin, the only family he knows other than Papi.
On a Friday morning, he comes before Papi, announcing his wish to travel back to the east.
“Papi. I’m going to Owerri. I’ll come back. I won’t stay.”
Papi looks asleep but he hears what Elo says.
Elo is about to go when Papi calls after him.
“Amaka died that day on our way to Owerri park. They shot her.”♦
Gaius Inofe Dan is a Nigerian storyteller and poet, a student nurse, and rusty jazz violinist. He’s the author of the forthcoming novel I Hate You Dad. He believes and preaches love and humanity over religion.
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