We are the miracles God made to taste the bitter fruit of Time.
-BEN OKRI, ‘AN AFRICAN ELEGY’
One evening in June, after dinner, Mama went mad. She sat on the verandah with her back to the wooden window picking kola nuts. The cloud above looked like ice against the blue sky and the moon shone brightly. It shone on Baba’s alupupu parked against the uncemented wall, on Mama’s three parallel lines on the sides of her cheeks straining away from her ears and on my head, shaved bald like the egg of a local fowl.
‘The moon will burst tonight,’ Mama said with a russet kola nut clogged to her teeth. I laughed.
The children soon returned with bats in the sky. Mama once said that bats travelled in the evening because they could see better then. She chased the children away with a long cane. ‘Won’t you kids get something over your sagging pants?’
The children came back in gowns that slipped over their shoulders, trousers and knickers fastened with tube rubbers and supported with hands, faded wrappers tied up to their breasts and faded oversized blouse that reached their knees. They sat, half-rounding Mama’s pile of kola; it was tales time. She told them the story of the sky. The sky was a suspended stream a little above houses, within the reach of human beings. But when they washed their oily hands and shit-stained anuses in the sky, it rose up there, far from reach.
Each of Mama’s statements was hurled across my back. When she finished the last tale, I laughed. All faces turned on me. I remained still on the edge of the verandah leaning against the square pillar and laughed again. Soon most children were yawning, opening their mouths like the split leg of a dead dog. Mama sent them in, packed the kola nuts in a basket and went in.
The following morning, the fru-fru of Baba’s shaving stick against his cheeks, from the backyard jived me awake. The cold morning light sneaked through the netting, steaming the louvres above my head and seeped into my scaly skin. I changed my position on the mat so that my head would point towards the door. Yellings of wives at children, rushing of tap water, scrubbing of sponges against bodies and the clinking of bathing bowls against rusted metal buckets hung in the air like the fog itself.
‘Boda Kola, Mama npe yin.’ Remi’s knock on the wooden door was rapid. I laughed and stilled.
Mama pounced the door open. Slashes of atori swivelled in the air, buzzing like the flapping wings of a gadfly and landed on my bald head. I laughed and stilled. Mama grew angry. She raised the slashes higher and groaned each time her cane went up. I smiled, laughed, then stilled.
‘W-w-won’t you go to school?’, it didn’t sound like a question; it sounded as if she was tired.
Later that morning, we—junior siblings and I—flurried to Ajangbala Eleko Primary School. We wore chequered white and brown uniforms. Girls in gowns fastened with khaki belts while boys wore shirts on brown khaki knickers. I walked behind the echoes of their chatter. Smiling. Laughing. Stilling.
After closing hour, we walked home in the shimmering, coral pink circle of the sun. In the normal way: siblings ahead, I, behind. We walked past a staff of teachers praying under the Odan tree. They prayed in resounding voices like the discordant singing of masquerades. No one wanted fellows’ voices above theirs. I laughed, stilled.
Then the night before she went mad, Mama broke her atori around Funbi’s shoulders. We were playing booko-booko when Mama’s cane peeped through above the low wooden gate. We stopped and watched, eager to know the prey. She prodded through us and twisted Funbi’s yellow ears. She dragged her out with the manes of her cornrows.
‘W-w-where is my money?’ Mama voice jerked with anger. The little girl stared at the rough floor and pressed her interlocked fingers against her faded knee-to-breast wrapper.
‘Has stealing made you dumb?’ She encircled Funbi’s neck with her cane. The broken girl sniffled.
‘W-w-witch. O-o-o-overripe pawpaw. O-ole! Thief!’ When Mama’s cane broke into pieces on her body, drawing pink slants, the poor girl busted into tears. I laughed hard, all eyes turned on me, I laughed again then stilled.
The trodding of hurried feet from the passage thudded our ears. Mama Funbi flung the wooden gate open.
‘Haa-haa, kilode?’ She rushed over to her daughter, knelt and inspected her. ‘Her wailing woke me from sleep!’ Mama stood akimbo and heaved like a panting dog while trying to be calm.
‘What has my child done to deserve this, Ehn? See her body. Do you want to kill her?’
‘Rest your simple mind and ask…’ Mama went faint.
‘Ask what? Pe kini? You want to kill a child y-y-you…’
‘Amope do you talk to your most senior wife like that?’
‘What did I hear? Iyale osi wo niyen? What senior wife? Witch! Ika! Agbaya! Useless elder! Cheat!…’ She clapped over Mama’s face. I laughed, faces turned on me, then stilled.
The following day, when Baba came from school, Mama set the home ablaze. We—junior siblings and I— sat before the parlour black and white TV watching a local soap opera when Baba’s heavy footfalls came into hearing distance. All, except me, ran out to meet him shouting ‘Baami, Baami, Baami.’ I saw him through the large window carrying toddlers and parting adolescents headmasterly. ‘Ekule o.’
‘Kola, you didn’t come to greet me, sekosi?’ He went behind my stool into the whiteness of his room curtain, throwing off his cowboy cap onto a nearby sofa. I laughed.
‘Ba Kola jade o. Come out.’ Mama Funbi banged in and stood akimbo before Baba’s room, her shadow darkening the white curtain. She shook waist in anger.
‘Amope, so you are in. You didn’t answer my greetings?’
‘Come out Jare.’
‘What is it?’
When Baba looped his head behind the curtain, Mama Funbi went and picked up her daughter from the cluster of children gathered before the TV.
‘Will you open your eyes and watch your ugly witch kill my girl?’ She loosened the wrapper around Funbi to show pink thin scars floating in the yellowness of her skin. ‘That old witch wants to kill my child…’
I tried to battled for which to listen to: Mama’s snorting in the opposite room and Mama Funbi’s raining of curses over Mama. Baba remained calm as if Mama Funbi was among the soap opera actresses.
No one knew when Mama entered the parlour. She slapped Mama Funbi on her shoulder and leapt back. She removed her headgear, tied it around her waist and beckoned Mama Funbi with her fingers. When Mama Funbi pounced over her, Mama let her bunch of keys flying. It flew past Mama Funbi’s eye sockets and hit the TV screen. Baba ducked back into his room and I laughed.
One Saturday morning, after house chores, Baba smirked. The household gathered around Baba’s radio, (the death of our TV marked the beginning of his radio), on the verandah nestling in the cool brightness of the sun. The transistor radio lay before Baba’s wooden sagbedoba chair with his antenna pointing to the broken ceilings above us. When Baba first came home with the radio Mama told us a tale.
Long ago in the animal kingdom, before human beings came into existence, magic-box was invented. Mermaid got tortoise, a great fisherman, a stool instead of his fish that slipped into the river. The mysterious stool spoke in mermaid’s voice of wisdom when consulted. That was how tortoise, the possessor of the talking stool invented a magic-box. All, except me, laughed, cackling like cuckoos of a thousand cockerels with hands and legs in the air. But Baba said that according to oyinbo pepe,—snowman—it was simply radio.
‘Plane crash: head of state’s first son, Ibrahim Abacha, seventeen friends and others died…’ The radio did not sound like mermaid’s voice of wisdom instead it sounded like a man’s voice. Baba laughed loud then smirked long before saying in baritone:
‘When last, tell me, did we eat something else apart from ogi and besike…’ He smirked long till tears tickled down his face.
‘Tell me, why is it that the broken TV still heap over the table?’ He added, beating his thighs amidst gulps of laughter like a lunatic.
‘When last did I fuel my scooter.’ He pointed at the alupupu parked against the charcoal-scribbled uncemented wall.
‘Workers’ prayers, especially we teachers, are coming to pass in this country.’
Then one hot afternoon when Baba’s smirkings finally stopped, Baba Kadija, a next door neighbour and Baba’s ayo olopon playmate, almost killed her daughter. He had sent her to sell a mother duck, his whole life, at the king’s market; the girl returned empty-handed. He locked his daughter and himself in a room, stripped the poor girl, lacerated her body with new razor blades and smeared the open sores with soaked Hausa ground pepper. He cut the nipples off her breasts smeared paper into them, tore the vagina smeared paper into it, widened the anus and smeared it pepper as well. Kadija’s wailing sent intercessors forcing the door off its hinges and lockers.
‘Baba Kadija, mapa! Why would you kill your daughter?’
‘Will you watch your husband kill your child? Mama Kadija don’t be a fool!’
‘What can a child do to deserve death?’
‘Howu. You can’t curb a child’s stubbornness by sending them to Lion.’
Most people threw hands on heads, bit tongues, flapped fingers in the air, shouted and jumped thumping on the floor.
‘Who does that? Who losses one hundred and fifty-five naira. Hun?’
Baba Kadija was pained in the heart.
‘Eeyah! It is the handiwork of pickpockets…’
‘Let me pass gbeborun! Hypocrites! Baba Kadija don’t mind them o. Who among them can pamper a child who lost such money? As if you don’t all come to me to buy besike on credit…’, Mama sounded natural.
Afterwards, Kadija sat in a bowl of water to relieve the pain. While trying to be calm, she sniffled drawling mucus into her head. Then I smirked and the vacating crowd all turned back to me.
The night before the night I laughed last, the wind went mad. It broke Mama Funbi’s buckets lined up below the jutting edges of the rusted roof. It flew Baba’s white soutane from the neck of the tap away to the sky. It let off cloth line off it hooks twirling Mama Bisi’s corsets and large pants into the air. And when it ceased a heavy rain that sounded like dropping stones upon the roof, across the rough floor of the verandah, against the window netting and against the uncemented wall, fell. The gutter before our house gurgled like the angry ocean and brown flood carried away two of Mama’s hens. Then maddening cold reigned in silence afterwards.
In the madness of the cold the news of Abacha’s death perches upon the country, below the sky, like a large umbrella. Chaos. Panic. Joy. Still. Over. Everywhere. When Baba hears the news, he doubts the magic-box or the talking stool now. I have imagined him to smile, laugh and finally break his white teeth in a long smirk. He remains calm, back glued to the tilted backrest of his chair and says:
‘This is a tentative news. We shall hear more on it.’
After all, no one dares broadcast against General Sani Abacha unless life has become boring to the person.
Later in the evening the state of things changes. The mad cold breaks its yoke from us. The half moon, after several months, casts a faint smile upon us. More people walk on the street chatting, laughing and throwing hands in the air. Children selling cold pap, walnuts, corns and cooked groundnuts sing, clap, shout and dance around the flame of their paraffin lamps beside the main road.
Ota daddy re da?
Ota mummy re da?
Ojowo lasoku re?
Where is your father’s enemy?
He has died!
Where is your mother’s enemy?
He has died!
When is the burial?
As I listen to the song, I press a fly against the dark flame of Mama’s paraffin lamp beside her transparent bowl of besike and the wooden tray of kola nuts. The fragile creature strives for strength and dies. The children dance as if they are drunk. They throw their buttocks backwards and match up dust like a blindfolded ram tied to a tree, trying to free itself from it. I laugh loud and smirk long.
Later in the night, Mama also smirks. I trace the hurrying footsteps and screeching of iron bed frame to Mama's door. I sit on the threshold and listen to Baba and Mama's raising voices.
‘Banjo what did you say to my child and me?’
‘Listen to me Sadia. I only said you should try taking him somewhere.’
‘And why should I?’
‘He laughs, Mama kola. He smirks for God’s sake!’
When the louvres fall and break, I know Mama has smashed Baba’s head. After the shattering sound the darkness withholds its silence; no turning of door knobs and shifting of potties in the rooms.
The following night, I laugh last. Mama boils water that would be used to flatten the swells around Baba's head in the kitchen. A dust of dark blue smoke flails around the house like an anxious cloud vacating the sky. It peeps through my key hole, into my nostrils waking me up amidst coughs. In my imagination, Mama jam packs sawdust into the sawdust fueled stove (a large Milo tin cut at the edge below, where sawdust, wood peels and thin woods would be packed in). She sings atop of her voice:
Alagbara l’Olorun mi, alagbara ni Jesu mi.
Oba toyenju Abacha lailo kondo
Koma soun ti kole se.
My all-powerful God, my all-powerful Christ
The king that killed Abacha effortlessly
There’s nothing he can’t do.
I search the door knob in darkness stretching forth hands to feel things. I linger through the long passage, into the dim reflection of kitchen fire, to the backyard. Soon my urine splatters on the bathroom floor like the running water of our tap.
‘Who is that? Haven’t I told you not to do your thing over there? Don’t you know we bath there?’ I laugh and smirk longer.
‘Ode. Do you laugh at me?’
Mama gaits come alive behind me with her cane swaying in the air above her head. I shake my penis to let out droplets of urine then face back to her twirling cane. I grab the cane from her. She drags it with me. I jerk it our of her hand, loosen her wrapper and whip her. She yells and hauls like a dog kicked in the stomach.
I hear bolting of doors, waving of wrappers and hurrying of feet. I run through the backyard wooden door, stop amidst pantings then start again. Run until I am straining against water and not air. Houses, stalls, transformers, telephone posts fleet out of sight in the faint glow of the moon, like a racing boat at its highest speed. Stop again, then smile, let out a broken laughter and a shattering smirk.
1. Boda – elder brother.
2. …npe yin – ‘...is calling you’.
3. Sagbedoba – literally means ‘to make a farmer a king.’ In this context, a chair with a large, long and sloppy backrest so that anyone who seats on it feels like a king.
4. Ogi — custard–like paste mostly made from maize and guinea corn.
5. Besike – a soya beans cake also known as tofu.
Som Oluwatobi Adedayo is a first–year–student of English Language at Obafemi Awolowo University, Ile–Ife, Osun State, Nigeria. He’s a member of Nasels Communication Bureau, OAU. His creative work has appeared on Sahara Reporters. His twitter handle is @SomAdedayo. He loves to read and write.